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.
Terry was sexually abused at the age of 15 by her boss, an event that she pinpoints as the seed from which her problems began. That same year she suffered a number of other traumas that led to the beginning of her cocaine use. 10 years later, married with children, Terry’s drug use became out of control and she lost custody of her children and ended up on the streets. Within two months of this, she found herself trafficked in to a life of prostitution. Here Terry, now executive director of the survivor led organization Breaking Free tells of the environment in which many women subjected to forced prostitution grow up in, describes who it is that sets the demand for prostitutes, and tells of the warning signs among children vulnerable to trafficking.
I feel pretty sad, I feel very sad about the experiences that so many women have had to endure. As very young women I feel very sad that theres a thread in this, in these abusive stories that we heard from so many women about, and that thread was not having a father figure in the home. And that was erm, my case as well. My father left my mother, I didn’t get into the life until I was much older, but I was sexually abused at 15, and that’s what planted the seed. But I think it’s really sad that men don’t stick with their families. I think it’s really sad that a lot of our children don’t get the love that they need, and they feel the need to look elsewhere. You know we hear that term, ‘daddy issues’. And it’s really important, I didn’t believe this for years, I thought I’m fine, my father when he left our family it didn’t really affect me. It might have affected my younger siblings and my mother but, it really did affect me and it’s more than 50% of our population comes from divorced household and that’s very very sad.
What else was very sad was that being a female, being a mother, being a caretaker, I wish I was there. I wish I could have intervened for these girls at some point so that they didn’t have to go through the abuse that they went through. I wish somebody would have intervened for myself. But I’m also, it’s very sad listening to the Johns and the John, and the pimp as well. Knowing that those same dynamics of evil were present in their lives, just as they were with the young girls.
The fact that in this culture today that most of the music that our young kids listen to glamorizes pimp-ology, that there are actually books and websites that you can go on to learn how to become a pimp. That there are even video games called Grand Theft Auto where in that game if a player has sex with a prostituted woman in the video game they get extra energy and if they kill her they even get more. That to me is sick. This is what our kids are exposed to at an early age. The fact that pornography is online now and so easy to access and free.
The other thing is if the man is out of the home if the father figure is out of the home more and more men and women are learning about sex on the streets. A lot of our young men like the pimp we talked to, when his father left or had many other women as he said, then there, there is all that confusion and that lends to us thinking that it's okay for a man to leave the family. It's okay, it's natural, it's normal. Well it shouldn't be and looking for love in all the wrong places boys and girls both need love growing up, we know that. So with the boys having their father figure removed from the family, they're gonna tend to look for other boys in the neighborhood gangs maybe depending on where you grow up.
So to join a gang, to feel accepted, to feel part of something is a natural order for a lot of these guys they're on the streets. So I can see how these pimps were brought in to the life as well. There as a period in my life where I hated pimps. You couldn’t convince me that they were also bread in to this life, you could not convince me. I thought that they were natural born sociopaths, that’s not the case for most of them. I’m sure there are.
What made me change my mind was one of my staff. She said to me Terry how dare you call yourself a Christian and how dare you not take a look at what these perpetrators have been through. Because she grew up in, she grew up where she saw a lot of pimps be groomed as well, and when she broke it down for me, I just sobbed and sobbed and thought yeah, yeah. They were groomed just as much as the women were groomed. Now, and one of the things he was talking about or that we heard a lot about was the drugs and the alcohol. Obviously, drugs and alcohol serve as a way to get out of the feelings that your feeling. A way to escape, a way to disassociate from hurt in your life. But what it does is it does ease the pain for a while. But you can’t ever catch that dragon. So, someone like me that used for 30 years, it takes a big toll on your body. But that’s also a strong hold in itself, addiction. But if you don’t feel what you’re supposed to feel, you’re not going to heal. So, a lot of times, and then there’s confusion with the drugs and the alcohol. We tend to be in situation where we might not normally be in had we been sober and we could make more safe decisions. So I can certainly see how the pimp is also brought up in the lifestyle and they’re groomed. Whereas I, don’t understand all the aspects, I can certainly have an open mind and look at the pimps life and what they went through.
