Sex Trafficking at Elite Colleges: It Happens More Than You Think

Sex trafficking. Many of us associate the term with distant places, organized crime, and sequestered victims—in other words, something out of the movie Taken. In reality, sex trafficking takes place in our own communities, and it occurs in plain sight—no crossing of international borders necessary.

In February 2020, prosecutors arrested Lawrence Ray, a man who allegedly sex trafficked students at Sarah Lawrence College after moving into his daughter’s dorm in 2010. Ray, who was charged with sex trafficking, extortion, forced labor, among other charges, allegedly manipulated, verbally abused, and sexually exploited several victims over the course of multiple years. This case serves as a stark reminder that traffickers operate everywhere, even on elite college campuses, and that they are often skilled at grooming and manipulating their victims.

Secondary schools, colleges, and universities have a duty under federal law to prevent and respond to sexual violence.

At the federal and state level, lawmakers have made significant progress toward increasing the penalties for sex trafficking and ensuring that victims have legal recourse. The federal Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), broadly defines sex trafficking as the “recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act,” where the sex act is “induced by force, fraud, or coercion.” When the victim is a minor under age 18, no force, fraud, coercion is required.

New York State’s anti-trafficking law, The Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act, largely follows the federal law, and creates a private right of action that enables victims of sex trafficking to sue perpetrators for damages.

Still, many middle school, high school, college students, and their parents remain unaware of the risk of sex trafficking, with little education on how to identify traffickers or get help if they have been trafficked. Secondary schools, colleges, and universities have a duty under federal law to prevent and respond to sexual violence, including sex trafficking. It is important that educational institutions and programs ensure that students receive information about the threat of sex trafficking, how to spot and report it, and how to receive help if they are exploited. Enacting policies that explicitly address sex trafficking may help students come forward. As Iliana recently discussed in The Washington Post, “If you at least put sex trafficking in your policies, establish the definition, tell students you’re trained to understand the signs, put it on your resources list—that would be huge.”

Schools that fail to prevent or respond to sex trafficking may be liable for violating Title IX. If you believe you have been trafficked or sexually exploited, an experienced attorney may be able to help you understand and vindicate your legal rights.

by Caitlin McCartney
February 13, 2020