Sex trafficking exists throughout the United States and across the world. Traffickers use violence, threats, debt bondage and other forms of coercion to compel adults and children to engage in commercial sex acts against their will. According the US Federal Law, any person under the age of 18 years old persuaded into commercial sex is a victim of sex trafficking – no matter if the trafficker uses force, fraud and coercion or not. In many cases of sex trafficking, victims become romantically involved with someone who then forces or manipulates them into prostitution. Young people who run away from home are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation by traffickers: the Department of Justice estimates that 293,000 youth are at risk. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) estimates that “1 in 5 of the 11,800 runways reported to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in 2015 were likely sex trafficking victims.” In 2015, the most reported venues/industries for sex trafficking included commercial-front brothels, hotel/motel-based trafficking, online advertisements with unknown locations, residential brothels, and street-based sex trafficking.
Beth was just 16 when she met a man who said he wanted to be her boyfriend. He invited her to a party in a different state, however on the way there Beth was beaten and drugged. On awaking Beth was threatened with a gun, had her identifying documents taken from her and forced to perform commercial sex work.
I was trafficked at sixteen. When I turned eighteen, it was NOT a magic number. No one mailed me a bunch of information about choices I had now that I was of age. If you asked me if I liked it at sixteen, I would have said yes, in fear of my life being snubbed out by my pimp or his counterparts.
I didn’t enter that world willingly. I was told I was going to a party by a man who said I was beautiful and wanted to be my boyfriend. When I did arrive to a new state, I did not know a soul. I was beaten all the way there. When we were riding, he gave me a drink and I woke up in the dark at a truck stop. I will never forget his words to me. He said, “Baby, do you know what I am?”
I said, “No.”
He said, “I’m a pimp, and we don’t have enough gas to get to the party. I have this guy in the truck right here and you need to ‘trick him’. Just get in his truck and make him happy.”
I laughed at him and said, “No way, you are tripping. I don’t do that.”
He pulled out a gun and said, “I didn’t ask you, bitch. Get your ass in that truck. I don’t have time for this shit.” He jumped out pulled me out of the car and told me if I screwed this up, he was going to kill me.
I got in the truck. That is the night my life changed forever. I could go on and speak of the horrors of that night, but I won’t. I share this with you because I need you to understand how this happens and what it feels like to be stripped of anything that resembles your ‘other life’.
I learned to comply quickly. I tried to have the police help me, and they did, or so I thought until they had me on a bus to go back to my home state. You see, I got off the bus to use the bathroom and the pimp was there. He dragged me back to his car and beat me so bad I almost died. Now, in my worldview, the police are part of this whole ‘new life’. I surrendered and did as I was told.
Part of getting me ready to deal with people out there, my pimp groomed me to believe if I ever told anyone including the police that I was a minor, they would lock me up and never let me go. They would keep me until I turned eighteen. I didn’t want to go back to the abuse I left. I didn’t want to get locked up forever. My pimp told me to say I was twenty-one and he would come and get me. He said that is why he had to take anything that identified me as me. If I had my belongings they would know I was a minor and I would be trapped. He instilled fear in me to acknowledge my identity to anyone. I grew up so sheltered. I knew nothing about jail, welfare or how our world worked. I did remember how the police and social services came to my school and took one of my friends and I never saw her again. At that time, I thought it was just the police, so I believed him. I lived in constant fear that someone would find out my real age. I rehearsed my new name, birthdate, and address over and over again.
I need you to understand that victims don’t tell you the truth about their age. This is exactly how we miss these young people. Unfortunately, after they turn eighteen in their real identity, our society feels like they are no longer eligible for help – they no longer have been hurt. All of a sudden, people assume they have made a career choice and their situation changes from child trafficking victim to ‘prostitute’. We all know prostitutes choose to do this, right? I cannot wrap my head around this thinking.
I assure you, I didn’t get a birthday party when I turned eighteen. In fact, I got a broken finger because I felt bad that my pimp didn’t recognize my special day. I was an adult now. I got no card, no present, no cake, no gift, no day off. It was a regular day with a higher quota than usual because he had an attitude due to me thinking I would be treated different on this day. He beat me and broke my finger, and sent me to ‘work’ broken finger and all.
There was no mail from the ‘options academy’ listing all of the choices I had now that I was of age. The police didn’t pull me over and say, “Hey Julie, you know you have options now. You don’t have to do this anymore; no one can lock you up for not being the right age anymore.”
It is interesting to me how people think eighteen is this magic number that just changes your whole life. Maybe in the outside world it does, but in the culture of prostitution/sex trafficking, eighteen is just another number. When I turned eighteen, I was already twenty-three anyway according to the police.
So as we count victims and as we decide who is entitled to receive help, please don’t forget what I shared with you. Many of those eighteen, nineteen, twenty and twenty-one year old ‘prostitutes’ are really fourteen, fifteen and sixteen. They have just been groomed and beaten into compliance to say they are eighteen. I know this is still happening today. Rachel Lloyd of GEMS goes into correctional facilities to do groups. She stated how surprised she was that there were so many juveniles in the adult jail.
Eighteen is NOT a magic number.
Originally published on Ruth Jacobs, Soul Destruction