When Alissa was only 16 years old, she met an older man at a Dallas convenience store. In the amount of time that it took for her to step inside for a Diet Coke and a pack of Newports, the man talked Alissa into giving him her phone number and walked her back out to the car, even opening the driver side door for her. Over the next few weeks he wooed Alissa, taking her to expensive restaurants and complimenting her fragile beauty. Those first few weeks were filled with expensive gifts and a promise of a better life. When Alissa’s new boyfriend asked her to move in with him, she said yes without hesitation, her eyes filled with the promise of safety and security.
Instead of finding security in her new home, Alissa slowly broke to her new boyfriend’s control. He began to beat her, forced her to watch porn so that she might become a “better lover,” and even made Alissa get a tattoo of his nicknames, further branding her as his own. Soon, this man convinced her to begin escorting other men on dates and having sex with them for money. Further expanding his enterprise, he posted prostitution advertisements on the Internet and demanded that Alissa have sex with the men who responded to the ads. This boyfriend turned pimp easily kept Alissa in line. With an assault rifle in the closet and a combination of verbal and physical abuse, he brandished complete control over his captive.
It was only much later that Alissa’s “boyfriend” pled guilty to trafficking (adapted from the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2011).
Alissa’s story serves as a mirror for countless others throughout the United States every day. The United States legal system defines sex trafficking as, “commercial sex acts induced by force, fraud, or coercion or commercial sex acts in which the individual induced to perform commercial sex has not attained 18 years of age.” The Polaris Project reports that though the number is largely indistinguishable, hundreds of thousands of US citizen minors are believed to be at risk for commercial sex exploitation. The same report noted that 40 to 70 percent of youth runaways fall into prostitution as a way to meet their essential needs. Most often, girls are only 12 years old at their time of entry and boys, only 11. In all, it’s been estimated that there are between 100,000 and 300,000 prostituted children in the United States.
The Pervasiveness of Human Trafficking
Human trafficking doesn’t only exist within the confines mentioned above or the boundaries of the United States. According to the Polaris Project, examples of human trafficking cases cover everything from sex trafficking in India and Latin America to exploitation of the workers in the shrimp industry in Thailand to the use of child soldiers in Burma. To further put things in perspective, it’s estimated to be a $32 billion industry and impact 161 countries across the globe.
We generally believe we’re safe here in the United States. We teach our children the basics — don’t talk to strangers, don’t take candy from anyone you don’t know, only play where we can see you. Yet, Alissa’s story is one that follows a common pattern learned by traffickers in the sex trade industry. When examined more closely, many follow similar recruiting and “seasoning” strategies designed to sell the illusion of love and security before conditioning their victims with a new lifestyle and belief system of blind obedience and abuse.
We’re making steps towards recognition. According to 2011 Human Trafficking Hotline Statistics, “2,945 victims of human trafficking were connected to services and support.” Of that number, “calls from self-identifying victims increased by 61 percent,” showing that the hotline number is reaching those people that need it the most.
These statistics help show that there is an increasing awareness and response to the human trafficking crisis. Just this past summer, a child prostitution crackdown — dubbed “Operation Cross Country Six” — occurred from June 21 to June 23 in 57 cities across the nation. Local and federal law enforcement officers worked with the FBI to arrest 104 suspected pimps in the operation. They also freed 79 children who were being forced to work as prostitutes. These children were found at hotels, truck stops and storefronts, some barely over 13 years old.
Overall, prostitution isn’t what it often seems. It isn’t a thrilling lifestyle chosen by women (or men) to expand their sexual portfolio or cash in on ritzy perks. As evidenced above, most barely even have a choice in the matter. Take Patricia’s story, for instance. As a child of Chicago’s South Side, she had witnessed her share of poverty and crime. Her father was a pimp; her mother, a prostitute. When Patricia was a suitable age, her father tried to purchase her. Finding this out, her mother took her and ran. Patricia was later molested by her mother’s boyfriend and forced out onto the street at only 12 years old.
With nowhere left to turn, Patricia engaged in “survival sex” for nearly two decades — very often by no choice of her own. With the help of advocacy groups like the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, Patricia has worked hard to find a rhythm of normalcy in her life. Today she works in the food service business at her first job outside of prostitution.
Shining a Light on the Issue
A wide range of other organizations in the United States exists to bring awareness to the injustice of human trafficking and provide education and empowerment. Nicole Marrett, the owner and founder of Radiant Cosmetics, seeks to raise awareness by raising funds for victims and those involved in leading the movement forward through her cosmetic sales — 20 percent of her company’s profits go toward assisting victims and educating the public on the issue.
Marrett first dreamed about starting this social venture while spending time in Thailand for missions work with the World Race. “I became friends with a prostitute in Thailand, and my heart broke for this woman,” said Marrett. “Walking Bangla Road, home to over 200 bars and countless women who’ve been trafficked, I felt alive. A vision began to form.”
It was from that vision that Radiant Cosmetics sprung forth. With 80 percent of the sex trade industry comprised of women and young girls, Marrett hopes to rally this generation of women to fight for their fellow sisters, “one lipstick at a time.”
Many in the Christian community have been instrumental in calling attention to the sex trafficking issue. In fact, many local churches have added groups ministering around the issue to their missions budgets. And Christian academia has realized the important role that education and empowerment must play in fighting trafficking. Earlier this year, Moody Bible Institute announced a new four-year undergraduate major designed to equip students to work with victims of sexual exploitation. During their time in the program, students will learn about contributing factors (both societal and spiritual) and familiarize themselves with human trafficking organizations in the area. They’ll also have the opportunity to participate in a six-month, off-campus internship between their junior and senior years. Internships can either be with domestic or international organizations, depending on the student’s preference.
Courtney Fillmore, an incoming Moody Bible Institute student, is entering the program this fall. She heard about it from a friend who knew of her passion to fight this injustice.
“Last year, God led me to spend three months in Thailand with Youth With A Mission (YWAM). It was here that I saw first hand the tragedy that is sex tourism, sex slavery and human trafficking,” said Fillmore. “We would go into bars at night and just talk to the women that worked there. It changed my life. I knew that I couldn’t go back to America and continue to ignore the issue.”
Since being back in the United States, Fillmore states that she’s seen how human trafficking is just as prevalent here as it was in Thailand — maybe not as outwardly noticeable, but flourishing just the same. It’s a filigree of secrets and lies, a cobweb in a dark attic corner. Women like Alissa may be our neighbors, students, waitresses that top off our cup of coffee every morning. But darkness can’t survive once it’s brought out into the light. And just as Fillmore has refused to ignore the issue, it’s up to us to respond to the crisis.
How You Can Help
For more information on how you can directly take action, please visit The Polaris Project to find info about volunteering, attending events, advocating on the state or federal level, or even reporting cases of human trafficking.
For further reading on this topic, please check out these recent books:
• The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America Today by Kevin Bales & Ron Soodalter
• Forgotten Girls: Stories of Hope and Courage by Kay Strom & Michele Rickett
• Not for Sale: The Return of the Global Slave Trade — and How We Can Fight It by David Batstone
• God in a Brothel: An Undercover Journey into Sex Trafficking and Rescue by Daniel Walker
• Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls Are Not for Sale by Rachel Lloyd