Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A Chat With My Airplane Seat Neighbor

Everyone has issues that are close to their heart. For me, one of the biggest is sex trafficking. I've spent a lot of time researching and am always telling people about it. Very few people have heard the actual statistics on women, children, and men forced to work in the sex industry or understand the system of psychological control that keeps them there.

Starting those conversations is never a problem for me. I'm the sort of person who can (and has) initiated totally friendly conversations about existence with peers whose beliefs ran perpendicular to mine, and talked about sex and American values with someone I just met. Discussing tough topics isn't an issue.

The hardest part for me is the weight of guilt and fear once the conversation is over.


I was on the three-hour flight from my east coast abode to DFW, heading to a friend's wedding. The plane wasn't packed and I was in the enviable position of having a window seat with nobody in the middle. When my aisle seat neighbor and I realized our luck, we spread out and meanwhile struck up conversation in the usual adult way: what do you do for a living?

Credit: Yuichi Yasuda.

He told me about his job marketing software, and then it was my turn to talk about writing. This always leads to fun conversations, as people (a) think being a writer is cool and (b) have no idea what it actually means. "What do you write?" is the next question, to which my answer is: everything.

Business writing, marketing posts, novels. I gave him an example: I worked for a nonprofit which builds safe houses for sex trafficking survivors, and my job was to write up the business plan to go on the website; write and edit bios for the speakers at various events; create event promos for their blog...

Safe houses? he asked. Sex trafficking...? He gave me the look that showed he sort of knew what it meant but not really, and wanted to ask but didn't want to look stupid.

I explained: predators and pimps force kids to work as prostitutes. The kids don't see any of the money, obviously. They're often runaways or foster kids, often sexual abuse survivors, and the pimps know how to prey on the kids' insecurities, shame, and vulnerability to make them love their trafficker, need their trafficker, and do exactly what their trafficker says.

My neighbor was attentive and started asking questions. I gave him answers and more information: the average age starting out is between 12 and 14. They survive an average of 7 years after entering the industry, so very few make it to their 21st birthday. Many are murdered, often by their clients and frequently by their pimps. Others die of complications from physical abuse, drug addiction, and sexual disease.

He was shocked. He told me had two daughters, ages five and ten. Some girls, I told him gently, are forced into prostitution at that age. Especially in other countries. In some parts of Asia, the "ideal" age for pimps to get a hold of little kids is 4 or 5. Men and women from the West pay a couple dollars to take the children's virginity.

We talked for a long time. The conversation slowed as the horrified silences got longer and longer between his questions. I almost wanted it to end: I didn't want to keep torturing him with these facts and statistics, these truths. With the image of what could happen to his little girls.

But I didn't stop. I know the truth: that it's men like him who are most often the buyers. They rarely know the full implication of what they're doing when they make the call, get their lay, and pay the bill: they don't know these girls aren't there by choice--and they don't want to know. They want to believe that though they're paying for sex, they're wanted on some level by the sex worker. They don't want to believe they're perpetrating a horrible crime, violating the most basic human rights.

Nobody wants to know that.

That's why knowledge is power. Knowing that the girls they're soliciting might have been ripped off the streets, beaten and drugged, and forced to be there has stopped some johns from soliciting sex ever again. Knowing that it isn't "slutty" homeless girls, but girls and boys living at home and suffering in silence, has helped parents take small signs seriously and save their children from trafficking. I've heard the stories.

It was awful and uncomfortable to horrify my airplane seat neighbor. I felt abysmal for turning the conversation so dark, possibly ruining his day, making it hard for him to sleep at nights. But I also know that telling him can make a difference.

He might take extra precautions to protect his daughters and their friends, wary of warning signs. He might tell the story of the weird lady on the airplane and share these facts with someone else. He might do more research and decide he wants to help stop trafficking in his community. He might reconsider next time he goes to buy a cheap lay.

When it comes down to it, I care less about his feelings or his sleeplessness than I do about the girls and boys turning tricks right now. I care less about being seen as a trafficking crackpot, being avoided, or losing some of my platform than I do about stopping this.

Life is short. It shouldn't matter how I feel or how awkward something is. What matters is what I do. I'm willing to give up an ordinary life in order to fight the worst form of slavery humanity has yet seen. Including in the day-to-day steps, like telling my airplane seat neighbor.

Word count: 965.