Students fight sex trafficking

Credit: Juan Fernandez/ Credit: Juan Fernandez/

At this very moment there are at least 30 million humans being trafficked around in the world — more than during the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, according to the Not For Sale Campaign. An average slave in the American South in 1850 cost the equivalent of $40,000 in today’s money; today a sex slave costs an average of $90, according to the Free the Slaves project.

While most human sex slaves are sold in South Asian countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal, the impact of modern slavery is not felt only overseas. According to a conservative estimate by the U.S. government, between 14,500 and 17,500 human slaves are trafficked into the United States per year; the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children estimates that at least 100,000 American minors are the victims of commercial sexual trafficking and prostitution each year.

This semester a group of Carnegie Mellon students has gathered evidence that suggests sex slaves are being exploited in Pittsburgh. The students have approached Pittsburgh City Council asking for a new city ordinance that could regulate one major form of human trafficking in Pittsburgh out of business. The Polaris Project defines those who seek out massage parlors selling sex as ‘Johns.’ According to their website, “ ‘Johns’ who frequent brothels disguised as massage parlors make it a ‘hobby’ to buy sex and to track all massage parlors nationwide. There are more than 5,000 brothels disguised as massage parlors nationwide.”

“John’s boards” are websites where people rate and explicitly describe commercial sex. Using these sites, Jessica Dickinson Goodman, a senior ethics, history, and public policy major, and Ismail Smith-Wade-El, a senior humanities and arts major, found at least 15 Asian massage parlor establishments (AMPs) in Allegheny County that appear to sell sex. One of these establishments, which is advertised on the Adult section of, is directly across the street from the Giant Eagle on Murray Avenue where many Carnegie Mellon students buy their groceries.

Goodman, a former member of the Polaris Project, stressed that not all AMPs sell sex. “[We are targeting] massage parlors which are brothels that have trafficking and are pretending to be massage parlors.... I think this ordinance is good for legitimate masseuses because it means they will no longer have to compete with fake masseuses and no longer have people coming in expecting sex.” Goodman also explained that an establishment soliciting commercial sex does not necessarily practice human trafficking, but that it is at a high risk of trafficking, which is characterized by force, fraud, and coercion.

Goodman submitted a model ordinance to Councilman Doug Shields that would require Pittsburgh massage parlors to be licensed to operate. This model ordinance, drafted in part by the Polaris Project, would place operational requirements on the massage parlors such as restricted hours of operation, prohibition of indecent conduct, required registration of massage practitioners, and non-obstruction of windows with things such as paint, paper, or plywood.

Goodman and Smith-Wade-El have teamed up with representatives from Carnegie Mellon International Justice Mission (IJM), Amnesty International, Life Matters, and Heinz International Development Group, as well as Pittsburgh’s Project to End Human Trafficking to advocate for those whom they believe to be trapped in sex slavery. They have organized a letter-writing campaign to the nine City Council members, with a goal of 500 letters urging the passage of a massage parlor regulatory ordinance. Councilman Shields is expected to introduce this model ordinance to City Council this Tuesday.

Smith-Wade-El has helped to gather evidence and has done footwork for the letter writing campaign. He first learned about modern slavery, or human trafficking, through involvement in his high school theater group and involvement with Free the Slaves. “We had the opportunity to meet with trafficked persons, and their stories really touched my life.... It made me think of all the things I’m lucky to have and all the things I take for granted — even if it’s just as simple as being able to walk out my door in the morning when I want to.”

“Knowing is half the battle ... once people become more aware [of human trafficking] they will start to fight and stand up to eradicate this issue,” said Jaime Turek, assistant director of the Project to End Human Trafficking in Pittsburgh. Turek has been actively supporting the Carnegie Mellon student activists’ initiative. “It is my hope that we can see this through together to the very end,” said Turek.

Amy Badiani, a senior international relations and politics major, is associated with both Amnesty International and the International Development Group. Badiani said that she is involved with the letter-writing campaign to “make a change locally in Pittsburgh that has a global impact.”

Emily Kennedy, a junior ethics, history, and public policy major, helped start a chapter of International Justice Mission at Carnegie Mellon. Kennedy said that her faith plays a big role in her involvement in the campaign. “I think that the God of the Bible does care about seeking justice for the oppressed.... He commands us not to sit around and be complacent but to act.”
Both Kennedy and Badiani said that a serious injustice is committed against men and women who agree to come to the U.S. seeking opportunity, but instead find themselves trapped in networks of human trafficking.

“The goal is to eliminate this particular form of sex trafficking from Pittsburgh and Allegheny County by regulating it out of existence,” said Goodman. “Hopefully this will make it easier for Harrisburg to pass a comprehensive criminal approach to sex trafficking.... In addition to a fine and being shut down, people who are selling other people for sex who don’t want to be sold — human traffickers — will be thrown in jail.”

UPDATE 4/17/11: In a statement received by The Tartan, an individual speaking as the owner of the AMP identified on Murray denied Goodman's allegations. He stated, "We have measures in all of our operations that tightly control the activities of our therapists and explicitly prevent any sexual contact or other illegal activity whatsoever."