Via America’s Lawyer: Filling in for Mike Papantonio, RT Producer Brigida Santos hosts a panel discussion with attorneys Carissa Phelps and Kimberly Adams about how best to prosecute sex trafficking. A survivor herself, Carissa draws from her personal experience to urge people not to vilify those who resort to being prostituted as a means of survival. There is now a push to decriminalize sex work and to instead pursue the pimps who exploit under-privileged individuals for their own gain. They often conduct their businesses through hotels and motels, many of which are complicit in prostitution rings by turning a blind eye to what goes on in their guest rooms.


*This transcript was generated by a third-party transcription software company, so please excuse any typos.

Brigida Santos:                   Hi there, I’m here with Carissa Phelps and Kim Adams, they’re two attorneys working on cases in which they hold corporations accountable for their role in human trafficking. So first of all, tell me a little bit about your background because you are a survivor of human trafficking. Why is this issue so important to you?

Carissa Phelps:                  I think when, you know, when I was a child and these things happened to me, I knew that I had to get out and I had to get out so that I could let people know that there are more children like me. There were more people like me being hurt and harmed. I didn’t know how I was going to do that at 12 years old. But as I, as I came out of law school and business school, thankfully made it off of the streets with the help of some people that really poured into me and gave me what I needed, including confidence in myself, I was able to understand where the problem was and with corporations where they have incentives to basically do the trafficking.

So, I mean, my motivation comes from personal experience, but then a, over a decade of working alongside of survivors, knowing how their victimization stories go and how many companies and other entities are profiting off of that. So it wasn’t just my story where I was taken to a motel six or I was taken to this small little, little motel where everyone knew that’s what happened at that motel. It wasn’t just my story that was like that. So many others were like that too.

Brigida Santos:                   So what are some of the companies that you guys are taking to court?

Kim Adams:                           So, right now we’re looking at the hospitality industry. It could be any brand hotel, it could be any Vegas hotel, it could be any hotel where they know that potentially trafficking is going on in their hotels and they’re doing nothing to prevent it. Right? So when motel six, choice hotels, Howard Johnsons, unfortunately there is no hotel that we’ve seen yet that’s immune to this turning a blind eye idea, unfortunately.

Brigida Santos:                   And how has the industry responded to you guys taking them on?

Kim Adams:                           I think that they’re starting to respond. I do think that they’re starting to understand. I think they’ve always understood, I should back up, and I think that they are now starting to maybe make a real effort finally to do the things that they know they should have been doing for a long time. That they committed socially on their websites or what have you to doing and never did. So I think that they are admittedly understanding and recognizing again, they’re part of the problem and hopefully they’re going to do things to try to prevent it.

Carissa Phelps:                  Yeah, I mean I think there’s two different types of, we’re looking at the big brands first in some of the cases we’re bringing right now. But I’m also, I’ve also had a case where there’s small motels and a number of them that have been criminally indicted by, you know, the local city attorneys, their properties have been temporarily shut down and sees for the activity. And then a big brand comes around and slaps a brand on it and they somehow get to reopen up, you know. And so these, the, the owners of these places where their, their business model is basically based on the trafficking that occurs in, in their motels, they, they, they’re aware, they know what’s going on. And so we want to connect those dots for everyone to see it and understand it because that’s how we’ll raise the standard.

The fact is that, you know, the advertising and the marketing that’s done around their, their hotels and, and places being safe is false advertising. And I think the public needs to be aware of that. That there are a number of police reports. There are a number of rape, sexual assault, kidnappings, drug overdoses, murders, suicides that are not being reported in these false advertisements that make it look like family members are, and children are safe at these locations when they’re not. So, I think we have to educate the public on that as well. And then how much they are profiting off of turning a blind eye.

It’s much more convenient, right? To act like things are not happening and to look the other way or to say, oh well it’s just going to happen at every hotel, every motel, and accept it. So we’re, we’re really fighting that acceptance. I think for what they’ve been doing is they do really good at campaigns. They have strong marketing teams and so they get the word out saying that they’re doing a lot of things, but we’ve seen them in the past sign up for ECPAT for other, for other, other ways they say they’re going to be accountable, but then they aren’t.

And they’re called out on it. But nobody hears that message when they’re called out on it because all the big messaging and the big news story is the headline, oh, we’re fight, doing something to fight human trafficking. Because they have the media’s ear, they’re major corporations. When they enter, when they issue a press release, it goes out far and wide. But when the, the, the executive director of ECPAT writes on a little social blog, hey, you really didn’t do this training. You shouldn’t take, start getting credit for it before you’ve done it. Nobody hears that. Right? It gets buried away in, in a, in a chat rooms, a chat somewhere. And so, you know, we really want to have the press on our side, the media on our side saying, let’s tell the truth here, I mean.

Brigida Santos:                   Let’s segue a little bit. So a lot of human trafficking victims are sex workers. There is now a surge, a big national conversation starting in Washington DC to potentially decriminalize sex work. Now it’s not entirely all trafficking, but yes, some of those victims are people who go into sex work because there are some of the most marginalized people in society. What is your opinion as a survivor and as a lawyer working on this about decriminalization?

