When moms learn of my work to prevent human trafficking, the conversation always turns to fear for their own children. They wonder, how do I protect my kids? They ask, what can I do to prevent this from happening?
My friend’s daughter is in the 1st grade. Though they do not own a TV, she is already sporting a sexy sass and eying boys. The only real explanation is that she is mirroring what she sees at school. Kids are already talking about “dating.” Her class has a collective conscious that their sexuality is something to wield as a means of control, like Samantha’s nose twitch on Bewitched. (And I promise, it was already in reruns when I was a kid!)
In a meeting with a school counselor, I hear of another 1st grader. After he recently smacked a classmate’s butt, he wound up in her office. As she pursued the little boy and his reasoning, his attitude said “duh” everyone knows, while he verbalized, “It’s what girls deserve.”
Bottom line? Kids are sponges. They will absorb whatever is most frequently put before them, whether it’s domestic violence and machismo at home or over-sexualized peers in class. And the reality is that our seven-year olds are exposed to far more than we can prevent or control.
The same school counselor expressed her concern that her kids have to code-switch: shed what they know as normal from home when they come through school doors and vice versa. NPR hijacked this term from linguistics to broadly describe the “hop-scotching between different cultural and linguistic spaces and different parts of our own identities — sometimes within a single interaction.”
My friend’s daughter has to code-switch everyday when she enters her classroom: Mom may say it’s not appropriate to “date” at age 7, but every single one of my girlfriends likes a boy and to be cool, I have to too. The butt-slapping 7-year old code-switches every time he returns home: Ms. Smith says girls don’t deserve to be treated like that, but my uncle and granddad and older brother treat all their girls that way, so what’s the deal? Can we truly expect children to switch so quickly, so effortlessly? Is it any wonder that these incidents are happening?
As adults, unless we raise children in an isolated bubble, they will absorb the rhetoric and narrative of those with whom they spend most of their time. And yet, if we don't expose them to the world, how can we teach them to respond in beautiful and honoring ways? How do we raise boys and girls to value themselves and others within their own selves, not to the manipulation, control, or degradation of the other?
I offered my friend one nugget of a suggestion, timidly, for my own kids are still in adolescence and I have no proof my hypothesis works.
But I’ve seen the Sponge Effect.
And to combat it, I’ve sought to raise my kids’ perspective above the daily drama of school politics, relational positioning, and cultural messaging. I’ve read them stories of girls living on the other side of the globe, forced to walk miles for water, marry at their age, or stay home from school because of hygiene issues. We’ve watched films about Jewish children smuggled out of ghettos or Vietnamese girls who bike for hours a day to attend school. I’ve opened their eyes to sacrifice, for sure. But more than that, I’ve opened their eyes to the bigger narrative of kids: past and present in every corner of the world. If we were all created in God's image, do we not all deserve to be valued in a way that is honoring to Him? Now, when one of them complains about the most recent school drama, I remind them that we all have something in common.
My goal is to locate my kids in a meta-narrative: Yes, I believe there are universal truths. Let us at least start with human dignity for all (and abolish butt-slapping because of the belief it’s what she deserves!) Perhaps then, we can agree to valuing ones self for one's self, not based on the arm one is attached to? Of course, there will be differences in opinion on sexuality, gender norms, and roles in relationships, but can we not agree to these basic truths? Children ought to learn to value themselves and others with dignity.
And that is worth absorbing.
What about you? What have you done to help curb the sponge effect?
Sometimes it all catches up to me. There are weeks when I crash. Emotionally, I get flooded. I cry and weep. I have nightmares. I get paranoid.
Each time I conclude a training on Domestic Human Trafficking, an audience member asks how I do it. Someone always asks how I sleep at night. And I say that sometimes I can't. Sometimes I don't. And I'm so thankful for those times.
Like last week.
On the heels of an intensely heavy month, an article came out in our paper that 6 minors had been recovered from sex trafficking from the Western National Stock Show (the super bowl of rodeos). The same evening PBS aired A Path Appears, an incredible documentary on domestic sex trafficking. Later that week another article published that 57 foster kids in our state are currently missing. And then the Super Bowl numbers were released...
