Monday, February 25, 2013

Identifying Sex Trafficking

This weekend, my husband and I attended a Sex Trafficking Summit in our area called The Response. They had seminars aimed at policy-makers, entrepreneurs, artists, businesspeople, law enforcement, musicians, designers, film-makers, governmental positions, health professionals, attorneys and legal staff, name it.

We learned from therapists and health professionals. We heard crazy statistics and things that are and aren't helping. But perhaps the most helpful thing we learned at the conference this weekend was how to tell when someone is being trafficked.

That was knowledge we were pining for. If you met a girl somewhere who was being trafficked, how would you know?

We've been to all sorts of gatherings, conferences, info meetings, documentary screenings, and fundraisers. We've heard the stories--both good and bad: about the trauma, the horror, and the healing. But I didn't know how this simple thing. Well, now I know.

  1. The most obvious sign is the language. Sex trafficking and prostitution is a subculture with its own slang, and only those being trafficked or those fighting it tend to use these words. Customers are called johns; the life of a sex industry worker is the life. Girls walk the track for customers; if they are underage, it's called the runaway or kiddie track. Girls call their pimp daddy or uncle, and a pimp's head girl (who often helps him recruit other girls) is called the bottom. Sweating is when a pimp takes another pimp's girl and makes her his own; it is then said that the girl is choosing up. One of the most important words is a trick: the word for the commercial exchange between the girl and the buyer. When a girl says she turned a trick, it means that she serviced a customer.
  2. In terms of body language, lack of eye contact is another big sign. Part of the reason for it is the deadness of being used over and over and being constantly seen as a thing and not a person. But another reason the girls don't make eye contact is that making eye contact with a pimp means he owns you now, regardless of who owned you before.
  3. Is there an older boyfriend hanging around? That should be easy to spot: an older man hanging around, not wanting to leave her, answering for her when she is asked a question, or whom she seems afraid of and/or afraid to be apart from.
  4. Tattoos can also be a sign. Obviously, being tattooed doesn't mean you are being trafficked; but those being trafficked frequently have tattoos or branding, often of their pimp's name or something symbolic of him (to show she belongs to him). Ask her what the tattoo means. The answer should tell you.
  5. Does she have a history of running away? This can be harder or easier to ascertain depending on what your interaction with her is. Law enforcement or ER doctors will have more excuse to be asking questions like this. But if this fits into the conversation, ask. Around 95% of runaways get entangled with pimps and are trafficked. Usually these girls (and boys) are running away from a terrible home life and they are easy prey to someone who is an expert at pretending they care and love them.
  6. Dress is another giveaway. If there is a sudden change in dress or behavior to an extremely provocative, revealing, and sexualized selection, this is frequently a sign of being trafficked.

There are two questions that naturally come out of this: "Why is it important for me to know this?" and "What do I do when I think a girl is being trafficked?"

You're not personally connected to the industry, you say. Much as you may want to help, there doesn't seem much you can do besides give money and volunteer.

But that is simply not true. While statistics show that many lower class girls are preyed upon (because of absent parents), parent absenteeism isn't reserved for poorer demographics. All of America is infected with workaholism, and in fact the second largest socioeconomic class preyed upon is girls who are from well-off homes. Their parents work a lot or perhaps they have dysfunctional relationships. And there have been many stories of average, middle-class girls from fully-functional and loving homes who are trafficked, too.

Two rescued girls at the conference had the same story. They were middle-class girls in junior high who walked themselves to school. On her walk, there's a clean, friendly young man who hangs out and is cheerful. He says hi and asks how she's doing. Eventually they become familiar enough that he walks with her to school. They become closer friends over the ensuing months.

She starts to have a crush on him; he always tells her how beautiful she is and how she's going to go far in life. One day, she's walking to school and it starts to rain. Her friend drives up in his car and asks if she'd like a ride to school. She says yes, thanks! And gets in, but he doesn't take her to school.

There are girls who are trafficked and who still live at home. There is increasing sex trafficking within schools. They may have an older boyfriend who they meet outside of school. As far as they know, he is just someone who loves them and cares for them. Once a pimp has lured a girl into falling in love with him, he will ask her to do one small sexual favor for him or a friend. She won't want to, but she loves him, and she'll do it. After that, through a system of luring and shame, love with strings attached, and violence, he can keep her from ever leaving him, and he can get her to do pretty much anything.

Pimps are good at ingratiating themselves with young prey. Any girl you know could currently have a trafficker stalking her. We need to pass on this information in an age-appropriate way to daughters and young women in our lives. Girls as young as 11 need to know how to keep themselves safe. They need to know they have a safe adult they can talk to without judgment or punishment.

You might be that loved one or friend who recognizes the situation for what it truly is and comes to the rescue. Girls usually run away because of their shame or because their pimp tells them to. It's important to be on the lookout for signs of trafficking and know how to address it and ASAP.

How? A lot of sensitivity is needed, and addressing the issue directly is often not the best tactic. You may be in doubt about whether it's trafficking; maybe she's just going through a phase. You could be right. But if it is trafficking, it's best to do this the safe way.

Put this in your phone: the National Human Trafficking Resource Hotline: 888-373-7888. You cannot do this alone. If she's being trafficked, she's also being taught to hide it. She's in too much pain to talk to you about it. You cannot solve her pain yourself.

The FBI has task forces specifically trained in this area (whereas many PDs have little to no training in regards to sex trafficking). Girls often clam up around police officers, whom they've been told to distrust, while they open up surprisingly quickly if they know they are talking to the FBI.

Until the crime of sex trafficking has been proven, everything is up to the girl's choice. You can offer her whatever services are available, but she gets to choose help or not. Understand; these girls don't have many choices over anything in their lives. It takes more courage than people understand in order to seek help if you are trafficked. Understand that. More than anything, be patient, loving, and faithful.

A final word is to watch your language. These aren't "victims." They aren't numbers. Nor are they "prostitutes." These girls are human beings; each of them is beautiful and wonderful; and they have a purpose and a destiny in life for their unique beauty and skills. They have been trampled upon by people who should be protecting them. Don't denigrate them further by calling them a "whore" or being unable to look them in the eye and see the soul inside. Talk to them by name and love them as a fellow human.

More about the basic issue can be found here.