Big events like furniture market often a magnet for sex trafficking

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photo by Caleb Smallwood
photo by Caleb Smallwood

by Jordan Green

A temporary explosion in High Point’s population during the furniture market drives an increased demand for sex services, advocates say, and they want visitors to understand that prostitution is not necessarily a victimless crime.

Beginning Saturday and running through Oct. 22, an estimated 75,000 people will flock to High Point from around the world to buy, sell and market furniture, accessories and design services.

The twice-annual market is the largest furnishings industry trade show in the world. A 2013 study by the Duke Center on Globalization, Governance & Competitiveness found that the furniture market generates $5.4 billion in economic activity in the 75-mile radius around High Point — a figure equivalent to 1.3 percent of the total gross state product of North Carolina.

While the jobs, receipts by hotels, opportunities for catering companies and laundry services, and tax revenue for local governments are invaluable, there’s a dark side to any temporary population boom: an increased demand for commercial sex services that often, unbeknownst to the buyer, can involve coercive employment practices.

“The statistics show that any time there is a large gathering of people and they are traveling to another place for a convention, or for the Super Bowl, victims of sex trafficking are usually brought in,” Sandra Johnson said. Johnson is the executive director of Triad Ladder of Hope, a faith-based organization dedicated to eradicating human trafficking.

“You have men coming in by themselves — and men are not the only ones who buy sex; women do, too,” Johnson said. “People are out of town and they’re looking for a good time, and they’re there for entertainment. I don’t know if they feel like they’re more free to do stuff that they wouldn’t normally do.”

Data on sex trafficking related to the furniture market and even anecdotal information is hard to come by, but it’s clear that there is some level of sex work associated with the market, said Rachel Parker, the anti-human trafficking program manager at World Relief High Point. She and a colleague attended the furniture market a couple years ago and talked to participants to get an understanding of how prostitution comes into play.

“Most of my understanding is that escort services are provided at parties, and hookups happen at those parties,” she said. “You have business people coming from all over the world. If you’re coming to wheel and deal with a lot of money, and a lot of alcohol is available, then that’s something that’s available, too.”

The High Point Market Authority is the official sponsor and organizer of the market, and International Market Centers, the largest showroom operator, also declined to comment for this story.

As a demand driver for commercial sex services, the furniture market is no different than other large-scale events in the Triad, such as the ACC men’s basketball tournament or mega-selling concerts.

“In other areas of the Triad, you’ll see some of the hotels hopping with young girls,” Parker said.

Triad Ladder of Hope coordinates a year-round effort to distribute soap to hotels along interstate highways. A slip of paper with a hotline that victims of sex trafficking can call for help is placed on the back of each bar, Johnson said, adding that some hotels agree to take the soap and others don’t.

Officers with the Greensboro Police Department receive training to identify victims of sex trafficking, spokesperson Susan Danielsen said. The Greensboro Police Department’s jurisdiction includes the Interstate 40 corridor near Piedmont Triad International Airport, where a number of hotels that house visitors to the furniture market are located. Patrol officers or members of the vice section are often the first to come in contact with those involved in human trafficking, whether they might be victims or perpetrators. Considering that human trafficking is a federal crime, officers typically refer the cases to the US Department of Homeland Security.

“We always have more officers when these large-scale events are in town,” Danielsen said. “We know that additional people in our area, especially if they’re here for a short period of time, have a potential to bring crime. It’s not just sex crimes; it’s also drugs. It’s understandable that there is the potential for these types of crimes to be on the increase because you have more people.”

Calls to the High Point Police Department and Guilford County Sheriff’s Office were not returned for this story.

Parker said many buyers believe that commercially transacted sex is consensual. Sometimes it is, but not always.

“If they’re under the age of 18, they’re understood to be a human trafficking victim,” Parker said. “The human brain doesn’t fully develop until age 25.”

Anyone under 18 is too young to post a listing on Backpage, a website that provides a forum for adult services listings, and too young to qualify for a credit card or sign a contract for a phone. Young sex workers also typically rely on adult drivers for transportation to locations where they meet clients for liaisons, Parker said.

“You think this might be a great opportunity, but that person [the pimp] has a weapon,” Parker said. “There’s a network that includes a driver. You might be on good terms with everybody. You joke, ‘I wouldn’t mess with that person,’ but you know that if you cross him you might get beat up. You know that you have limited resources.”

Among the signs of human trafficking exhibited by victims are having few or no personal possessions, lack of familiarity with surroundings and a fearful or anxious disposition, according to the anti-human trafficking organization Polaris.

“Helping our population understand the different pieces of coercion and how this could be perpetrated in our community and looking for ways to prevent it — that’s the biggest piece,” Parker said.