And so it hit me anew that I'm not just making this stuff up! This is all real. Kids are being sexually exploited. And it crushes me. Just crushes me that we live in a society and in a time in which there's space for this level of exploitation. That we live in a space that raises over-sexualized youth that warps their sense of relational normalcy. That we live in a space in which money is exchanged for a kid's body! I am disgusted. And the sadness can be overwhelming.
So what happens to me in these times of intense feeling is that my sadness turns to fear. A day or two later, the nightmares begin. The paranoia grips me.
I had dropped my 11-year-old off at her basketball coach's dorm for a private coaching session and wandered around campus for an hour. When she was 5 minutes late and not answering her phone, I started to panic. What was I thinking? What if the sweet tiny freshman girl coach had a mean evil guy friend who was going to abuse my little girl? What if she was already gone? Handed off to a pimp and half way down the highway? I was a hot mess and already had tears dropping when she and the cute little coach rounded the corner. Hot mess.
That night I tossed and turned. A friend was spending the night. A friend I love and trust and have known for years. But I was a hot mess, right? I was in full paranoia. It was my week to freak out. So I couldn't sleep. Because what was that little noise? Was that the floorboard creaking? The one that creaks in front of the girls' room?
And friends, I just have to say... it is so.good.to.feel. The fear and the sadness keep it real. It makes me stay emotionally connected. If I felt less, I would care less. And I can't care less. I can't. What is one week every now and then of being a hot mess compared to the living nightmare 27-35 million individuals suffer each day? What is my fear compared to the mother whose daughter went missing for two weeks last summer, sold nightly by a pimp, and recovered just before he drove her to another state?
In my moments of desperation, my prayer is this:
Lord, lure me deep. Lure me into the places in which you have you walked. Lure me into the space in which you weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn. Lure me into the darkness to join with you as light. Where there is courage untapped, give me faith to access it. Where there is strength unspent, give me cause to spend it. May I be filled with enough love and beauty and dreams that the risk is worth it. Lord, lure me deep.
And you, friend? Do you share my fears sometimes? My sadness? What do YOU do?
Having bombarded you this month with various posts regarding human trafficking awareness, I want to close out January's National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month with a book recommendation for you to read and learn more. Of the many excellent primers and memoirs out there, my most recent favorite is a combination of the two.
Survivor and activist, Smith weaves her personal story into an analysis of the cultural constructs that form the backdrop and path to trafficking. Unlike most books on this subject, Walking Prey thoroughly addresses the negative influence of media including the early consumerism of children, sexually explicit music lyrics and videos and television and movie industries.
The sexualization of idols in teen-driven media adds to a teen's self-objectification and self-sexualization.
Smith describes in vivid detail (readers beware) the compounding vulnerabilities she experienced before the age of 14. Media is merely one, but it fed into her low self-esteem brought on by substance abuse in the home, childhood sexual abuse, parental denial of abuse, and lack of mental health interventions. For various reasons, by the time she was trafficked, prostitution didn't seem so preposterous. "I already saw my body as a form of currency even before I arrived at that motel room."
I cringe when people refer to me as a former sex slave because if I was a sex slave to anyone, it was to popular culture. Advertisers, entertainment producers, and other moguls of the media were the ones who seasoned me to accept sexual exploitation and prostitution. My body was an object: its sole purpose, I believed by that point, was for sex.
For all the research I do and conferences and trainings I attend on this subject, Walking Prey is the first book that has really challenged me as a mother and trainer of youth. I thought I had crafted an awesome hour-long presentation to high school students. I thought I had all the right components in the arts prevention curriculum I wrote last year. Now I am seriously considering how to add media literacy to my training.
