There are an estimated 403,000 people living in modern slavery in the United States (GSI 2018). Sex trafficking exists throughout the country. Traffickers use violence, threats, lies, debt bondage and other forms of coercion to compel adults and children to engage in commercial sex acts against their will. The situations that sex trafficking victims face vary, many victims become romantically involved with someone who then forces them into prostitution. Others are lured with false promises of a job, and some are forced to sell sex by members of their own families. Victims of sex trafficking include both foreign nationals and US citizens, with women making up the majority of those trafficked for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation. 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.
Noel was coerced into becoming a prostitute in Seattle when she was 16. She spent 15 years in the life, trying to escape numerous times and being subjected to physical and sexual abuse on a daily basis. When she was finally able to escape, Noel managed to get a job, a degree and founded her own organisation to help other women and girls subjected to forced sexual exploitation in the city.
So first of all, domestic sex trafficking is a huge issue here in the United States. It is happening every day. It doesn’t stop. I meet with girls every day who have been through this or are going through this.
My experience was, I was young, and this is the common experience, is that, you know, the girls are very vulnerable women, they get caught up in this kind of life. And I was very young, I came from some violent kind of background. I got pregnant at a young age, you know, in this, and this goes back to some of the trauma that I dealt with as a kid as well. I got pregnant at a young age, 15, anf when I got pregnant, my family told met that I had to leave. So, I left home and was pregnant, and I ended up just staying with friends until I was able to have the baby. And I had my son and he went with his father’s family because, you know, I didn’t have any stable place to take him or you know, or to be a mother. So I was pretty much just left out in the world, you know, at a very young age, just lost my son, you know, didn’t have family, was just really scared our here and didn’t know what I was going to do.
And I want to say that the pimps and predators look for, I was a perfect victim for a predator, an exploiter, whatever you want to call it. So, I met him and I thought he was really great, he had a car and had jewellery and he had nice clothes and he smelled good. He looked good and he knew all the right things to say and, you know, he figured out what I was lacking which was a father, love, you know, family, money, a place to stay. All of those things. And you know, he capitalized off my vulnerability.
Eventually I was taken to Hollywood and this is around the Pretty Woman time, I guess. Alright, yeah, I was taken to Hollywood with him and he had you know got me all excited about going on this trip, and we’re going to Hollywood. And you know, I was young and I was like, I’m gonna get discovered and you know, media and movies made it kind of seem that way back then. And actually, I was made to work out on the streets once we got there and you know, I was in fear for my life. I feared for everything, you know, he threatened my son, threatened to you know everything. And I believed his threats because he was already pretty violent with me.
Now, why didn’t I walk away from that violence in the beginning? Well, because I came from that and that is what I was used to and that to me meant that he loved me. And it meant that he loved me enough to care that much, to get that upset. I mean, you know, it’s not much different than domestic violence in that way. So, anyway, I ended up being in that life for a very long time, unable to escape from him. I tried a number of times. One time he found me, handcuffed me, locked me in a trunk, drove me to another state, you know, just constantly threatened my child, threatened that he knew where he lived, that he would kill him. It was you know, beat me to the point where I had to have cat scans on my brain to see if I had blood clots. I mean just terror, total terror. And back then, there was nowhere to go. So that’s pretty much what happened.
So, I met him not too long after I had my son, maybe six months, seven months. You know, it takes months of grooming, there’s a grooming process that they go through with the girls. And then you wanted to know how I got out? Okay, so anyway I ended up getting away from him after a number of years, and you know I really think I was, I was also getting too old for him. I was getting in to my mid-0s and he couldn’t control me as easily because I was starting to become more, I was just getting older.
So, I go away from him. Now, leaving him and having no resources, nobody to go to for help at all. For people who are domestically trafficked and there’s nothing, there’s no support as far as college housing, anything at that time, you know. I had to, you know, I ended up staying in that life for 15 years because I was so beat up and my self-esteem was so, it was gone. I didn’t have one, I had no love for myself at all. You know, I didn’t think anybody would every hire me for a job, I didn’t know how to get a job. I didn’t know how to do all the things that I should have been taught and I didn’t have anybody to teach me and I was too ashamed to ask anybody to teach me. So, I didn’t, I just thought that that was the life that was meant for me.
[What stopped you from just giving up?]
My son, I had a son, you know, so my biggest, well that’s probably it. Because I don’t think I’d be alive if I didn’t have… my biggest fear was that I was gonna get murdered and thrown in a ditch, which did come close to happening a few times, and just be, back then it’s just another dead prostitute, and that would be the only thing my son knew about me. And that really scared me. I had hope that someday I would be able to be a different role model for him.
[How did you get from where you were to now?]
It been crazy. You know, well getting out of that life is the most terrifying and scary experience ever because, you know, you live in a different world really from the rest of society. So, it was like, I would see these regular people or whatever, we thought they were normal, but now that I’m in this world too, I realised that they’re not normal either. You know, I never thought that I could be one of those people, I never thought that I would like jogging or something and before work, or doing things like that, you know. We lived in a totally different world so trying to adapt and learn how to be in this world is really hard work, really hard work.
So, the first thing I did when I decided to get out, and this was a very hard decision, but I sold everything that I had and moved into this tiny little apartment and I got a job at a restaurant. I’d never had a job, my first job at a restaurant which actually, for me it was a pretty good transition because I was getting cash tips every night, you know. So, it was a good kind of transition to the new life. And I started going to school and I ended up getting a degree and I became a chemical dependency counsellor. I went in to chemical dependency and started working with youth down in the detention centre here in Seattle. And I was doing these, like our assessments with these young girls, you know, 14,15,16-year-olds, and I started listening to them and realizing they were using language that I was very familiar with. They were talking about things that probably somebody else would not have picked up on. They were there for like theft charges or other things, but I realized that these girls were all being exploited. They were being prostituted.
