Author’s Note: This blog post contains sensitive information that could trigger those who’ve been victimized by sex trafficking.
Polly isn’t her real name, and her address and the person who introduced us will remain confidential. She’s a survivor of sex trafficking and is terrified her former boyfriend will find her and force her back into the life.
“I don’t want people to identify me. I don’t want people coming and looking for me,” she insists. “I’ve seen this happen when women leave the life. They are followed all over the country.”
I try reassuring her, but her body language tells me she’s uneasy. Even so, she begins telling me about her trafficker boyfriend who had kept a running tab on the money he’d spent feeding her opioid addiction. “He wanted me to do things for him to repay the debt,” she tells me.
She also recounts the time he tied her up, broke her nose and locked her outside on the porch when she tried breaking away. Someone heard her screams and called the police. He went to jail that night, but in time she went back to him. At that point, she couldn’t break the trauma bond keeping her chained to her abuser.
“I loved him, and I did what he wanted,” she says, without emotion.
The more questions I ask, the more uncomfortable she becomes.
“Are we almost done?” Polly turns her head toward a bedroom door. “My baby is crying.”
She leaves the Zoom meeting, and I never hear from her again.
Dispelling the Hollywood Myths
You hear about sex trafficking almost daily, especially now that the Ghislaine Maxwell trial has started in Manhattan Federal Court. But have you really considered what it is?
I hadn’t until I talked with a friend, Lisa Britt, who lives in Tampa, one of the nation’s trafficking hotspots due to its transient population and access to major ports and highways.
“When we lived in Durham, North Carolina, trafficking didn’t feel like a problem. That’s not the case here in Florida,” says Lisa, who has completed awareness training and now keeps very close tabs on her three daughters. “You’d be shocked by what’s going on.”
Our conversation made me realize I’d only a cursory understanding of the trafficking epidemic feeding the multi-billion-dollar sex industry. Furthermore, many of my beliefs had come from Hollywood’s depictions of adults voluntarily prostituting themselves or international traffickers abducting unsuspecting teenagers.
Talking with experts also made me understand the issue can’t be addressed in one blog post, and that Lisa hadn’t exaggerated the ugliness surrounding trafficking.
“For the majority of survivors, it isn’t a snatch-and-grab situation,” says Rana Zakaria, a community educator for the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking, a counter-trafficking organization in East Tennessee.
“The most common trafficker in our region is the mother. She may sell her child to buy drugs or pay the rent. It’s the perfect crime because no one expects it.”
“I know grandmothers selling their grandkids,” adds Micha Washinski, chief operating officer for the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking (USIAHT), a national nonprofit committed to ending human trafficking in the U.S. “It’s unbelievable.”
Mothers? Boyfriends? Grandmothers? My naiveté astounds me. I need to pull my head out of the sand.
“It’s the fastest-growing criminal enterprise today,” Micha continues. “Only drug trafficking is larger, but a person can sell drugs only once. Someone can sell a person repeatedly. It’s a commodity…just a normal profit-loss equation for traffickers.”
And it’s happening everywhere—cities, suburbs, and in rural areas across the country, affecting people of all ages, genders, socio-economic groups, and nationalities. And despite what some might think, these people are being forced into the sex trade completely against their will.
It’s modern-day slavery.
Who’s Vulnerable and Why
Who’s vulnerable? Virtually everyone, including a growing number of boys, says Rana.
The common denominators, among teens and children, are drug addiction, poverty, family violence, sexual abuse, and neglect, she says. To escape, kids often run away. Now homeless, they turn to prostitution to support themselves, and before long, some become entangled in organized crime networks that exploit them nationally.
In other cases, victims may come from stable families. Through social media and friends, they become involved with people who promise gifts, careers, and other financial inducements, says Teresa Romanoff, the director of Hope Restored, a ministry that raises awareness of sex trafficking in the Tampa area.
“I know of a 12-year-old who came from a good family,” Teresa tells me. “Her boyfriend drugged her, took compromising photos, and then under threat, he worked her all night.” Her parents had no idea.
Polly’s abrupt departure has me reeling. Did my questions cause more harm than good? One thing is certain: She’s fearful for the lives of her baby, husband, and herself. It could take years before she feels safe talking about her abuse, which only underscores the depths of her trauma.
“There’s no telling how many girls he had done that to,” says the contact who met Polly five years ago at a safe house. While Polly has succeeded in establishing a healthy relationship with a loving man, her trafficker’s other victims may not be so fortunate.
“We have to change the culture,” Micah says, passionately. “If we didn’t have a market for pornography, prostitution, and other sex services, we wouldn’t have a trafficking problem. Buyers need to change their hearts and people need to be aware of the problem.”
Thank you, ladies, for opening my eyes and making this crime more than an abstraction. More blog posts are planned about this topic.