And then there's my home... The Disney Channel regularly promotes "dating" among younger and younger kids and yet before we got rid of cable, was often on in our living room. What is the message that our adolescents are receiving about needing to have a boyfriend/ girlfriend? What about the lyrics to the songs they listen to? One Direction has many catchy songs, but it took us really listening to realize almost every one was about relationships and sex... and our 7-year-old was memorizing them. These popular cultural messages which slip into our kids souls through Disney (at first) feed into an over-sexualized culture which lays the groundwork for exploitation.
Smith lists some interesting documentaries to watch and learn more. Some of the trailers can be viewed for free:
I appreciate Holly Smith sharing her story and offering the anti-trafficking movement such a thorough resource. Right now, if you are a parent, I want to encourage you to take whatever seeds of guilt or condemnation you might be feeling (I don't intend that!) and turn it into prevention education. Would you at least consider the role of media and the over-sexualization of our kids... your kids... And consider the role it plays in allowing sex trafficking to prosper in our society.
In 2003, to combat domestic sex trafficking, the FBI, Department of Justice Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section and the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, formed the Innocence Lost National Initiative. To date, more than 69 collaborative task forces have been formed around the country and helped recover over 3400 children. Rocky Mountain Innocence Lost Task Force (RMILTF) is one of them. In this 10 minute video produced by iEmpathize, Sergeant Dan Steele of the Denver Police Department and RMILTF describes the nature of a trafficker. It has become one of my go to training tools to educate audiences on the strategy of a pimp/ trafficker. Watch the video and consider the 5 tactics a trafficker employs.
1. Pretender 2. Provider 3. Protector 4. Promiser 5. Punisher
"You have to go on the assumption that this is happening in your community. First and foremost, be knowledgeable on the subject..." Dan Steele
Today's action, beyond becoming more knowledgeable by watching this video, is to put this national hotline number in your phone. Do not hesitate to call or text for help, a tip, or advice.
Last night I was ALONE in the house at 7:00 and wiped from a community anti-trafficking meeting I facilitate. Plop on the couch with a glass of red and my gluten free (yuck) pasta and remote. All I wanted to do: Veg. Options with our antenna derived channels? Big Bang Theory. Biggest Loser. Bones. No matter how wiped I am, I will still choose trauma and drama over comedy and reality any day. I'm sorry. This is me.
So Bones it is and I've already missed some of it, but when I tune in I am clearly watching a human trafficking episode. A group of Asian women have been brought into the U.S. for labor trafficking. They are discovered in a dirty room, some with bruises and evidence of brutality, all with pictures of their families back home.
They were not kidnapped. They are not chained.
But they were lied to, manipulated, and threatened. As the State Department agent says (basically), "It's far easier than kidnapping." They are all scared for life, but not theirs. Their loved ones have been threatened and they have complied with the trafficker in order to protect their children, husband, or relatives.
Kudos to FOX for tackling Human Trafficking. I'm sure there are many such episodes on Law and Order and CSI type shows and I believe that this level of Prime-Time awareness will gradually increase reporting and investigation and eventually decrease human trafficking.
A few corrections:
1. While it is true that trafficking rings of this fashion exist in the U.S., we need to be careful to not overly focus on internationals and neglect the domestic problem. Estimates say that between 14,000- 17,000 foreigners are trafficked in the U.S. each year whereas it is estimated that 100,000 American children are sex trafficked. The numbers are staggeringly different and media needs to reflect this. Nicholas Kristof's coverage of the teens suing Backpage.com for allowing them to be sold reflects this.
2. The State Department agent seemed more focused on the legal status of the women rather than their victimization. Foreign victims of human trafficking qualify for a T-Visa and are eligible to remain in the US under certain conditions.
1. The same agent correctly identified the use of coercion by the trafficker as a more powerful tool than force. A smart trafficker will threaten a loved one to coerce a person to do what they want, never laying a hand on the victim. Physical brutality is usually reserved for later when the victim begins to resist. While force, fraud, and coercion are the three means by which trafficking occurs, coercion is the most widely used, especially in the U.S.
2. The police uncovered the person at the top of the crime ring, a non-Asian business-woman, thereby taking down an entire industry, not just recovering a few victims. While this process rarely occurs within days (hours!) of an investigation, it is a vital part of ending human trafficking.
