The nation was shocked Friday to learn New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft stood accused of soliciting prostitution from a massage parlor suspected of being part of a large human trafficking ring.
Victim advocates and legal professionals say human trafficking – the use of force or coercion to compel people into labor or the commercial sex trade – is more common than people imagine.
“When people think of human trafficking, they think about something that’s happening far from home and tend to talk about it maybe in the abstract; but unfortunately, this is pervasive and it’s happening every day and it’s happening in our backyard,” said Madison Lightfoot, spokeswoman for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
Millions of men, women and children are trafficked in countries around the world, including the United States, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
The department estimates that human trafficking generates billions of dollars in profit per year and is second only to drug trafficking as the most profitable form of transnational crime. Sex trafficking affects 4.5 million people worldwide, according to an estimate by the International Labor Organization, an agency of the United Nations.
Amy Farrell, a Northeastern University professor who studies human trafficking, said law enforcement has “long known” that human trafficking is common in massage parlors.
“This is an illustration of how free people feel to do this, without concern,” Farrell said. “There are hundreds of thousands of (parlors) in the United States operating every day, most people don’t get caught ... They’re oftentimes in plain public view, strip malls, shopping centers, and there’s very little chance of getting caught.”
In recent years, police in the Merrimack Valley have made several prostitution busts in which human trafficking played a role. Most notable was a massage parlor in Lawrence run by Lori Ann Barron, a Salem, New Hampshire, woman who came to be known as the “Merrimack Valley madam” during her widely publicized trial.
Barron was found guilty of running a brothel and sex trafficking in 2017, after a jury found that she had hired women as receptionists at her spa, then coerced and blackmailed them into performing sex acts. She was sentenced to seven to nine years in state prison.
Just last week, a Beverly couple was arrested and charged with prostituting young women in an apartment in Salem, Massachusetts. Woonryong Heo and Hayun Nam, both 29, are charged with human trafficking, deriving support from prostitution and money laundering.
The parlor police say Kraft visited in Jupiter, Florida, Orchids of Asia Day Spa, is owned by a woman who coerced Asian women to perform sex acts, according to police. It is one of 10 spas in Florida closed as the result of a six-month investigation.
In a statement Friday, Kraft’s representatives said they “categorically deny that Mr. Kraft engaged in any illegal activity.”
The use of prostitutes by men is not uncommon, studies show.
About one in five men in the United States has admitted to purchasing sex, according to a report published in 2012 by the National Criminal Justice Reference Service.
They do it for different reasons. The report found men purchase sex as a way to approximate intimacy they aren’t getting otherwise; are attracted to the excitement of the illicit nature of prostitution; are in desire being in control; or to mimic extreme fantasies.
The market for commercial sex drives the demand for human trafficking, according to the report.
“Most researchers agree that a substantial portion of trafficking is for the purpose of commercial sex,” according to the report.
In cases like the one in Jupiter, Farrell said the women often owe a large debt to the people exploiting them — typically for getting the victims to the United States — and are working to pay off that debt.
While it is difficult to quantify how many are involved in human trafficking, Farrell said there are hundreds of illicit massage parlors in the state of Massachusetts alone.
“I believe trafficking happens in every community in this country,” said Suzanne Dubus, chief executive of the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center in Amesbury, which assists and advocates for victims of domestic violence. “It’s not just poor women from another country. It’s children. It’s women from middle-class families, who either through drugs or their relationships, have been forced into this kind of life.”
Referencing the #MeToo movement of the last few years, Dubus said she feels “We’re in a scary time ... It feels like every time we turn around, there’s a powerful, prominent person who’s been doing the wrong thing.
“We could be moving from a very unhealthy culture to a healthy one, and this could be growing pains,” she added. “That’s my hope.”
Given the prevalence of human trafficking, Lightfoot said it’s critical that people educate themselves on “the realities of human trafficking and the red flags to look out for.”
Common indicators that someone may be a victim of trafficking include being unable to come and go as they please or take breaks; fear of law enforcement; avoidance of eye contact and not being in control of his or her own money. More “red flags” can be found at humantraffickinghotline.org.
Accountability at all levels is the only way to stem human trafficking, Lightfoot said.
“Those in positions of power and leaders in our communities are viewed as role models ... but they have to be held accountable. Having a standard for how we respond to human trafficking, ensuring accountability is prioritized and public safety is upheld, that is critical in making sure we’re taking steps toward eliminating this crime.”
On Feb. 3, the Patriots won the Super Bowl over the Los Angeles Rams for their sixth NFL championship in the past 18 seasons, making them the most successful team in pro sports during that span.
Before the Super Bowl, several retired NFL players appeared in a public service announcement decrying sexual exploitation and human trafficking in Atlanta, the host city.
The Robert Kraft Foundation has also donated to local organizations that combat human trafficking.