Just before midnight, I was woken by the sound of rage. The voice of a man in the next hotel room shouted, "Get out of my bedroom!" With an obscenity. His staccato fury was interspersed by heavy slamming sounds and pleas for mercy from a woman.
I was frozen. What was the matter? The room became silent.
Around 2 a.m., I heard a male voice again. This time it was from the parking lot outside. I could see a man arguing with a woman. As they moved away, the man held onto the arm of the woman. This time, I called the front desk.
"Should I call police?" I was curious.
I was told by the attendant that the hotel, which is a major brand located just off Interstate 81, had its own security and would investigate and bring in law enforcement if necessary. Soon I heard more thuds from the next door. They must have returned. Then came the sound of sobbing. Then, a door creaked and there was silence.
The clerk assured me the problem was solved the next morning as I checked out. I couldn't stop thinking about all the things I had seen and heard. Although I wasn't sure if there had been any crime, the woman's cries led me down a rabbit trail of research into the problem of hotel sexual violence and abuse and the ways in which it is being addressed. With their closed doors, transient nature and apprehensive nature, hotels can be a perfect environment for violence.
Let's take the case of M.A., a woman who was identified only in court papers as M.A. and claims she was sex-traficked from multiple Days Inn by Wyndham properties in central Ohio. This began in 2013, when she was still a minor. Her lawyers made this statement in her civil case against the hotels, a landmark case still pending before the courts: "Traffickers are well-aware of the isolation and anonymity that comes with booking rooms with chain hotel chains without adequate training -- it is unlikely that any will be disturbed."
Imagine if the woman next to me had gone through the exact same thing. Is she a victim to domestic violence? What are the hotel's preparedness to handle violence incidents and protect victims?
Both common and often ignored
It is not possible to provide reliable data about the number of domestic violence, sexual assault and rape in hotels. No matter where the crime occurs, it is grossly underreported. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that only 22 percent of rapes, sexual assaults, and 50 percent of intimate partner violence were reported by police to them in 2021.
Victims of sextrafficking often claim that they were abused in hotels. Of 54 federal criminal sex-trafficking cases that were filed in 2021, where the location of the act was known, 80 per cent took place in a hotel according to the 2021 Federal Human Trafficking Report. This report is the latest from the Human Trafficking Institute. It works with the justice system to prosecute traffickers more effectively.
Polaris, an American anti-trafficking organization, conducted a 2018 study and found that between 2007 (when the National Human Trafficking Hotline was established) and 2017, there were 3,596 reports about human trafficking in hotels or motels. Eighty percent of these cases involved commercial sex acts at hotels.
Polaris surveyed 127 survivors of trafficking and found that 94 percent claimed that they did not receive any help or concern from hotel staff. They also stated that staff did not either recognize or acknowledge the fact that it was trafficking.
According to the Human Trafficking Report in federal criminal cases brought up in 2021, 22 hotels were identified in locations where sextrafficking was alleged to have taken place. These included some of America's most well-known brands: Motel 6, Quality Inns, Super 8 Motels and Red Roof Inns.
The pandemic presented new challenges in the fight against sex trafficking. There are now touchless, faceless methods to enter many hotels such as key-code entry system. The problem is exacerbated by a shortage of staff across the industry. According to the American Hotel and Lodging Association (the largest industry group in the United States), 79 percent of American hotels reported that their properties were short-staffed. 22 percent referred to this issue as serious.
According to the Polaris study, trafficking does not only occur in budget hotels. However, it is possible that staff are more distracted and busy at work than they are in luxury hotels.
Yvonne Chen (director of private sector engagement at ECPAT USA), a non-profit trying to eliminate commercial sexual exploitation, stated that although each hotel is unique, there are less eyes looking at what is happening. "In light of Covid we've seen vulnerabilities rise for everyone and these vulnerabilities are what traffickers aim at."
Hotels must be held accountable
The U.S. has been driving federal efforts to stop trafficking and prosecute offenders. Trafficking Victims Protection Act was passed in 2000. Two important changes have been made to the act regarding hotels' responsibility for protecting victims. Victims were granted the right to bring civil lawsuits against traffickers in federal courts in 2003. In 2008, the act was extended to punish those who knowingly profit financially from trafficking. Victims were able to sue third parties such as hotels, in civil lawsuits.
People who claim they were trafficked filed 83 civil suits in federal courts in 2021. 17 of those suits were brought by hotels. They are following M.A. M.A.
Kimberly Adams, a lawyer with Levin Papantonio Rafferty (one of the firms representing M.A.), stated that the lawsuits are aimed at achieving top-down accountability and not just suing local property owners. Advocates for the most vulnerable are calling for an industry-wide effort to eradicate human trafficking in the hotel sector.
Wyndham spokeswoman said in an email that they don't comment on litigation pending, but she stated that she condemns human trafficking in all forms. Wyndham has a partnership with the United States' industry to combat trafficking, and Wyndham provides training for franchisees and employees.
What hotels can do to address these issues
The hotel industry has been focusing on sexual assault and harassment in recent years. The A.H.L.A. created a program called 5-Star Promise in 2018. The A.H.L.A. created a program called 5-Star Promise in 2018, where member hotels voluntarily agreed to implement policies and training to prevent incidents against their guests.
It launched the No Room for Trafficking Program in 2019. This program provides education and training for employees through an online program that lasts just 30 minutes. The program was developed by Marriott International and Polaris. The program is available to hotel companies.
Chip Rogers, chief executive of A.H.L.A. spoke out about sex trafficking. He said that if you are a hotelier who is knowingly involved in sex trafficking, you should pay any penalty.
Rogers stated that one problem in stopping trafficking is that people are 'a bit clueless as to the specific signs'.