************************** If you are still wrapping your head around human trafficking, especially as it impacts your reality, consider some of these resources. If you are a parent, stunned by the estimate of 100,000 American kids being sex trafficked in our country, take a few minutes to read this Fact Sheet prepared by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Lastly, consider these words by William Wilberforce, "You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.”
January is the National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month and as such, I have bombarded you with tough thoughts on Domestic Sex Trafficking. I wrote about the problem with some agitate methods such as End It Movement's Final Four Slavery Truck here.
I addressed the debate around sex workers choosing the life here.
At A Sista's Journey, I asked about the men.
In a brave mood, I dared to say that porn fuels the sex industry here.
And of course, I've encouraged you to buy my book, END: Engaging Men to End Sex Trafficking, written to men, but useful for all.
But I need to tell you more. Today, I want you to ponder this:
Sex Trafficking is happening in your city, however small, however large. It is happening in your own backyard. And it can happen to anyone.
Domestic Sex Trafficking is anyone under 18 who is commercially sexually exploited or anyone 18 and over who through force, fraud, or coercion is induced to perform sex acts. This looks like women living and working in fake massage businesses, forced to give sexual services to clients during 12 hour days. It looks like young runaways trading sex for shelter and getting caught up with a guy who ends up selling her. It looks like LGBTQ youth being thrown out by their family, seen as a sexualized object, and exploited on the street. It looks like older boyfriends who after pampering their girls with gifts for a few weeks asks for a return on his investment.
There may not be a track. Your little city might not have a strip club or a seedy side of town. But do you have the internet? Do you have youth? Do you have heart break and broken families and poverty? Our city, while rated in the top 10 livable cities in America, has all of this. And we have sex trafficking. So do you.
Only a well-educated, well-informed community can effectively launch a response to sex trafficking. If you have blinders on, I implore you to remove them.
END: Engaging Men to End Sex Trafficking walks you through what you need to know, how to assess your city, how to garner community ownership, and tangible action steps to take. Make the first move. Take action now!
What kind of community do you live in and what are you seeing?
We saw it with Kony 2012. Invisible Children's goal? Make Kony famous through the largest viral campaign in history. It raised so much controversy that the founder had a break down, but their goal was accomplished. Kony's name and crimes were once again front and center on the world stage. We were called to remember. Youth were mobilized to action. But then we forgot. We are a forgetful people. We always have been. It's why the Old Testament is replete with remember embedded in every ceremony, and erected stone, and tradition established. Remember. Provocative media tactics certainly serve to arouse interest. I believe they accomplish the goal of raising awareness. And when it comes to human trafficking, we definitely need more awareness. Why? Awareness leads to policy change, tighter laws, vigilant neighbors, compassionate church goers, and educated jury members. Only an aware community produces well-informed, well-educated citizens who can truly effect change.
Sometimes, awareness leads to action. Sometimes, provocative media instigates a new journey for an individual. They become donors, goers, doers. But sometimes, well... watch this video and let's talk more.
Pretty provocative, no? What a creative strategy to shock the crowds in Atlanta for the Final Four. It is a well-known argument by anti-sex trafficking groups that thousands of girls are brought into the cities which host large sporting championships. With an increase in demand, prostitution and its dark underbelly, sex trafficking, skyrockets during the Superbowl, Final Four, World Cup, etc. Perhaps a similar truck should drive up and down the streets of Las Vegas. It is there too, visible or not.
But therein lies my discomfort with this strategy. I've written about it in a new manual my husband and I have just released in conjunction with January's National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month:
The truck perpetuates the stereotype that sex trafficking involves kidnapping and that only women who are chained on dirty mattresses are victims. Given the audience of Final 4 fans, the potential victims in their midst were not dirty, with blood-caked hair who had been thrown into a truck hours prior. The victims in Atlanta that day were out in the open. They were walking into hotel rooms without escorts and returning to their pimp to hand over the money. If we only have the truck scene in our minds, these girls look free to leave, free to choose, and free from harm. (END:Engaging Men to End Sex Trafficking)
And that's not true.
