Lee* met her trafficker when she was just 18 years old. He was 28. She told him she wanted to get into the escorting business. In her mind, it was a means to an end, with that end being staying away from the childhood home where her abusive mother and stepfather lived.
“My stepfather is an alcoholic. My mother met him when I was 3. He was extremely violent, broke her ribs, dragged her down the stairs. Then my mother became an alcoholic and started abusing me. I went into foster care a few times.”
Her mother told Lee how she herself was a prostitute from age 17 until she had her daughter at 33. She would tell Lee, “If you’re going to be laying on your back, better get up for something. Don’t lay on your back for free.”
“I was 16 at the time,” Lee remembers.
Soon, Lee’s trafficker introduced her to a woman who would “groom” her to get her ready for “the lifestyle.” A naïve Lee was surprised to learn she would have to have sex with her clients; she assumed they were just looking for a girl to take out on the town. But her trafficker echoed her mother's previous words.
“My trafficker, he said, ‘You’re already having sex for free, right? And did you get anything out of that? It only makes sense to have sex for money,’” Lee recalls.
After Lee started escorting, her trafficker would hold onto the money she earned—anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000 a week—telling her she was young and would just waste it. He would give her whatever she needed, usually for food or to get her nails done. “You want to keep your product sellable,” she realizes now.
“It seemed like I had some level of control, but it was just his way of keeping me looking proper. He kept everything.”
Human trafficking is the act of recruiting, transporting, transferring or keeping and receiving an individual against his or her will. While it may sound like individuals such as Lee are entering the world of prostitution by choice, coercion and manipulation from a trafficker, or a pimp, is typically the impetus for their participation. Traffickers use violence, deception or exert financial control over victims, trapping them in a lifestyle they have no desire of staying in. Some go so far as to kidnap their victims, grooming them early childhood to become sex workers.
Trafficking is often referred to as modern-day slavery.
Globally, there are an estimated 20.9 million victims of forced labor, and out of those, 4.5 million individuals are trapped in forced sexual exploitation, according to the International Labour Organization.
In 2016, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center reported more than 3,600 cases of human trafficking in the U.S., with the highest number of those victims—2,600—caught up in sex trafficking.
When HT Overlaps with Domestic Violence
Human traffickers are often perpetrators that the victims know—a spouse, boyfriend or family member, explains Edith Okupa with Restoration Project International, a nonprofit focused on helping to rescue victims of sex trafficking.
“As we know in domestic violence, where victims are abused, [a survivor] may be manipulated, forced, deceived or coerced by her abuser to indulge in sex for money. She is threatened with harm to her, her children or her loved ones if she fails to do it. She believes the proceeds would be used for the benefit of the family. And so she gladly indulges in sex for payment to help her family or boyfriend, who professes to love her dearly.
“The fact that the sex acts are done in exchange for money, that the victim is forced to consistently indulge in it, even against her will, and is not allowed to quit when she wants to and that her pimping husband/boyfriend/lover collects the proceeds from her, makes it trafficking.”
Trying to Get Out
Lee’s relationship with her trafficker eventually became romantic. She was in love, she said, and desperate for her trafficker to quit the business with her and live a life free from prostitution. It had been three-and-a-half years of being bought and sold, and she wanted out. He had also been verbally, emotionally and physically abusive toward her, and, at one point, choked her, “to show me he was in control.” She had faced death three different times while working when buyers pulled guns on her.
“He told me he wouldn’t stay with me unless I recruited other girls for him,” she says. “I could just manage them.” She tried it, but she says she would get jealous of the attention he bestowed on the other girls. So she left him, but continued to prostitute to support herself for another year-and-a-half. Eventually, she found herself homeless again. She asked her mom if she could come home, but her mom wanted $500. Lee didn’t have it.
She went back to her trafficker.
Then, she found out another girl she knew was killed by a buyer. Lee recalls, “The way she was depicted in the media—she was ‘just a prostitute.’ They didn’t even use her real name. They called her by her prostitute name.”
Lee was on her way to a job when she heard the news. She heard a voice say, "You’re going to die if you keep going."
“That voice just kept ringing in my head. I decided I was going to completely stop. January of 2011 was my last date, and then I found out I was pregnant.”
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The Final Straw
Lee’s daughter—her father is Lee’s former trafficker—is now 5, and while Lee says he’s present in his daughter’s life, he’s no longer present in hers.
Despite everything she endured, Lee said the final straw came when she was four and a half months pregnant. Her trafficker forced her to sleep on the floor while he slept on a couch above her. “I can’t forget how that made me feel. It reminded me that I’ll always be beneath him.”
At 30 weeks pregnant, she delivered her daughter after being diagnosed with severe preeclampsia. The baby was just 1 pound, 14 ounces. Doctors say high stress levels caused the preterm birth and low birth weight.
Today, Lee is free from prostitution and works with the Stars Program in San Diego, which helps victims of sex trafficking and exploitation. Through counseling and therapy she came to accept she was a victim of sex trafficking and now wants to become an advocate and mentor for other survivors. She has dreams of creating a curriculum for parents, focusing on how trafficking will impact their children's lives—it's something she wishes her mother had known.
“I want people to focus on the underlying issues. Why would someone let their body be subjected to this?”
How Do You Know You Are a Victim of Sex Trafficking?
Okupa says sex trafficking victims share similar circumstances. They are typically:
- Recruited on the street, homeless shelter, parks or introduced by friends.
- Forced against their will to have sex.
- Transported to different places to have sex with multiple men in brothels, massage parlors, strip clubs, hotels, private homes or apartments, and places arranged by trafficker.
They are also:
- Overtly submissive and afraid
- Isolated from the rest of the world
- Unpaid or paid little for job done
- Consistently experiencing physical abuse
- Feeling threatened
- Constantly being watched
- Enduring an employer or abuser who exhibits jealousy and violent behavior.
When a survivor is ready to get out, Okupa says they should let an outsider, someone you feel safe with, she says, know about their situation. This could be a friend or loved one, or a trained advocate at a hotline, like the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline—888-373-7888. You can also call local law enforcement or 911 if you’re in immediate danger.
Try to get ahold of your important documents before you leave (your ID or passport), if it’s safe to do so, says Okupa.
Even if you seek refuge in a shelter or with a friend, make sure to report abuse and trafficking to authorities, says Okupa. You can do so anonymously, and it may save others’ lives.
Want to Do Something?
January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. Learn ways to get involved to help end human trafficking at the Polaris Project.
*Name changed to protect privacy.
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