The sound of rage woke me just before midnight. A man’s voice in the adjacent hotel room screamed, “Get out of my room!” with an obscenity added. His staccato fury was interspersed with heavy slamming noises and pleas of mercy from a woman’s voice.
I was frozen. What was happening and what should I do? Then the room went silent.
Around 2 a.m. I heard a man’s voice erupting again, this time from the parking lot outside, where I could clearly see a man and a woman engaged in a heated argument. The man was forcefully holding onto the woman’s arm as they walked out of view. This time I called the front desk.
“Should I call the police?” I asked.
The attendant told me that the hotel, a major brand just off an Interstate, had its own security, and that it would investigate and involve law enforcement if necessary. Soon, I heard more thuds next door — they must have returned — followed by the sound of sobbing. Then a door slammed and there was silence.
Early the next morning, as I checked out, the clerk assured me that the problem had been dealt with. But I could not stop thinking about what I had heard and seen. I didn’t know if any crime had been committed, but the woman’s cries pulled me down a rabbit hole of research into the prevalence of sexual violence and abuse in hotels and what is being done to stop it. Hotels, with their closed doors and transient nature, can offer a ripe environment for violence, whether it is domestic abuse, sexual assault, rape or human trafficking.
Take the case of the woman identified in court papers only as M.A., who in a lawsuit against hotels, says she was sex trafficked out of multiple Days Inn by Wyndham properties and a Super 8 by Wyndham in central Ohio, beginning in 2013 when she was a minor. In her civil claim against the hotels — a landmark case that is still making its way through the courts — her lawyers make this point: “Traffickers are well aware of the seclusion and anonymity attendant with booking rooms with hotel chains without adequate training — they know it is unlikely that they will be disturbed.”
M.A.’s lawyers also claim that, at the various hotels, “the hotel staff ignored her” and “did nothing to prevent the ongoing and obvious suffering she endured by being regularly trafficked for sex.”
What if the woman in the room next to mine had been going through the same thing? Or was she a victim of domestic violence? How prepared are hotels to deal with incidents of possible violence and to protect victims?
Common and commonly ignored
There is no reliable data on the prevalence of sexual assault, rape or domestic violence in hotels. These crimes are grossly underreported no matter where they occur. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 22 percent of rapes and sexual assaults and 50 percent of intimate partner violence were reported to the police in 2021.
Victims of sex trafficking frequently say that their abuse took place in hotels: Of the 54 new federal criminal sex trafficking cases filed in 2021 where the location of the sex act was known, 80 percent took place at a hotel, according to the 2021 Federal Human Trafficking Report, the most recent tally from the Human Trafficking Institute, a nonprofit that works with justice systems to more effectively prosecute traffickers.
A 2018 study by Polaris, a leading U.S. anti-trafficking nonprofit, found that in the 10 years between 2007, when the National Human Trafficking Hotline was created, and 2017, the hotline received 3,596 reports of human trafficking involving a hotel or a motel. In 80 percent of these cases, commercial sex acts were performed at a hotel.
Of 127 trafficking survivors surveyed by Polaris, 94 percent said that they never received any assistance or expression of concern from the hotel staff and that the staff either did not recognize the situation or did not acknowledge it as trafficking.
According to the Human Trafficking Report, in federal criminal cases brought in 2021, 22 hotels were identified as locations where alleged sex trafficking took place, including some of the most familiar brands from the American roadside landscape: Motel 6, Quality Inn, Super 8 Motels, Red Roof Inn, Marriott, Knights Inn, Holiday Inn, Hawthorn Suites, Days Inn, Comfort Inn and Baymont Inn.
The pandemic brought new challenges to fighting sex trafficking: There are now touchless, faceless ways to enter many hotels, such as key-code entry systems. Compounding the issue is an industrywide staffing shortage. In a survey published in a 2023 report by the American Hotel and Lodging Association, the largest hotel industry group in the United States, 79 percent of hotels said their property was short-staffed, and 22 percent identified that issue as severe.
The Polaris study notes that trafficking is not limited to budget hotels, but that places where the staff is busy and distracted may be preferred.
“Each hotel is different, but fewer people mean there are potentially fewer eyes on what is happening,” said Yvonne Chen, the director of private sector engagement at ECPAT-USA, a nonprofit trying to eradicate commercial sexual exploitation of children. “In light of Covid, we’ve seen vulnerabilities increase for everyone and vulnerabilities are what traffickers target.”
Trying to hold hotels accountable
Federal efforts to shut down trafficking and prosecute offenders have been driven by the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act, passed in 2000. There have been two important changes to the act in relation to hotels’ responsibility to protect victims. In 2003, victims gained the right to file civil lawsuits against their traffickers in federal court, and, in 2008, the act was expanded to penalize those who knowingly benefit financially from participating in trafficking. That enabled victims to bring a civil suits against third parties, like hotels.
In 2021, 83 new civil suits were filed in federal courts by people who say they were trafficked; hotels were the respondents in 17 of those suits. They follow M.A.’s precedent-setting suit, filed in 2019. M.A. v. Wyndham Hotel & Resorts, which is still in litigation, marked the first time a judge allowed a suit against hotel companies to move forward because the plaintiff “alleged sufficient facts” to show that the staff should have known trafficking was happening, including payments in cash, housekeeping being asked to replace towels on a frequent basis, and signs of sexual activity in the trash such as lubricants and condom wrappers.
“Our lawsuits seek top-down accountability, not just suing the local property owner,” said Kimberly Adams, a lawyer at Levin Papantonio Rafferty, one of the firms representing M.A. “Because the problem of human trafficking in the hotel industry is nationwide, advocates for these most vulnerable people are urging an industrywide effort to address the problem, including by the national brands like Wyndham.”
In an email, a spokeswoman for Wyndham said that the company does not comment on pending litigation, but, she added, “we condemn human trafficking in any form.” She said Wyndham works with industry organizations to combat trafficking and provides training for employees and franchisees in the United States.
How hotels are facing the issues
Noel Gomez, a founder of the Organization for Prostitution Survivors, which helps girls and women get away from sex traffickers. She advises calling the police if a situation seems dangerous for the woman involved. Credit…Emma Howells for The New York Times
In recent years the hotel industry has begun to focus on combating sexual assault and harassment. In 2018, the A.H.L.A. created a program called 5-Star Promise, in which the member hotels voluntarily pledge to adopt policies and training to prevent incidents against guests and staff.
In 2019 it started the No Room for Trafficking program, which provides employee education and training through a free, 30-minute online program in 17 different languages produced by Marriott International with ECPAT-USA and Polaris. Hotel companies can choose to have their employees use the program.
“As human beings we are better than this,” said Chip Rogers, the chief executive of the A.H.L.A., speaking of sex trafficking. “If you are a hotelier and knowingly involved then you should pay whatever penalty and then some,” he said in an interview.
One issue with stopping trafficking, Mr. Rogers said, is that “people are somewhat clueless as to what are the particular signs.”
Typical clues are if a person seems distressed, hostile or confused, or flees or becomes frozen when engaged. If they are with a companion, that person may exert physical control or may not allow the person to speak. Experts emphasize identifying a potential victim’s behavior rather than their age, race, gender, economic status or sexual orientation.
“The media often portrays blue-eyed, blond girls as sex trafficking victims,” said Mar Brettmann, the founder and chief executive of Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking, a nonprofit group. But, she said, victims are disproportionately recruited from minority groups. Additionally, a significant number of males are trafficked for sex, as well as people who are transgender. Trafficking also takes place across a wide economic and geographic spectrum.
The lodging association’s goal is to have all the roughly 2.1 million industry employees take the No Room for Trafficking training, though there is no target date. Since the end of 2022, more than 800,000 people have been trained.
A paper on the moral and ethical issues that sex trafficking raises for hotels, published last year in the journal Religions, draws a straight line between the industry’s efforts to combat these crimes and the ability of victims to sue hotels. “While multiple factors may have contributed to these changes,” the authors write, “it is likely that the onset of civil action against the hospitality industry is promoting behavioral change.”
In an email, an A.H.L.A. spokesman said, “The hotel industry is steadfastly committed to trafficking prevention and has been a leader in this area for many years.”
In the A.H.L.A. course, hotel employees watch a series of videos that define human trafficking and the risks that it poses to hotels. They are also taught to recognize indicators of sex trafficking and how to react to it. The course provides insights like, “Traffickers threaten victims with severe consequences if they speak to police,” to help employees understand victims’ behavior.
But it remains unclear how effective the training is. “There’s no way to measure the impact of training on decreasing trafficking. There’s simply not enough research and data,” said Ms. Brettmann of BEST.
In 2016, Connecticut was the first state to pass legislation requiring hotel and motel staff statewide to be trained in recognizing human trafficking (11 states, plus the cities of Baltimore and Houston now require it). State Representative Jillian Gilchrest, who serves West Hartford, was instrumental in passing the legislation. When I asked if the statute had decreased the incidence of abuse in hotels, she told me that “the weakness of our law is that there is no teeth in it.”
A rare victory
Critics of the hotel industry say that its training and other programs do not go far enough to protect women from other kinds of violence, including rape and sexual assault.
“Hotel security shortfalls are much more common than travelers would imagine,” said Ed Blizzard, a Houston lawyer who represents a number of women who have been sexually assaulted in hotels.
There are rare instances when hotels are found legally accountable for sexual violence on their premises. In 2021, Kathleen Ann Dawson won a $44 million verdict against Hilton Management LLC and a man named Larry Joe Clowers, after she said he sexually assaulted her at the Hilton Americas Hotel in Houston.
The incident occurred in 2017 when Ms. Dawson was staying at the hotel for a business conference. According to the lawsuit, a passer-by called 911 after finding Ms. Dawson, who was unconscious, lying on the sidewalk. Mr. Clowers, who was also attending the conference and whose pants were unzipped, was on top of her. When police and hotel security officers arrived, Mr. Clowers told them, “She’s with me.”
Hotel staff failed to check Ms. Dawson’s ID, which was in a purse that Mr. Clowers was holding, to determine if she had a room registered in her own name, according to the suit. Instead, hotel security provided a wheelchair for the unconscious Ms. Dawson. Police officers, led by hotel security, then wheeled Ms. Dawson to Mr. Clowers’s hotel room where hotel security unlocked the door to place Ms. Dawson in the room. The next morning, Ms. Dawson, “woke up naked with his hands inside me and he was assaulting me,” she said in an interview.
When criminal prosecution fell through, Ms. Dawson sued. The jury placed 90 percent of the fault on Hilton management, 10 percent on Mr. Clowers, and none on Ms. Dawson.
“I understand mistakes get made,” she said, “but in my case the mistakes were huge — really, really, big, huge mistakes. All the hotel had to do was do its job.”
At the time of the verdict, Hilton issued a statement saying that, “At Hilton, the safety and security of our guests is a top priority and we do not condone violence of any kind.” The company and Ms. Dawson settled for an undisclosed amount. Mr. Clowers appealed; he and Ms. Dawson settled for an undisclosed amount after mediation.
Kent Landers, a corporate spokesman, said that the company had no additional comment.
What should guests do?
Distressed for days by what I had witnessed at the hotel, I emailed a corporate address explaining the situation and then reached out again to the hotel’s corporate communications office to see what representatives there could tell me. At each level, I got the same response: Hotel employees are trained to identify signs of abuse and respond if the victim needs help. The local police told me that no one at the hotel had called them that night. Those unsatisfying answers left me with one question: What should I have done? .
“I don’t know if there’s the most right perfect answer,” said Ms. Chen, of ECPAT-USA. “I think it’s more like what is the best thing to do at that point?”
Ms. Brettmann of BEST said not to knock on the door: “We never want bystanders to insert themselves into a situation where there could be an abuser or trafficker present.”
Instead, she suggested, if the perpetrator is nowhere in the vicinity, reaching out directly to the victim and asking, “Hey, are you OK?” or passing on the number for the Trafficking Hotline or the National Domestic Violence Hotline. “If it’s a violent situation, call law enforcement. If a child is involved, call the front desk and law enforcement simultaneously.”
Noel Gomez, a co-founder of the Seattle-based Organization for Prostitution Survivors, was trafficked for 15 years starting at the age of 15. “I was the perfect victim: young, vulnerable, with no money, and no family help,” she said. Since she helped found the group in 2012, she estimates she’s worked with thousands of mostly girls and women, helping fund and execute exit strategies. “It’s easy to get in, it’s hard to get out,” she said. “I’ve heard my same story a million times.”
Ms. Gomez, was trafficked mainly in California, Arizona, Las Vegas and Seattle, living out of motels. She believes many staff members knew what was happening. “Some hotels are taking cuts,” she said. “I’ve done sexual favors in exchange for rooms.”
Ms. Gomez said her trafficker once beat her severely in a motel, nearly killing her. “I had to have CT scans on my brain because he beat me so bad in a motel room in San Diego and nobody called the police,” she said.
When I asked her what I should have done at the hotel that night, she had a simple answer: “You should have absolutely called the police,” she said. “Calling 911 would have helped me.”
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