Kimberly Ritter’s interest in combating sex trafficking in hotels was sparked by an unusual source: a nun named Sister Patty Johnson.
Sister Patty wanted to book a convention through the conference management company where Ritter worked. But she had one condition: the hotel would have to sign a pledge against child sex trafficking on its property.
Ritter, who has worked with hotels in St. Louis for 20 years, was stunned to learn sex trafficking was a problem in her hometown. So she started doing a little detective work.
“I realized that there was a website [where] you can buy a toaster, you can buy a lawn mower and you can buy a girl,” she says.
Human trafficking is the second-largest organized crime in the world. The U.N. estimates more than one million children, the majority of them girls, are sexually exploited each year in the multibillion dollar sex industry.
The ease with which traffickers can use the Internet to sell sex has changed the way the sex trade operates. Instead of working the streets, women and girls are increasingly being sold in hotels.
Ritter and Sister Patty are part of an unlikely coalition that is putting the squeeze on hotels, pressuring them to keep sex traffickers off their premises. The coalition includes a group called End Child Prostitution and Trafficking (ECPAT), which has been trying to enlist the help of hotels in fighting this trend.
But ECPAT executive director Carol Smolinsky says many hotels have balked at some of the policies the organization asks them to follow.
"When a company signs the code of conduct it has to have a policy against sexual exploitation of children," Smolinsky says. "Over these years it's been frankly shocking to me that even the step of having a policy against sexual exploitation has been troubling, shall we say, for them."
One of the requirements of the code is that hotels inform their customers of that policy.
"One problem we're having in our industry is some of the things they're asking the hotels to do," says Joe McInerney, president and CEO of the American Hotel and Lodging Association. "Putting notices in the rooms... they feel that might be an intrusion into customers thinking that maybe there is a problem at that hotel."
But not adopting the ECPAT code was a problem for Sister Patty and her Federation of the Sisters of St. Joseph.
"Many of our congregations had been involved with ECPAT because of our work on human trafficking so for us it was a natural next step," she says.
Once she started working with Sister Patty, and looking for facilities that had signed ECPAT Code of Conduct, conference booker Ritter took a closer look at the online sex ads which featured girls posing in hotel rooms.
"I realized that, as I looked at these girls online, I could identify the curtains, the bed linens, the throws in the hotel room..." and the specific hotels where the girls were photographed.
Now, once Ritter identifies a hotel, she takes her evidence directly to the company and confronts the general manager.
"Generally the response is, 'That doesn't happen at our property,'" says Ritter. "So I've learned that as I go to these hotels, I am able to say, ‘But look, this is a girl and this is your pillow case,’ and that's where the conversation ends because they're shocked, because they can't believe it happens on their property."
Code of conduct
On her own, Ritter wouldn't have much influence with hotels, but her work for a conference management company gives her considerable leverage.
"They have incredible buying power. They take conferences all over the US and Canada," says Dominic Smart, general manager of the Millennium hotel in St. Louis.
Millennium's parent company agreed to sign the ECPAT code of conduct, but only at its St. Louis location. The sisters will be holding their conference there.
The next step was for the Millennium to implement one of the most important elements of the code, training employees to identify traffickers and notify law enforcement.
"The reality is if you are not looking for it, you are not going to recognize it," says social worker Katie Rhoades, who was hired to teach the hotel staff to recognize signs of trafficking.
As a survivor of sex trafficking herself, she knows those signs well. A pimp took her to California to work out of hotels when she was 18.
"There was a situation where I was taken to a hotel and left there to make money and the pimp didn't pay for the hotel room so I was being harassed by security and I was too scared to tell them," she says.
If hotel workers had recognized the situation, Rhoade believes she might have felt comfortable turning to them for help. She hopes her efforts - and the pressure of ECPAT - will help other girls who find themselves in the same situation.