Kim Adams:                           Go ahead.

Carissa Phelps:                  Well, I mean, so what we’ve done traditionally is we’ve arrested the person who has been victimized, the person that has been sold, the person that has been procured and comm, turned into a commodity basically. So we’ve targeted them as the person that should be arrested and we’ve ticketed or fined or given a slap on a wrist to the buyers. Pimps oftentimes get away pimping and raping and assaulting children and then just get charged with pimping and pandering, which they’ll sometimes do County jail time and get out.

So, we’ve done, we’ve done some work around criminalizing the traffickers. They’ve been, we’ve been able to see, okay, people who have, are considered the pimp, the person that is putting, selling that person. I think the buyers now need to be viewed more as traffickers. The buyers that are purchasing are creating this market, which is much harder for people to see. And then for the person who we have traditionally criminalized and arrested and wrecked their lives even further, I think through the harm we’ve done, that person that needs to be decriminalized. And that would be partial decriminalization, right?

Like that act of being sold, I should not be criminalized for that being the only option that I have or the only way that I feel like I could survive. That doesn’t make me a criminal. Okay. That’s like with a drug user would be different than a person that is going and getting those drugs, making those drugs, putting those drugs on the market much different than the drug user. Right? Like we’re not trying to bring cases against people who use opioids, right? We’re, their lives are wrecked enough. It’s, let’s bring the cases over the people that are creating this market. And so.

Kim Adams:                           And I, you know, just to add to that, sex work, right? The concern is you legalize sex work and then the consequence of that is more trafficking because sex work increases the demand. It increases the idea that now people who may not have done it before because it was criminalized now would, would venture into that, that space. And so what we’re often hearing and what was argued even last week in DC was that you’re going to increase demand. How do you fill that demand? You fill it with children. How do you fill the demand as more and more sex works becomes demanding, you know.

Brigida Santos:                   Well, and it’s interesting because a lot of the DC argument is that we’re actually not trying to stop human trafficking. We’re just trying to prevent mass incarceration. But there’s other ways that you could prevent mass incarceration and they’re going after the Johns more in DC now than they are about arresting the actual people selling sex as a commodity, which I find very interesting.

Kim Adams:                           Yeah.

Brigida Santos:                   That that’s happening in DC.

Kim Adams:                           I actually think, yeah, and then a little bit of the opposite, actually. They want to have no one be criminalized at all for any of those sex works that’s going on. And as Carissa mentioned, you know, there, the idea would be equality. You need to prosecute the John, prosecute the buyer, the trafficker. Prosecute or bring civil claims against those profiting from it, but not the sex worker. And so that’s, that’s a, that’s a balance. Sex workers will respond and say, well, you’re still stigmatizing what I’m doing and you’re still downplaying, but, but honestly, when you look at the statistics on whether or not this is successful, when you do it this way, you’ll find that it’s not.

Carissa Phelps:                  Yeah. And I, and I have to just add that I, a lot of people in my community that I work really closely with that have been out there as adults feeling like at that time that they were choosing what they were doing are very offended by the term sex work because they feel like that was never a job. That they were never going to work, that everyday was humiliating and debilitating and kept them trapped. And I know that there are people out there right now that say that it’s empowering and that it’s good for them and they want to do it.

And I think that that’s very few and far between, but the narrative gets blown up because just in 2019, the Soros open society foundation released, I don’t even know how many 50,000 and a hundred thousand dollar grants just to change the narrative around this thing they’re calling sex work. Right? Just to have that term coined and have this idea put out there. So even to have the idea put out there as a mainstream idea that a lot of people want it. It’s offensive to the people who were trapped in it for so many years and psychologically had to do so much work to get out of it. So I want to be careful using even using that term.

Brigida Santos:                   So what would, educate us, what would a better term be?

Carissa Phelps:                  Well, someone who was a prostituted person, someone who was a victim of prostitution, somebody who was, you know, themselves commoditized. But I think even prostituted person is a more, as a more of a way of saying that something has, is happening to them.

Brigida Santos:                   Which is, this is the reality of, you know, human trafficking. This is the reality. It’s not that you’ve made this choice that you’re going to go out and be a commodity and have somebody make money by selling your body. That’s not an empowering thing that anybody would wake up in the morning and, and do, at least most normal people. And the reality, like you said, it’s few and far in between of the people who may wake up and say, actually, this may be lucrative for me.

Carissa Phelps:                  Well, it’s heartbreaking.

Brigida Santos:                   That somehow the narrative has shifted into this.

Kim Adams:                           And it’s, and, and you go back to the term choice.

Brigida Santos:                   Yes, and a lot don’t have a choice.

Kim Adams:                           How do people understand choice? Choice is not, I choose to do this necessarily in that line of work or however you want to classify it. It’s maybe they have no other choice. And so the choice of being on the street versus, you know, prostitution may be how they’re identifying choice or they’ve been prostituted as a child and they know no different. Right?

