The Uncomfortable Story of Trafficking

At the first-ever statewide gathering of Minnesota professionals engaged in helping to tackle the sex trafficking industry (April 24-25, 2014) so many people turned up that the event was moved from the resort’s largest conference room space to the tennis court facility.

Though I have read many stories, and heard several survivors talk about their experiences, I teared up… got uncomfortable… and was horrified to have more direct testimony of how brutal the lives are of hundreds of thousands of our youth.

From law enforcement officers, for example, I heard:

  • the terrified 911 call from an Iowa runaway who accepted bus money from someone met online, only to be forced upon arrival in St. Paul to have sex with multiple men over a week’s time, locked into a Hilton Garden Inn, before she was able to call for help;
  • an incredibly difficult conversation recorded between two traffickers — one had picked up a young girl, only to find that she “belonged” to another trafficker, and out of “respect for the rules” called to let the other trafficker hear him torture the girl for running away from him;
  • a trafficker talking to a buyer responding to a ad, pointing out that the girl he was interested in was only 14 — without hesitation the young man simply said, “I don’t care how old she is, as long as she looks good.”

A corrections officer who happened to work in my childhood county — one of those “normal” suburban and rural areas a majority of people live in — told me his teenage daughter reported that a classmate was already so lacking in self-esteem that she said, “I’m not very smart, but I can always become a stripper.”

Mug shots were shown of a young woman. In the first image, she could have been posing for a yearbook photo — bright-eyed, perhaps a bit rebellious, with a pixie haircut. Over the panel of eight shots, taken each time she was arrested for prostitution, her young face became distorted with beatings, the shock of chemical dependency, the glazed disassociation required of someone required to make hundreds of men feel whatever they wanted to feel. In one early image, hair nearly covered her face in the typical mask of a teenager trying to hide from the world. Within a short period of time, she looked like a mentally imbalanced middle-aged woman.

Text messages between a trafficker and his “girlfriend” outlined the commodification that has been allowed to grow in our society. “Just do as I say and stop worrying about these stupid dumb bitches… look out for us and get [other girls] I can get change from… find out about them… if they are unhappy… [you know] how you females talk… [so we can] get something out of them bitches.”

Depressing, yes? Discomforting. Enraging. Debilitating.

Many many individuals — women as well as men — have learned how to target and manipulate the vulnerable for money, for power, for the pleasure of controlling other human beings. They generally get away with it, in our suburbs, at our bus stations, in our shopping malls, because we don’t look for it — or turn the other way if we see something that doesn’t look right because we don’t know how to respond. And, traffickers increasingly find it easy to connect with men of all walks of life who feel entitled to use victims in seedy truck stops, residential basements, freeway motels, and $120-night hotel rooms.

As one presenter pointed out, buyers (aka johns) aren’t simply using others for sex. Many consider victims to be less than human. Most beatings, I learned, come from buyers. Murder is 18 times more likely for trafficking victims than others of similar age and race.

The emotions of this issue in our backyard are certainly overwhelming.

A survivor talked about how she was first raped at age 3 by her uncle, who — along with other family members — led her in a life of child pornography and trafficking until she was able to escape at age 20. It took her decades to recover from the trauma. She urged everyone not to turn away in horror and write someone off as being unable to survive and build a fulfilling life after rescue and escape. “Never underestimate the power of the human spirit to rise above and go on to have a fantastic life,” she said with passion.

At this conference I was humbled by meeting so many people in the state who care about the safety and well-being of youth that are typically discarded: many of them angry runaways, disassociating from abuse through chemical addictions, or regularly raped at such a young age that they trust no one and have given up on themselves.

I’ll write more as I can in upcoming blogs. I have 72 pages of notes from this one conference alone. Some of the stories I’d like to afford the time to write (supporters welcome):

  • what I heard from U.S. Attorney General Andy Lugar about his first exposure to trafficking victims in 1992, when there was nothing in statutes to convict traffickers of except slavery;
  • the conversation between more than a dozen law enforcement officers about what they are grappling with across the state;
  • how a grandmother tipped off police in a connect-the-dots case that broke open one of the most historic cases thus far;
  • what a network of men is doing to reduce demand;
  • what organizations like Breaking Free are doing to empower survivors;
  • what shelters and public health staff are doing to get smarter about treatment and rehabilitation of victims;
  • what can be done to educate youth in school to prevent gullible and rebellious behavior from traumatizing them with sexual assault, gang rape and trafficking rings;
  • my audio interview with aggressive Ramsey County prosecutor John Choi about why this problem belongs to all of us.

There are hundreds of thousands of vulnerable youth and adults counting on us. As one petite, glazed-over teenager told an investigator after she was rescued, “What took you so long?”