Trading Lives: A GL special report
It’s unlike anything you’ve read in a textbook or watched in a history documentary. A look at the modern-day slavery that’s stealing today’s youth.
This piece is a frank discussion of one of the darkest secrets affecting teen girls in America. We recommend reading it with a trusted adult who can discuss this topic with you, and help you understand the issues and dangers.
Tekla was 13 when her life changed. She sneaked out to a party that summer with a girlfriend she had known since she was 5. While sitting around the table playing dominoes, she was punched by that same “friend” and later assaulted by a couple of guys.
“I guess that’s pretty much when I changed,” Tekla says. “I began to no longer place any value on myself.”
That same group then talked about taking Tekla to a truck stop and selling her to interested parties. At the time, she had no idea what commercial sex trafficking meant (exploiting a person to perform sexual acts in exchange for money or other valued goods). Fortunately for her, a third guy took her home before things escalated.
Afraid, she remained silent about that night. “One of the guys called me every day for a week after and was like, ‘You know nothing happened, right?’ So I had that in my head,” she says of her reluctance to speak up. “And I had a really loving mother, so I knew she would react.”
Tekla might have been spared, but the manipulation and loss of self-worth launched her into a downward spiral. By the time she was 16, she moved in with her much older and abusive boyfriend. Before she was 20, she was groomed to become a sex worker.
While Tekla’s story is shocking, it’s not as unique as you would think. In fact, it’s estimated that every 30 seconds, somewhere in the world a child is trafficked. And it’s not just in Third World countries: Human trafficking is a growing concern here in the U.S.—and it could be happening right in your backyard.
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act defines trafficking as the exploitation of a person through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of labor or a commercial sex act.
Due to the underground nature of such acts, though, accurate statistics are few and far between. But according to the U.S. Department of Justice, 83 percent of human trafficking cases in the U.S. are in the form of sex trafficking, with as many as 100,000 to 300,000 American kids (considered anyone under the age of 18) at risk of being trafficked for commercial sex each year.
A recent University of Pennsylvania study cites that the average age a person enters the commercial sex trade is 12 to 14 years old. And the truth is, trafficking knows no racial, geographic or socioeconomic boundaries.
“There’s definitely a combination” of the types of traffickers (those who exploit the victims for a profit) that are out there today, says Hollie Strand, education specialist for the Child Advocacy Center of the Black Hills in Rapid City, South Dakota.
Some kids are being trafficked right from their homes by family members looking to make money to pay rent. Others fall victim to what many refer to as pimps—strangers who first befriend and then groom the girls before essentially selling them for sex.
In fact, because of the ability to sell a girl or boy more than once each night (upward of 20 times), human trafficking has become the second largest international criminal industry (tied with illegal arms). It reportedly generates $99 billion in profits globally per year.
Pimps will often prowl places like bus stops to prey on runaways or homeless youth, but they’ll also hang in the seemingly normal places everyday teens frequent, like the mall. Some experts even argue that pimps tend to prefer those who aren’t savvy or familiar with “the streets” because they’re easier to manipulate.
Regardless of where they find victims, traffickers sniff out vulnerability—people who might be hurting or in need of attention or someone they can depend on. In a pimp’s mind, dependence equals control.
That’s why there’s not a single type of person who is likely to fall victim. “It’s not like potential victims are walking around in short skirts and high heels,” says Tekla.
Since it’s more about manipulation of the mind than physical force, at least at first, scars aren’t easy to spot.
“There’s a myth that these victims are bound up and chained in basements, when most of them aren’t,” adds Hollie. “It’s psychological intimidation without something that actually physically confines them.”
In many cases, the whole thing starts as a befriending process.
“Say there are a group of three girls. The pimp’s going to find that one girl who’s the third wheel,” explains Michael Bartel, founder of F.R.E.E. International, a nonprofit working to fight against human trafficking. “He’s gonna jump in and say, ‘Oh man, you’re just gorgeous,’ and he’ll know within a minute or two if he’s going to have any luck based on the response.”
The one who says something like “No, I’m not” is his clear target, as opposed to a girl who exudes a “don’t mess with me” confidence.
A pimp then tends to lure a victim by buying her things like a new cell phone and a glamorous wardrobe and paying for her hair and nails. He might even act like a boyfriend, emotionally tying her to him.
He’ll invest in a victim’s appearance and try to make her look older than she really is—and then coerce her into doing what he says by asking how she’s going to repay him for all of that stuff.
“Research shows that when somebody does something nice for us, there’s a pull to do something back,” explains Hollie. “These victims either want to feel that they’re pleasing their boyfriends, or pleasing a really good friend who tried to help them when nobody cared.”
A Dark Secret
When thinking of the word “trafficking,” one often assumes it means movement, where victims are transported out of state or country borders. It’s quite the opposite. Many victims, especially in the beginning, can still maintain a normal life—going to school every day and coming home each night—while hiding their dark secret.
“The pimp might think, ‘I’ll have her start hooking up with some of my friends because she’s in love with me.’ And then little by little, he may ask her to run away for a day, and on from there,” explains Hollie. If a victim shows resistance, physical force, blackmail and threats to a family member may be used.
The super scary thing? Many girls are being lured into trafficking by simply checking Facebook or Instagram.
“The Internet has taken over,” says Tekla. Predators can easily interact with victims via social media and, even worse, use GPS-enabled apps to figure out exactly where to find them.
“I know a girl who got into trafficking after meeting a pimp online,” Tekla points out. “She lived in the country and didn’t have a lot going on, so it was exciting to see a message in her inbox when she got home from school.”
It all starts innocently enough. Pimps might lure in a victim by sending a friend request or direct message from fake account simply complimenting her profile picture or using various tidbits a victim has posted to start a conversation. It’s the same tactics they might use in public, but with the added ease of hiding behind a screen.
Once in the business, it’s extremely hard for a girl to get out. Shockingly, the Polaris Project—one of the largest anti-trafficking organizations in the U.S. that also operates the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline—estimates only 1 percent of victims get rescued, mainly because most victims feel like they’ve chosen the life or don’t believe they’re worth saving.
It took Tekla getting pregnant with her daughter to reach out for help and leave the business. Now working with F.R.E.E. International, she shares her story at schools and makes a point to educate students on the importance of prevention.
To start, be aware of what you’re putting online and avoid real-time location updates. And always use caution when interacting with a stranger. Tekla, for example, says she’ll never accept a friend request unless there’s a minimum of three mutual friends—and she must know those friends well.
And if you do start chatting with someone you don’t know, don’t reveal too much.
“Ask yourself, ‘Does this seem weird? Is he asking a lot of questions and agreeing with everything I say? Is he asking me to meet up at places alone that may seem unusual or not feel safe?’” says Hollie. “Those are red flags. Most of the time, somebody doesn’t just walk up to someone on the street and say, ‘Hey, I think you’re so wonderful, let me buy you a new cell phone and some new clothes.’” Most importantly, speak up. If you suspect someone you know might be in the business, go straight to an adult instead of intervening yourself.
Just take it from someone who knows. Tekla shares, “Looking back, had I spoken up about that night, my life could have been so much different.”
This article was originally featured in the June/July 2015 issue of Girls' Life.