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.
Joanna was born in a small town in Europe/ When she was 18 she met a man who said he wanted to marry her. They began seeing each other and Joanna became pregnant. Her boyfriend took Joanna to the United States where their child was born. Unable to read, Joanna was told to sign a piece of paper at the hospital and never saw her child again. She was taken to an apartment building where other young girls like her were being kept. Joanna was forced to provide sexual services, raped multiple times a day. She was finally able to escape one day when she became ill.
I was born in a small town in a small country in Europe. My parents are farmers with no education, and my siblings and I were also raised to work the land. We lived a very self sufficient and isolated life; we didn’t have television, and I seldom came into contact with people whom I hadn’t known my whole life. Because I didn’t go to school, I could not read or write.
The summer I turned 18, I met someone who claimed to be from a nearby big city. My brother introduced him to me; they had worked together briefly. Almost immediately, he told me that he wanted to marry me, and that he would come to ask my parents’ permission. In the meantime, we saw each other secretly.
He made a lot of promises—he told me that he had a job lined up overseas and that he would take good care of me and my family, and eventually take me to live with him there. He told me that he’d help me go to school so that I could learn to read and write, and get a job as well. He promised that I would get to know a different life—that we would travel and go to good restaurants. I believed him. He spoke so differently from everyone around me, and it felt like he already knew so much about the world. I fell in love with him. When he forced himself on me, I didn’t know anything—so I let him do what he wanted. I didn’t even know I was pregnant until I told one of my friends what had happened.
I kept my pregnancy a secret from my family and he and I continued to see each other. A couple of months into our relationship, he told me that he had to leave the country so that he could go and get my documents ready and the three of us (with baby) could live together abroad. He disappeared for months and at that point, rumors had started spreading. People warned my parents about him; my friend told my mom that I was pregnant with his baby. People were saying that he would take me abroad and sell me. They had heard stories of this happening to other young women. I didn’t believe that he was capable of doing something like that—I don’t blame myself for how naive I was; I had no way of knowing.
When he came back, I felt vindicated. My parents put up a fight and reported him to the police but I wasn’t listening. I went with him and we were easily allowed out of the country. Abroad, we stayed with some of his relatives. He told me it was temporary, until we could get our own place. He was seldom around, and I started catching glimpses of things that unsettled me.
When our baby was born, we went to the hospital and I signed where I was told to sign. I didn’t understand the language and I couldn’t read anything, so I had no idea what I was doing—except I still completely trusted him and what he was telling me. When we left the hospital without the baby, he said that they were just keeping it for observation and we could pick it up soon. I never saw my baby again, and that’s when the nightmare began.
We were kept in an apartment in a nondescript building. I was with other women who were just like me: young, uneducated, abandoned by their families and lured abroad by someone they loved—two other girls by the same guy that took me. We were drugged and raped several times a day. We were sometimes beaten. We didn’t have access to doctors or to the outside world. We didn’t have money or possessions. We were not allowed outside without supervision. I didn’t speak the language so I couldn’t call for help.
Several months into it, I got really sick. I started running a fever and throwing up and initially I thought that I was pregnant again. Part of me was happy in spite of the circumstances—mostly because it would probably mean a break from being prostituted. But I got my period and the illness continued. One of the older women there who helped the traffickers manage us—she “checked” me and told them I was finished, literally “she’s not good for anything.” I didn’t realize it then, but she probably saved my life.
They blindfolded me and drove me around for a couple of hours. I thought they were going to kill me, take my organs, and throw me in a trashcan. I was terrified. But I was pushed out of the car and I heard them drive off. Because of what the lady had said, they probably thought my organs would be contaminated—that’s what I think now, but there’s no way to confirm. I was later picked up by the cops. It was days before they found someone who could communicate with me. I was kept in a jail cell and I started to withdraw from the drugs. When the translator finally came, he told me that they would start to process my deportation. I was not treated for my illness or for my withdrawals.
When I got back home, I found out that my family and small community had disowned me. I was considered a dirty person, a street person. I had nowhere to turn. I walked to the nearest city and started begging for money on the street. While I was homeless, someone approached me. I told her what had happened to me and she told me it was her job to help people like me. She took me to a clinic where I got treatment. I met other women who had gone through the same exact thing as I had—almost to the letter. Most of them had escaped; a few others, like me, had been abandoned. There are so many of us and probably so many more who don’t make it out alive.
Narrative provided by Quartz, ‘I was a victim of sex trafficking’