By Anna Shaffer, Roya Burton, Jalen Smith, and Stevie Pipis
Holt Journal Staff Reporters
While the arrest of Ingham County Prosecutor came as a shock to most residents, it shed light on the harsh reality that sex crimes do happen in Mid-Michigan and that a stereotypical criminal isn’t always the suspect.
Dunnings was arrested on March 14 after a year-long investigation. He is facing charges for a total of 15 criminal counts including pandering, engaging in the services of prostitution, and willful neglect of duty, according to a press release issued by the State of Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette.
The arrest has gained widespread attention, partly due to Dunnings being an outspoken advocate for ending human trafficking and prostitution. And these crimes have hit close to home for many local residents regarding a problem many didn’t realize was there.
“Lansing is not a huge city like Detroit, so people think crimes like these don’t happen. People are more ignorant to the crimes because they usually associate the crimes with areas like Detroit or Chicago,” said Laura Swanson, a Lansing-area filmmaker who currently is working on a documentary about trafficking in Michigan.
“There are definitely more people involved that hold power. People think those involved are usually a lower socioeconomic class, which isn’t true. Human trafficking is a hugely profitable business. Bigger trafficking rings equals more money which equals more power,” said Swanson.
Sex trafficking and prostitution know no geographical boundaries. “It can happen anywhere and it varies based on different parts of the country,” said Mary Leary, professor of law at The Catholic University of America and former director of the National Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse. “Rural areas versus urban areas, places with a lot of immigrants versus not, areas with organized crime versus not.”
According to the press release, the charges against Dunnings grew out of a 2015 federal investigation into a Michigan-based human trafficking ring, where information provided by witnesses led to Dunnings alleged participation in purchasing commercial sex.
He allegedly paid for commercial sex hundreds of times between 2010-2015, and also induced a woman to become a prostitute who had not previously been one, according to the press release.
United States law defines sex trafficking as the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act.
Leary says that most people don’t consider prostitution sex trafficking, but by legal definition it is.
“Prostitution is sex trafficking. If someone purchases a prostitute under the federal law they are practicing sex trafficking because they are paying for a human. The law doesn’t always enforce it this way but the statute is there,” says Leary.
“A mistake we make in prevention and law enforcement is to treat them all the same. A marijuana distribution ring is a lot different than a heroin distribution ring, you wouldn’t treat those the same,” said Leary.
Just like all cases aren’t the same, neither are the victims.
“People have this assumption that a sex trafficking victim is a caucasian girl that was kidnapped in Thailand,” says Leary.
Leary says victims can be across a variety of age ranges, socioeconomic backgrounds, and personalities. “I think it’s fair to say the one thing almost all victims have is a vulnerability that is exploited by a trafficker,” said Leary.
“Sometimes it is super-obvious. They’re poor, they’re addicted to drugs, runaways, the vulnerability is obvious. In the last few years it’s moved out into the suburbs. High schoolers, middle schoolers, seemingly middle class girls and boys. They usually have some sort of vulnerability but it’s less obvious, like problems at home. Traffickers find each individual’s vulnerability and exploit it,” said Leary.
Swanson had similar comments about victims. “Human trafficking is not just chaining people up and putting them in cages. You can be a person walking around everyday and you have someone over your head who exploits you,” said Swanson.
Both Swanson and Leary agree a key aspect to stopping sex trafficking is education.
“Education to potential victims,” said Leary. “Knowing and recognizing the signs early is important. Recognizing risk, things like putting your information on the internet.”
The Dunnings case has forced local residents to be more vigilant about the warnings signs.
“It’s also critical to educate and stigmatize sex buyers. We need to stigmatize prostitution like we stigmatize drinking and driving. The purchasing of another human being who is vulnerable and likely under the economic control of someone else is slavery. If we contextualize it as slavery people will view it differently,” said Leary.
Swanson added raising awareness is the number one thing the movement against sex trafficking needs right now.
To report a suspected case of human trafficking call the National Human Traffic Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888.