Brigida Santos:                   Well, and children can’t process that psychology until much later. So if they start getting prostituted as a young child, they may think that it was their choice. But later on they might look back and say, oh my God, I can’t believe this ever happened to me.

Carissa Phelps:                  Yeah, and for children I would even go as far as not even using prostitute, I would say sexually exploited since they can’t, you know.

Brigida Santos:                   100% yes, it’s also illegal.

Carissa Phelps:                  They can’t even make, yeah. And then there’s child sexual assault happening every time that that is, every time that act is completed, you know, once they’ve been recruited and sold. So, a lot of this goes unaddressed because of the ideas that are out there from Pretty Woman and from this whole glamor, glamorize view that I even didn’t know how to handle as a young survivor. I didn’t know how to handle that. I, I thought that that was okay if I, if I went to college, I could answer a stripping ad and go be a stripper and it would be somehow be safe.

But I quickly found out, no, that’s not the case. That that is, that is just a front for trafficking, more trafficking that happens in that way. So this will create more trafficking and it’ll be this thin layer and I’m, and I’m never going to say that someone can’t give themselves their own label. So if somebody comes on your show and they want to say that they’re a sex worker, then I, but I have to say my disclaimers too of how…

Brigida Santos:                   And I appreciate the education lesson.

Carissa Phelps:                  How my friends would feel. But people who’ve come up to me and said, I’m a professional sugar baby, or I’m this, you know, like they, they’re shaking, they’re traumatized still. They’re not processing the fact that they have, when they say that, they’re saying to me, I’m a survivor. At the same time they’re saying it and they literally will say, I’m a survivor of human trafficking and I’m still engaged in this way in it .and from their body language and just from understanding what trauma does, I could see that they’re not given a chance in these organizations that are trying to empower them and put them on, you know, the stage as, as the example of the empowered sex worker. Right? I could see that those organizations don’t truly care about the health of that person. And that’s bothers me. Let’s do services first. Right? Before we do agendas, let’s do services.

Brigida Santos:                   So let’s talk about some of the services. What services would be helpful in, you know, helping people escape this?

Kim Adams:                           I think education. I think looking at our child welfare system, first off, there is nearly not enough resources for the children and so they are easy, easy targets. And so I think developing that better. What are the avenues? What are the safe spaces? What are the homes? What are the ways that children can get their education, get protection and, and live a childhood, be a child, have an opportunity to be a, be a child? There are so few safe houses for victims of child trafficking. You may look at a handful of them, and they have six beds in the whole thing. And you have to really invest in that. That’s not, you go in like a, for a week and you’re healed.

That is, you have to kind of create the path for months and months, if not years, to help that child get out. So I think that is a service. And, and finding ways that sex workers, and now Carissa can speak even better to this, have, have a way trafficking survivors, prostitution, whichever direction it’s in, have a way to exit out. And what jobs can they get? What tools can they get? What skills can they get to where they feel as though they’re not being stigmatized, criticized and looked down on again?

Brigida Santos:                   Yeah. And again, this brings me back to the point that the most marginalized people in society often find themselves in positions where they are so desperate that they must go into this, you know, but

Brigida/Kim:                         They won’t call it a profession.

Brigida Santos:                   But they will get in a place where they’re easily a victim of trafficking. You know, poor people, people who are undocumented, people with mental or physical disabilities, children.

Carissa Phelps:                  But also very beautiful people who are away from home for the first time, who always wanted to be a model and their parents told them go to college anyways. My friend Rachel Thomas, who shares her story, you know, her mom’s a, an attorney, her dad is a deacon. And she went away and had this opportunity from a business person who ran a modeling agency that quickly turned into trafficking and there was a federal case brought against him.

And it’s still it, it’s amazing. It’s amazing how people think they’re insulated from it. And every family I know has somebody, somebody in the almost immediate family whether a cousin, an aunt, somebody that they know who has had this impact their lives. It’s kind of like when, when we first started talking about child sexual abuse openly and more people now share their stories than ever. More people than ever now are sharing their stories. And I’ll go to just a non trafficking event or a non, you know, and I, and I get people disclosing to me things that happen to them that they were never able to talk about.

So, I think that’s the other side of decriminalization that people aren’t realizing. If we just go ahead and have a blanket acceptance of it, then we’re going to keep more people from understanding their own victimization and getting the help they need. And it is a really debilitating thing, I think access, like job opportunities, opportunities to not just because your record is.

Kim Adams:                           Medical care.

Carissa Phelps:                  Medical care. There is no, there’s no handicap accessible shelters right now. And people who are vulnerable that may have handicaps, right, are trafficked. So…

Brigida Santos:                   Yeah, that’s why I’m glad we’re having this conversation. Thank you both so much. Kim Adams, Carissa Phelps, thank you.

Kim Adams:                           Thank you so much.

Mike Papantonio is an American attorney and television and radio talk show host. He is past president of The National Trial Lawyers, the most prestigious trial lawyer association in America; and is one of the few living attorneys inducted into the Trial Lawyer Hall of Fame. He hosts the international television show "America's Lawyer"; and co-hosts Ring of Fire Radio, a nationally syndicated weekly radio program, with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Sam Seder.