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Originally published Thursday, July 15, 2010 at 3:03 PM

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Nicholas D. Kristof / Syndicated Columnist

Human trafficking and sexual abuse: finding ways to confront 21st-century slavery

Sweden offers us a useful strategy for dealing with human trafficking, writes columnist Nicholas D. Kristof. The Swedish model, adopted in 1999, is to prosecute the men who purchase sex, while treating the women who sell it as victims who merit social services.

Syndicated columnist

Against all odds, this year's publishing sensation is a trio of thrillers by a dead Swede relating tangentially to human trafficking and sexual abuse.

"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" series tops the best-seller lists. More than 150 years ago, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" helped lay the groundwork for the end of slavery. Let's hope these novels help build pressure on trafficking as a modern echo of slavery.

Human trafficking tends to get ignored because it is an indelicate, sordid topic, with troubled victims who don't make great poster children for family values. Indeed, many of the victims are rebellious teenage girls — often runaways — who have been in trouble with their parents and the law, and at times they think they love their pimps.

Because trafficking gets ignored, it rarely is a top priority for law-enforcement officials — so it seems to be growing. Various reports and studies, none of them particularly reliable, suggest that between 100,000 and 600,000 children may be involved in prostitution in the United States.

Just last month, police freed a 12-year-old girl who they said had been imprisoned in a Knights Inn hotel in Laurel, Md. The police charged a 42-year-old man, Derwin Smith, with human trafficking and false imprisonment in connection with the case.

The Anne Arundel County Police Department said that Smith met the girl in a seedy area, had sex with her and then transported her back and forth from Washington, D.C., to Atlantic City, N.J., while prostituting her.

"The juvenile advised that all of the money made was collected and kept by the suspect," the police department said in a statement.

Just two days later, the same police force freed three other young women from a Garden Inn about a block away. They were 16, 19 and 23, and police officials accused a 23-year-old man, Gabriel Dreke-Hernandez, of pimping them.

Police said Dreke-Hernandez had kidnapped the 19-year-old from a party and had taken her to a hotel room. "Once at the hotel," the police statement said, Dreke-Hernandez allegedly "grabbed her around the throat and began to choke her. Hernandez then pushed her head against the wall several times before placing a knife to her throat and demanding that she follow his commands.

"The female further advised that all of the money made was collected and kept by the suspect. At one point, she indicated that she would not prostitute any longer and the suspect subsequently pulled her into the bathroom and threatened her again with a knife."

There's a misperception in America that "sex trafficking" is mostly about foreigners smuggled into the U.S. That exists. But I've concluded that the biggest problem and worst abuses involve not foreign women but homegrown runaway kids.

In a typical case, a rebellious 13-year-old girl runs away from a home where her mother's boyfriend is hitting on her. She is angry and doesn't trust the police. She goes to the bus station in hopes of getting out of town — and the only person on the lookout for girls like her is a pimp, who buys her a meal, offers her a place to stay and tells her he loves her.

The next thing she knows, she's having sex with four men a night and all the money is going to her "boyfriend." If she voices reservations, he puts a gun in her mouth and threatens to blow her head off.

Her customers, often recruited on the Internet, may have no ink-ling that her actions are not completely voluntary. Some mix of fear, love, hopelessness and shattered self-esteem keep her from trying to run away.

No strategy has worked particularly well against human trafficking, and commercial sex may well exist 1,000 years from now. But a starting point is for law enforcement to go after pimps rather than the girls. That's the only way to break the business model of forced prostitution.

Sweden offers us not only the summer's top beach paperbacks, but also a useful strategy for dealing with trafficking. The Swedish model, adopted in 1999, is to prosecute the men who purchase sex, while treating the women who sell it as victims who merit social services.

Prosecution of johns has reduced demand for prostitution in Sweden, which in turn reduces market prices. That reduces the incentives for trafficking into Sweden, and the number of prostitutes seems to have declined there. A growing number of countries are concluding that the Swedish model works better than any other, and it would be wise for American states to experiment with it as well. It's not a panacea, but cracking down on demand seems a useful way to chip away at 21st-century slavery.

Nicholas D. Kristof is a regular columnist for The New York Times.

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