Now my drug use started when right after I was abused by my boss at 15 years old. I had a number of traumas that happened at the same time as a 15 year old young girl in the 70s. during that time cocaine was glamorized, Eric Calpton had that song about cocaine.
What brought me in was, the nervous breakdown, the divorce, not knowing how to get over it. Started going to treatment centres one after another, many women you’ve heard, many of our women have gone to 10/12. I went to 12. In each on of those treatment centres I learned a little something something, little more than the last one. However, I never ever got to the point where they wanted to find out where that root came from. Why did I start using drugs? What was the even that made me start using drugs? It was that rape you know, that I didn’t, it was my boss who did it. I was 15, he was 28. I didn’t say anything at the time because I was afraid I just, you know froze and didn’t say anything. So I didn’t consider it rape until just a couple of years ago. I didn’t realize what it was, I never gave him permission but I never said no so I blamed myself.
The survival piece. So I’m glad I went through the cancer because the girls, my clients that come here and say, I have cancer now I just want to die on the vine, no no no no no. I went through it, you can go through it and this is just one more thing this is life, it’s not fair, no one said it was fair. But we can use what we’ve gone through to help others, and being a survivor led organization, my staff, 90% of them are survivors and the one that’s not is at risk, high risk because of familial dynamic. But she’s not going to be in the life. But then and then too we know that 69% of the women that are in the life are women of colour, so most of my staff is African American, there are two Caucasian and there are six African Americans.
[What makes African American women more vulnerable?]
One has to do with the demographics. A large part of that has to do with, most of the women that are African American that come in to our program are at 100% poverty, have grown up in a disenfranchised environment, come from generational prostitution. So could have been their mothers, their aunties, so that it’s normal, like our pimp talked about, it’s normal in the community so you’re more likely to get sucked in. They had sisters or someone else, 80% of our women were sexually abused before the age of ten. And erm a lot of men like to use women of colour because they perceive them as ‘exotic’ and ‘erotic’ and something you know taboo, but I wanna be part of that it’s gonna be exciting. But I’m not bringing her back to my parents, she’s just going to be used as an object. And erm it’s very very sad. But across the board I think in most communities you’ll find a greater proportion of women that are women of colour, and in the state of Minnesota only 6% of our women are African American, amount of the state population is African American. And to have 69%?
Now one of the things that I do want to point out that I think is […] one of the things I do want to point out it that Johns, the perps, purchasers of sex, falls almost identifcal with the 2010 census. So 85% of our population is white, 85% of the men that purchase sex are white. 6% are African Americans, 6% of our Johns that purchase are African American. 3% are Asian, 3% of the Johns. So it’s interesting how the Johns, the men it doesn’t matter, but the women it does.
But you know, we’re a white culture so the average John looks life this – 47 year old man who’s married, has a bachelor degree or higher, makes $75,000 a year or more. Is married, has children, at least one of them is a girl and does not have a criminal record, and does not live in a 551-0 or 4-0 area code which would indicate that it was inner-city. They live in the suburbs.
What I would say is that nobody is exempt from sex trafficking. That you need to love your children. Children are not a commodity. Children need, you have to engage in your children’s upbringing. Erm love your children. Love yourself. You can’t love someone else if you can’t love yourself. Be careful, watch out for your kids, watch out what they’re doing. Know who they’re on that line with, know who they’re talking with on Facebook or their social media. Look at their friends, know their friends. Find out if there’s a change, if there’s a change in friends of if they’re starting to go out with older men, that’s the other commonality we heard with all the women today, they were all older men. There’s no reason whatsoever that a teenager should be going out with somebody in their 20s. none. There’s something wrong with that man, in more ways than one. So make sure that that doesn’t happen. If there’s a sudden change of friends, if your daughter, or your son even because boys are trafficked as well, don’t come home for thanksgiving or start hanging out with other friends or come home with Coach purses of Tory Burch or something you know that they can’t afford, you know. That’s a big red flag. If they’re dressing more provocatively, if they’re more secret on the phone, if they’re going to more parties or you know, things like that that are out of the norm for them. Keep an eye on that.
Now that could be indicative of a lot of different things, it could be some drug use, it could be you know other sexual activity that’s not prostitution related, who know. But it’s a good time to have a conversation regardless.
Narrative courtesy of Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration