This is the first part of a three-part series on sex trafficking and illegally operating massage parlors in Northern Virginia.
For more on sex trafficking, see Part 2: Authorities Say Sex Trafficking a Problem at Some Local Massage Parlors. Part 3 will be published Friday, Nov. 18.
Jessica Johnson relishes a good fight.
No—not one that involves black eyes and bloody noses. Johnson’s enemy is an elusive behemoth: international human trafficking.
When Johnson, a 36-year-old Annandale resident, realized human trafficking was a problem among immigrants in the community, she took action. In August 2009, she founded Virginia Stop Modern Slavery.
Although she is no longer affiliated with the group, her community outreach led her to uncover a tip that led to the identification and rescue of a human trafficking victim who was being sexually exploited.
Johnson concerns herself with all forms of human trafficking, including women working in massage parlors, men sold into sexual slavery and forced domestic servitude. Far too often, Johnson said, local and federal authorities have been reluctant to investigate and prosecute human trafficking cases she and her allies brought to their attention.
“I’m just a lady who lives here, and I saw a gap,” she said. “And, because I happened to have a skill set that’s relevant—that I’ve worked with creating a committee and a special team giving help—I used that skill set to create this team. And they did nothing with it. And it was very much like, ‘We have this already.’ I’ve had to deal with a lot of real pain. That’s so painful. It’s been really heartbreaking.”
Johnson said she recognizes that law enforcement officials at various levels face myriad challenges in tackling sex trafficking, specifically, including lack of training in handling such cases, insider connections or translators.
While Fairfax County Police Department officials couldn’t comment on those criticisms, they did volunteer information that issues that involve legal massage parlors are being actively investigated and enforcement is taking place.
For example, Fairfax County police are working with zoning and code compliance officials and checking that businesses have the proper licensures to conduct massages. Several businesses, including some in the Mason Police District (which includes Annandale), have been cited for violations recently. But, police officials added, they do not characterize these arrests as being connected to human trafficking.
At first glance, Johnson is an unlikely advocate of trafficking victims. She’s been a professional opera and jazz singer since she was a teenager. She holds a Master of Arts in English from George Mason University and has worked as a contractor to the intelligence community, served as a college English professor for a several years and is currently self-employed as a strategic consultant and coach.
She took on the role of a community activist against human trafficking in 2008. As founder of Virginia Stop Modern Slavery, she lobbied U.S. Senate and House members, as well as state legislators, on anti-trafficking efforts such as the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, and she spoke with then-Gov. Tim Kaine. She lobbied for the passage of federal legislation criminalizing human trafficking, which passed last year.
She is affiliated with the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force, and she is a member of the District and Maryland human trafficking task forces. She claims the Virginia group has been ineffective; U.S. Attorney spokesman Peter Carr points to recent convictions as proof of the opposite.
Karen King, a community activist and volunteer living in Prince William County, helped Johnson lobby for anti-trafficking measures as part of Virginia Stop Modern Slavery and called her a passionate advocate and skilled lobbyist.
“She cares very much about the issue of sex trafficking and human trafficking in general,” King said. “And (she) has worked very hard to effect some changes in legislation and just rally together law enforcement and legislators, worked hard to get a team group effort for Virginia and that is something she has really taken upon herself. She’s really worked hard in that arena and is really knowledgeable.”
Despite the high visibility of Asian massage parlors offering sexual services, some of which may be connected to human trafficking, she has seen few raids leading to arrests.
“[The police] say, we don’t know exactly that trafficking is happening here,” she said. “But we see that it’s a massage parlor. It’s open at 12:30 in the morning. Only men go in there. The windows are blacked out.
“Men go to these spas, and if I see indications that things are not kosher, I just walk in and say, ‘Tell me about your services.’ And they don’t want to talk to me, and they’re pushing me out. And it’s all black inside, with white lights, and curtains drawn – that doesn’t seem right. And I do that stuff all the time. I roll up on places, and I send that information to law enforcement, and so we see these indications, and say, that is very indicative of trafficking.”
At the federal level, Johnson calls prosecution efforts a “stellar track record of failure.” She would like the same amount of investigative efforts go to human trafficking that is currently paid to related issues such as drug and weapons trafficking, prostitution, money laundering and organized crime go toward human trafficking.
One of Johnson’s strengths is her tireless pursuit to hold prosecutors accountable to enforcing laws against human trafficking, said Greg Bristol, a retired FBI agent familiar with Johnson’s work. Bristol compared Johnson’s work to that of activists with Mothers Against Drunk Driving in the 1980s.
“She’s a motivator, and people like working with her,” Bristol said.
Clark Stuart, director of operations for Stop Child Trafficking Now, said he had worked with Johnson on multiple occasions and was impressed by her drive to bring people together to fight a common cause.
“She’s one of those altruistic individuals who is constantly trying to help people and organizations come together to synergize efforts, and that’s something she’s very, very good at,” Stuart said.
Johnson, who is white, sees the Asian massage parlor culture through an ethnocentric paradigm in which female minorities are exploited by those with more social or economic status.
“We’re talking about non-white, predominately women, often illegal immigrants, either by choice or a trafficking situation,” she said. “These people do not rank in this culture. They simply are not afforded the same value as Caucasian men and women.”
Slavery, Johnson holds, is a scourge on humanity. “Whenever anyone is enslaved, we are all enslaved, because we are all connected,” is her creed. “I can empathize with the victims.”
Editor's Note: This story is featured as part of the Huffington Post's "Greatest Person of the Day" series.
Also, while Karen King refers to Jessica Johnson as a lobbyist in the above article, Jessica Johnson was never a registered lobbyist with Stop Child Trafficking Now or other organizations involving human trafficking. She was only a supporter.