Coronavirus threat isn’t stopping sex trafficking in Jacksonville

Advocates say public health crisis won’t keep Johns from seeking out sex on the streets

File photo

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A stay-at-home order in effect in Florida because of the coronavirus outbreak isn’t stopping prostitution and sex trafficking from carrying on in Jacksonville.

News4Jax recently spoke with a woman seen flagging down passing cars on Philips Highway. The woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said she is working to keep food on the table and a roof over her head.

“I have to live in a hotel that costs $68 a day and I have nowhere else to go," she said. “I have to eat, I have to drink and I must have shelter.”

Sadly, the woman’s predicament isn’t unique. Advocates for sex-trafficking victims contend that there’s a growing demand for the sex trade despite the risks posed by coronavirus.

In this case, the woman acknowledged she’s always worried about the prospect of running into “serial rapists and killers,” but she is not concerned about being exposed to the virus, which causes the deadly COVID-19 disease.

While the woman would not say if she was forced into this line of work, she admitted that she runs the risk of being hurt if she doesn’t work. Her concerns appear to be founded as an SUV with tinted windows drove by repeatedly during her interview.

She told News4Jax she’s not alone, adding that there were other women working in the area whose safety could be in jeopardy if they tried to stop.

While most people are staying home or social distancing, prostitution and sex trafficking risks spreading the coronavirus. News4Jax reporter Erik Avanier spoke with a woman who admitted to being a prostitute who is forced to continue

Video surveillance set up near Philips Highway showed women flagging down cars, while others could be seen getting into cars and then being dropped off later in nearby parking lots. The footage captured similar activity along St. Augustine Road near San Marco.

News4Jax crime and safety expert Ken Jefferson said it appears sex traffickers are getting more desperate to make money during the public health crisis.

“Regardless of this pandemic that we’re facing nationwide, crime and elicit behavior is still happening,” Jefferson said. “When you come across an issue like this, it shows you how desperate people are. Pimps don’t care and it’s sad to say, but the Johns don’t care.”

That’s particularly concerning as officials ramp up safety measures intended to create a safe distance between people, since the virus is known to spread from person to person.

“The threat of getting the coronavirus or a sexually transmitted disease doesn’t faze them,” Jefferson said. “Even when the virus was not here, there was always a threat of a STD or getting caught and go to jail.”

Symptoms of coronavirus include coughing, fever and difficulty breathing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet health officials have noted that some people don’t realize they even have the virus because they lack visible symptoms.

Despite that knowledge, the woman who spoke with News4Jax said she knew she was taking a risk. It’s unclear if the other women also understand the risk to themselves and others every time they get into a car with a stranger — a risk that could potentially further the spread of coronavirus.

Mimi Nikkel, founder of Love’s Arm, a Chattanooga, Tennessee-based nonprofit that helps survivors of sex trafficking, said coronavirus is not preventing people with sex addictions from soliciting sex on the streets.

A stay-at-home order in effect in Florida because of the coronavirus outbreak isn’t stopping prostitution and sex trafficking from carrying on in Jacksonville.

“When we’re in a situation where people are being forced to stay in their homes, or stop doing business as usual, the desire to participate in addictive behavior such as feeding their sexual urges actually increases,” Nikkel said.

Nikkel believes sex traffickers are ramping up their operations to keep up with demand, even if that means potentially spreading coronavirus to the people being trafficked or the men who seek them out.

Occasionally, Love’s Arm volunteers will do what’s called a drive-thru to collect information about sex trafficking in certain areas and to persuade women to seek help. Nikkel recalled what she saw a few nights ago in Chattanooga.

“We saw many men in trucks and cars driving through the streets and we saw several pimps out there making dates for girls,” she said. “It was business as usual. And in some ways, it looked a little stepped up.”

Nikkel noted that none of the men and women she saw were wearing masks and it didn’t appear that they were taking any other precautions, either. She had this to say to those who continue seeking out sex despite the health crisis.

“If you can, stop your brain for 10 to 15 seconds to think about what you’re doing,” Nikkel said. “Think about what you’re doing to yourself, to other people and the potential you are bringing into your homes and your family.”

If anyone you know is a victim of sex trafficking, there is help available. They can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. The hotline is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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