An alleged male prostitution ring being run out of a Ventnor home brought focus on a sometimes unknown part of society this week: human trafficking.
Marc Branch, 39, was due in Superior Court on Tuesday to hear charges against him related to allegedly luring young men and teens to his North Newport Avenue home, and then using online outlets to advertise their sexual services.
An unreleased medical situation delayed Branch’s hearing, but the case has shown that such sexual exploitation happens everywhere and crosses genders, experts say.
“I’m not surprised,” said Dawne Lomangino-DiMauro, who educates people on human trafficking as well as working with victims. “I think the average person may be surprised, but this happens in every neighborhood, in every socioeconomic background, in every culture. No one is safe from this really.
It is estimated that there are 100,000 children in the sex trade in the United States each year, according to the Polaris Project, a decade-old organization that works to combat human trafficking.
But children aren’t the only victims of trafficking, which includes adult females and males and those born outside the United States.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline received 19,427 calls in 2011, with more than 10,000 of them unique callers, according to the hotline’s annual report. There were 756 calls from people specifically identifying themselves as victims — a 61 percent increase from the previous year.
Meeting the needs of victims — especially adult males — is particularly challenging, the report states. Male victims also seem to attract less attention.
Atlantic City Detective Jaimee Moore has investigated prostitution for more than six years and says she remembers only one male victim on the street. There were two others during an operation that specifically targeted underage victims on the website Craigslist.
“Unfortunately, the Internet has driven this industry to an extreme,” Lomangino-DiMauro said.
Websites such Craigslist, Facebook and Twitter are how Branch solicited clients who paid as much as $200 for encounters, according to the allegations.
Branch allegedly lured the young men and teens by promising them food, drugs, money and, in some instances, shelter.
Targeting the vulnerable is something Moore has often seen.
“They don’t have a support system, which is why they end up where they do,” Moore said. “I know, with a pimp situation, they make a family structure, which is something (these victims) have never had.”
It’s also why the public — and even those being used in the sex trade — often think it’s a victimless crime, experts say. That is especially true in the cases that involve feeding a drug addiction, something Branch allegedly did with some of his victims.
“I think it’s probably the biggest hurdle that we have is getting the public to see them as victims and getting them to see themselves (that way),” Moore said. “They think, ‘This is what I am.’ But you didn’t choose to be prostituted.”
Branch is being held in the Atlantic County Justice Facility on $250,000 bail, and is expected to have his first appearance some time later this week, although no new court date has been scheduled. Court records do show a Nov. 5 hearing that was previously scheduled on an unrelated pending drug charge.
He is charged with human trafficking, running a house of prostitution, promoting prostitution, sexual assault and two count of aggravated sexual assault. It is not clear if he has an attorney in the case yet.
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