If a person appears distressed, hostile, confused or runs away or freezes when they are engaged, these are all signs. A companion may be able to exert control over the victim or not allow them to speak. Experts recommend focusing on the victim's behavior and not their race, gender, or economic status.
Mar Brettmann, founder and chief executive at Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking (a non-profit group), stated that 'the media often portrays blue eyed, blond girls sex trafficking victim'. She said that victims are often recruited from minorities. A significant number of men are also trafficked for sex. Trafficking can also occur across many economic and geographical boundaries.
Although there is no set date, the goal of the lodging association is for all 2.1 million industry workers to complete the No Room for Trafficking Training. More than 800,000 people were trained since 2022.
The journal Religions published a paper last year on the moral and ethical concerns that sextrafficking poses for hotels. It draws a line between the industry’s efforts to combat these crimes, and the victims’ ability to sue hotels. The authors state that although there may be multiple reasons for these changes, it is most likely that civil action against the hotel industry promotes behavioral change.
An A.H.L.A. spokesperson sent an email. A spokesperson for the A.H.L.A. stated, "The hotel industry is steadfastly dedicated to trafficking prevention and a leader in this field for many years."
The A.H.L.A. course teaches hotel employees how to identify human trafficking and the risks it poses. Hotel employees are required to watch videos about human trafficking and the dangers it presents. They learn how to spot signs of sextrafficking and what to do about it. To help victims understand their behavior, the course includes insights such as "Traffickers threaten victims and threaten them with severe consequences if you speak to police."
It is not clear how effective the training was. "There is no way to quantify the impact of training on trafficking." Ms. Brettmann, from BEST, stated that there is simply not enough data and research.
Connecticut became the first state to adopt legislation in 2016 requiring that hotel and motel staff across the country be trained to recognize human trafficking. This is in addition to the requirements of 11 other states and the cities of Baltimore, Houston and Houston. Jillian Gilchrest (West Hartford State Representative) was instrumental in the passage of the legislation. I asked Jillian Gilchrest if the legislation had reduced the number of hotel abuses. She replied that it was not.
A rare victory
Critics say that the training and other programs offered by the hotel industry do not adequately protect women from violence such as rape.
Ed Blizzard, a Houston lawyer, said that hotel security problems are more common than most travelers imagine. He represents many women who have been sexually assaulted at hotels.
It is rare that hotels are held legally responsible for the sexual violence they have committed on their premises. Kathleen Ann Dawson, who claimed that she was sexually assaulted at the Hilton Americas Hotel, Houston, won a $44million verdict against Hilton Management LLC.
The incident took place in 2017, when Ms. Dawson was at the hotel to attend a business conference. The lawsuit states that a passerby called 911 after discovering Ms. Dawson unconscious and lying on the sidewalk. Ms. Dawson was also present at the conference, and Mr. Clowers was sitting on top of her. When hotel security and police arrived at the hotel, Mr. Clowers said, "She's with us."
The staff at the hotel failed to verify Ms. Dawson’s ID. It was in Mr. Clowers' purse. They also did not check if there was a room in her name. Instead, security at the hotel provided a wheelchair to Ms. Dawson. The hotel security led a team of police officers that took Ms. Dawson from her hotel room to Mr. Clowers's. There, security opened the door and allowed Ms. Dawson into the room. In an interview, Ms. Dawson stated that she woke up the next morning with her hands in mine and was being assaulted.
Ms. Dawson filed suit after criminal prosecution collapsed. Ms. Dawson was not charged with any of the charges.
She said that while mistakes are inevitable, she didn't believe my mistakes. The hotel was able to perform its task.
Hilton released a statement at the time of the verdict stating that "Hillelujah, safety and security of our guest is a top priority" and that they do not condone violence. Ms. Dawson and the company settled for an undisclosed sum. After mediation, Mr. Clowers appealed to Ms. Dawson for an undisclosed amount.
Kent Landers, a corporate spokesperson, stated that the company did not have any additional comments.
What should guests do?
After being traumatized by the events at the hotel for several days, I reached out to a corporate email address to explain the situation. I also reached out to the corporate communications office of the hotel to get their opinion. Each level received the same response. Hotel employees are trained in identifying signs of abuse and responding if the victim requires help. I was told by the local police that nobody at the hotel called them that night. These unsatisfactory answers left me with one question: How should I have acted? .
Ms. Chen of ECPAT USA stated that she doesn't know the perfect answer. "It's more about what is the best thing to be doing at this point?"
Ms. Brettmann from BEST advised not to knock at the door. 'We don't want innocent bystanders to get into situations where an abuser or trafficker might be present.
Instead, she suggested that if the perpetrator is not in the area, reach out to the victim directly and ask, "Hey, are your OK?" You can also pass on the number to the Trafficking Hotline, or the National Domestic Violence Hotline. If it is a violent situation, contact law enforcement. Call the front desk and law enforcement simultaneously if a child is involved.
Noel Gomez was a co-founder and victim of the Seattle-based Organization for Prostitution Survivors. She was trafficked for 15 year starting at age 15. She said that she was the perfect victim, young and vulnerable, without any money or family support. She estimates that she has worked with thousands of women and girls since 2012 when she founded the group. She said, "It's easy for you to get in, but it's difficult to get out." "I've heard the same story a million different times."
Ms. Gomez was trafficked mostly in California, Arizona and Las Vegas. She lived out of motels. She believes that many employees knew about what was going on. She said that some hotels were taking cut. "I have done sexual favors for rooms."
Ms. Gomez claimed that her trafficker beat her in a motel room, almost killing her. She said that she had to have CT scans of her brain after he beat her so badly in a San Diego motel room and nobody called the police.
I asked her what she should have done in the hotel that night. She gave me a straightforward answer: "You absolutely should have called the police," she replied. "Calling 911 would have been a great help."