When Sex Trafficking Goes Unnoticed in America

How do you identify sex trafficking victims when such cases go largely undetected or unreported?

Detective Bill Woolf with the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force has interviewed over 300 victims of sex trafficking throughout his career. In many cases, these victims believe that they are in fact the offenders. “They fear law enforcement…because they’re technically committing a crime and that is prostitution.”

The Department of Homeland Security defines human trafficking as a “modern-day form of slavery involving the illegal trade of people for exploitation or personal gain.” As of 2012, the International Labor Organization estimates that there are 20.9 million victims worldwide. Sexual exploitation is the most commonly identified form ahead of child labor according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The National Human Trafficking Research Center released numbers identifying 4,000 reported cases of sex trafficking in the United States. Human trafficking, as a global industry, rakes in $150 billion.

A women, who was met through the Thomson Reuters Foundation and wishes to remain anonymous, shares her story. At the age of only 17 she was pulled by a pimp. Her childhood was very ordinary. She had a good upbringing with a close knit family and a comfortable home. However, everything changed when she found out her mom would be sentenced to seven years in prison for embezzling money from her company. She started to act out causing her relationship with her father to fall apart. One day she met a guy on Facebook who would send her caring messages saying everything that she wanted to hear. After she graduated high school, the two decided to meet. She bought a bus ticket to see him, only planning on staying with him for a week. When she arrived, to her surprise, the man was seven years older than her and told her she immediately needed to make money if she intended to stay with him.  For four days she worked for him by going to an area for commercial sex. Soon she was approached by another pimp promising to fill a void – family. She stayed with him for a few months before returning home to reunite with her mother who had been released from prison, after two years instead of seven. Another pimp from Texas tried to court her on Facebook shortly after.

Unbeknownst to her at the time, the man was luring her into a human trafficking ring. Her and up to seven others were taken over state lines to strip and engage in commercial sex. Once she reached the East Coast she realized that she had enough. But, unfortunately, leaving was out of the question. If anyone tried to run away, the girls and the men were tasked with stopping them. She had no phone and no access to social media. “Literally my rights were ripped from me.” When the FBI broke up the ring, she, too, felt as if she were an offender. “I thought i was getting arrested. I didn’t look at them like they were there to save me. I looked at them like they were going to arrest me,” she said. She had been arrested twice for prostitution and, on one occasion, bailed out by her pimp.

When Sex Trafficking Goes Unnoticed in America

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