By Kathleen Bruins
She stared at me without saying a word.
“What’s wrong, Cassandra?”
“You said his name. I never use his name, especially when I talk about what he did to me.”
While interviewing Cassandra, she experienced a panic attack, which is common for survivors of sex trafficking. Most survivors have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), resulting from their horrible experiences.
Coming from a small town in Michigan where everyone knew each other, Cassandra truly believed what was happening to her happened to all children. She just couldn’t figure out why other kids seemed so happy and she wasn’t. Cassandra isn’t alone—40 percent of sex trafficking cases involve a child; the average age is between 11 and 14.
How Trafficking Starts
Here is a typical scenario: An older teen or 20-something male shows interest in a young teen girl and acts like a boyfriend. Once he gains her trust, he starts asking her to do things or he’ll break up with her. He may ask her to sleep with someone so that he can pay off a debt. Many connections are made through the Internet, which makes it so important that parents watch what their children are doing online.
Another common occurrence is when children run away from home or are “throw away” children. Traffickers target these kids and become their best friend. They know exactly what to say and do to gain their trust. Kids in school are also getting classmates trapped in trafficking. Kidnapping is also used to get the children. Gangs often are involved in trafficking. Once they have the kids, they use threatening means to keep them imprisoned in trafficking. They threaten exposure, harm to family members, physical force, or anything that is fearful to the child.
Theresa Flores wrote a book entitled The Slave Across the Street, which tells her story of being trafficked by boys in school and the hold they had over her. Excerpts from a book review printed in the West Michigan Christian News:
“(Theresa) was 15 years old when her family moved to Detroit. Life seemed very uncomplicated at that time. She was trying to fit in at school, a flag for a trafficker. A Chaldean boy she was interested in, Daniel, began to call her, and his cousins were always involved in the communication too. One day she made a wrong choice and lied to her mother about going to track practice and instead went with Daniel to his house. He coerced her inside, drugged her, and then began to rape her.
“Unknown to Theresa, pictures were taken by Daniel’s cousins. They blackmailed her with these pictures for two years. She got deeper and deeper into the human trafficking world, being beaten and raped many times. Other atrocities were done to her by force.
“They watched her every move and made sure she knew they were watching her. The teachers saw what was happening and did nothing to help. The school guards knew and did nothing. They were all afraid of the Chaldean cousins. She felt she had nowhere to go. They knew all about her family and threatened to hurt them if she didn’t obey them. Dead animals would show up in her mailbox. Her dog went missing and one night she received a phone call. She heard her dog barking and then a gunshot. Traffickers have no limits to the terror they put on people’s lives.”
Trafficking in the U.S.
Human trafficking (both the sex and labor types) has grown like a deadly virus across our country. Once thought of being a third-world country issue, it is now discovered that it has been active in the United States for many years. Why? Because it is a money maker—more than $32 billion yearly, which is more than drug selling. A drug you use once, but a person can be used repeatedly. Approximately 17,500 foreign nationals are trafficked in the U.S. each year.
The commercial sex industry is also fueled by pornography. An estimated 48 percent of men who buy commercial sex use pornography at least once a week. Although buyers come from all ages, occupations, and ethnicities, buyers report purchasing sex the first time at an average age of 21. The highest number of consumers for traffickers is white American men in their 40s. They are the ones who can afford it.
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette is fighting trafficking in his state through creating bills that will help victims and penalize those who are traffickers and consumers. The bills will: eliminate the statute of limitations for trafficking offenses and commercial sexual exploitation of children offenses; raise minimum age from 16 to 18 for prostitution; allow the Department of Human Services to get involved in helping the victim with emotional and physical needs; allow victims to sue captors; and make available medical and psychological treatment for victims.
For clarification, Schuette defines sex trafficking as “the exploitation of a person for commercial sexual activity through force, fraud, or coercion. . . . Any sexually exploited child is a trafficking victim.” Labor trafficking is defined as “the exploitation of a person for labor or services through force, fraud, or coercion.”
How to Get Involved
Churches and Christians need to become involved. The challenge is before us to reach out and minister to those imprisoned in this growing industry. Everyone can do something. Here is a list of suggestions of how to get involved:
• Pray—Prayer is powerful. Pray for victims. Pray for the traffickers and the buyers to have a change of heart. Pray that pornography can be squelched. Pray that we open our eyes to the reality and act on that knowledge and don’t let it grow. Pray for the government officials who are making laws to protect the victims and prosecute the traffickers and the buyers.
• Learn—Read the material that is available and visit the websites of organizations that are involved, such as Polaris Project and the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) or local groups in your area. The NHTRC hotline is 1-888-373-7888. Please call if you suspect trafficking is occurring. They check on reports. It is better that you call in a suspicion and be wrong than not call at all.
• Volunteer—There are many ways to volunteer to help fight trafficking. Join groups that are already active in your community. Find a local committee that raises awareness and get involved in events. Volunteer time at a safe house. Raise funds for safe houses. Purchase items made by survivors.
• Become aware—Be aware of the bills in Congress that support help for victims. Contact your local representatives and encourage them to pass these bills.
• Share—Share with others what you learn. That is sharing light. The more people talking about it, the less threatening it will be. Exposing it lessens its power.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
Kathy Bruins is a freelance writer in Holland, Michigan.