And I couldn’t believe the number of girls that I was meeting with and the story was the same. So, I started looking around and saying who does this job, whose job is this? You know, to help these girls. Because this is, we gotta help, these girls are being pimped. There was no job to help them, there was just no job existed. So anyway, that was very frustrating, and I just became, you know, I was also doing the city of Seattle’s diversion class for women 18 and over, who were arrested for prostitution who would come into this diversion program. And I was talking to these women and it was the same story with them. It was like, where do we go for support? We’ve never been somewhere like this, we’ve never been around other survivors who you can talk about this stuff to. They were so relieved when they came and realized that I had also been there, and that I wasn’t going to just lecture them and tell them about stuff I read in books, right.
We needed more of that in Seattle because we had none of it. So, I was waiting for somebody to do it, but nobody did it. So, then we did it. We started up and we started with support groups in the community, you know, no funding, no anything. We just started doing it. It was running support groups in Seattle for specifically these women and girls and doing art workshops. We believe that art is a great way to just kind of escape and maybe feel like a kid and just forget all that stuff for a little while. And so, we started with that and we’re just hoping to grow and grow so we can help more women. We definitely have way over the amount of women than we have employees, but now, yeah we do drop in twice a week. So, dinner twice a week. We have Saturday art workshops, we have support groups three times a week. You know, we work one-on-one with women, peer mentorship. And my goal is to train women who are getting out of the life to, you know, become leaders and be able to do this work as well. And it’s happening.
We have, one of the things that’s really important to us is having stipends for survivors. We always want survivors at every drop-in we do. Anybody from OPS who’s going to be a leader in any situation is gonna be a survivor. There’re always survivors, and yes, they’re all women who came through OPS. One of the women who came through OPS came to one of our very first support groups and she’s now on our board, she does public speaking, she’s amazing, and she’s getting her bachelor’s degree, applying to get into a PhD program. I mean, amazing things are happening.
When I was working on the streets, the women were arrested and the men were let go with just like ‘hey buddy get out of here’, you know ‘don’t come back today’, you know? That kind of thing, right? Which I always would stand there in my handcuffs wondering why I was the criminal, you know? So that change is huge, I mean huge huge huge. That men are actually being arrested for committing this crime. That’s insanely huge. I mean we celebrate this day, because it really starts with the buyers. I mean the buyers have problems too, obviously, otherwise they wouldn’t be out there doing that. So, we need to arrest them and then give them services and that is something that we do, we do a 10-week program that the men have to go to after they’re arrested. That’s where they get counselling and also, they get to understand why this happens, why they’re doing it. So that’s really important.
And then I’ll say this on the buyer, it’s called Buyer Beware, so on the stings, so when they go out and they arrest, they don’t take the women to jail but when they do a sting, they’ll have me there and then maybe a couple of other advocates from Seattle there, and bring the women in and we have good and we have stuff to drink and everything. And they come, it’s all women, and we just sit down and talk to them, find out if they need resources, find out if there’s anything we can do to help them out, you know. Make sure they know that they’re loved, and they’re cared about and they’re just as important as everybody else.
And they call and you know, if we get three people out of that whole sting operation that want to make a change and want these resources, that is success.
[What is something that you want to tell Americans about sex trafficking in the US?]
Well I would like to say that you know, a lot of people I think just feel like they go day to day and all they can do is just get through work and get through their response, you know, whatever they need to do for themselves, and they kind of sometimes want to ignore what is happening and I just want people to really really know that this has been happening for a really long time here. And women and girls are being terrorized in this country right now by exploiters and predators and young boys, and I think it’s time that we really pay attention to what is happening to our people here, right now.
With this issue I think everybody in every country is really important, but I think that the women from the United States are really really really important too, and I would like to see more funding going into domestic trafficking and more awareness around domestic trafficking. Because it can be your daughter, it can be your niece, it can be anybody, and it’s an epidemic. It completely is. I mean, I work with the young people, you know, they listen to the music and it’s all about money, you know what I mean? We have a major problem.
Wherever you live, there’s organizations now in every state, you can find an organization specifically with this population. There’re different agencies but you want to find one that works specifically with this population. Just ask them what you can do, if you can volunteer, I don’t know, bring meals sometimes. I mean, there’s just little tiny things that you can do to help so much. You know, we love it when we get a donation of like gift bags, hygiene bags that we can go out and hand out, you know. I mean, that means the world so just somebody who’s out there, you know, they get a toothbrush, toothpaste, all of those things.
Start thinking about how boys are learning about women and sex and they’re learning from porn and that’s not real, that’s not how women are, right? I mean, we need to start educating our boys about sex and our girls about you know, all of this trafficking and all of this materialistic society that we’re living in now, and how life is not worth it, because you pay dearly with your soul, you know. It might not seem like it at the time because you’re here in the middle of it, but when you get, one day, it’s gonna catch up to you, and then you’re gonna have to deal with PTSD, depression, anxiety, all of the things.
If you’re alive, you’re alive. So, you know, we need to be educating at a younger age, we need to be talking to boys about sex at a younger age. We need to be talking about what it means to be a man at a younger age and stop that conditioning of saying boys don’t cry, you got to be strong, you got to do this, you’ve got to do that. In middle school, how many girls who sleep with you know. No. You know, we’ve got that pressure is on the boys too, when they’re you know. And I’m not excusing the behaviour of going out and thinking you have the right to buy another human being. I’m not excusing that. But we’ve got to deal with the issue, you know. For any movement to really happen and any change.
Narrative provided by Public Radio International