Furthermore, this method not only misinforms the general population, but heaps more shame upon the victims who cannot identify themselves in that message. They aren't dirty, but rather staying with their pimp and his "stable" in nice hotel rooms or a rented house in the Vegas suburbs. They weren't kidnapped, but rather fell for the sweet talking, gift giving, affectionate older guy who promised them the world. They aren't chained, but rather trapped by invisible psychological bondage, threats, and the lack of a home to return to.
I'm not that girl, she thinks. Therefore I'm not a victim. This is now my life.
Shocking to the Final Four fans, disempowering to real victims. Pros and Cons.
What do you think? Do you think the shock and awe is worth the harm done to potential victims?
Want to learn more about Domestic Sex Trafficking? Check out my resources page or purchase my newly released manual designed to engage men in the battle.
Let me say from the beginning, I do not believe any little girl wakes up one day and says, "Mommy, when I grow up I want to sell my body. It's the easiest job I can think of that makes the most money. Just think! I'll let men use, abuse, and harm me every night, all night and then I'll be living the dream!"
What happens between "I want to be a Mommy!" or "I want to be an astronaut!" or "I want to be a Doctor who takes a rocket to work in a village without Doctors and then come home on my horse!" and "I am 'choosing' to prostitute myself!" is a million small violations and systemic problems that completely annihilate the meaning of "choice."
Choice: noun an act of selecting or making a decision when faced with two or more possibilities.
Possibilities. Consider these:
Childhood Sexual Abuse
Research shows that over 90% of prostituted youth and women arrested for prostitution were sexually abused (though I have heard field workers say it's 100%). Such a degrading and disempowering assault deeply affects the body, mind, and soul. When older and faced with survival, it's easier to exchange sex for food and shelter since the barriers to sex have already been crossed. Often the decision to sell sex is a reversal of the power paradigm by which they can exert control over their bodies, rather than be powered over by another.
Consider the little girl raised in a chaotic home, with the presence of substance abuse. People in and out, affecting school and perhaps food security. Foster care is often present, social services involved. Absent fathers the norm. An environment of low dreams, where college feels unattainable, if talked about at all. Truancy, teen pregnancy abound. Is it hard to imagine she might not have the constructs for a different kind of life? And what if she thinks she'd be better, safer, if she ran away? Or worse, what if she is thrown away? Research shows that within 48 hours of being on the street, a youth will be solicited for sex. The National Runaway Switchboard estimates that each year between 1.6-2.8 million youth runaway. And those who are on the streets for more than 30 days are most closely associated with commercial sexual exploitation.
Force, Fraud, and Coercion
Three words help define human trafficking. In the U.S., it looks like this: young girl who comes from aforementioned background is preyed upon by a brilliant controller (otherwise known as a pimp). He scopes her out, identifies her vulnerability, and works to exploit it. As one survivor says, "You need a Daddy? He'll be your Daddy." After a period of lavish gift buying, "dating," and consensual sex, he asks for his return on his investment- sex with others. Depending on his style of pimping, this is where force (brutal beatings, food deprivation, and rape), coercion (threats to expose her to friends, harm a family member, etc.) and fraud come into play. A psychological game ensues and the girl is trapped. What are her choices now?
So, when we debate whether prostitution should be legalized, if sex workers should be "left alone" to do with their lives as they please, I ask, from what array of choices have they chosen to sell their bodies? Have we not, as a society, failed the little girls who grow up with a limited number of possibilities? In this greater systemic context, is not choice but an illusion?
What do you think? Share your thoughts below!
If you would like to learn more, check out my recent book, END: Engaging Men to End Sex Trafficking. While written to a male audience (to empower them to engage this issue) it is useful for all. Full of documented facts and explanations, stories, group discussion and a doable game plan for every community, this manual will help you launch a response to sex trafficking in your backyard.