In the last year, the chilling actions of ISIS and Boko Haram have shocked many. Americans have questioned their barbaric practices and lack of regard for women. It is hard to imagine something like that happening in America. As stories of survivors are released, hearts sink when they hear of women and children being forced into marriage and raped by militants (Those, 2014). As ISIS shared its pamphlet that gave permission to rape and enslave non-Muslim women and children, a person wonders what can be done (Botelho, 2014)? It is overwhelming and sometimes easier to just talk about atrocities happening in far off places. But what if these same injustices were happening in the United States? Perhaps they are.
In the United States
In the United States, it is estimated as many as 300,000 children become victims of commercial sexual exploitation each year (Estes and Weiner, 2001). These are children under of the age of 18 being sold as a sexual commodity through Internet sites, phone apps, pornography, street prostitution, strip clubs, and a variety of other means. This does not even include adult women and men that are forced into the sex trade through force, coercion, or fraud. The average age most people report being sexually exploited for commercial reasons is between 12 and 14 (Barnitz, 2001). While extremist groups in Africa and the Middle East are exploiting women and children for extremist religious reasons, Americans are exploiting them for financial gain and sexual pleasure. Both groups have objectified women and children as a commodity and both have tried to strip them of their humanity.
When people think of sex trafficking, images of foreigners being kidnapped and sold for sex often emerge. People will also look to Hollywood and reference movies like Taken, where Liam Neeson goes on a rampage to rescue his daughter from a large network of Traffickers. With Boko Haram and ISIS we are all too familiar with the way they have used force to kidnap and exploit their captives. While these are some of the methods used to enslave victims of sex trafficking in the United States a variety of other approaches are utilized.
Sadly the primary targets of traffickers are children and specifically vulnerable children. Children that are at risk tend to be runaways, homeless youth, LGBT youth, Native Americans, and victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence. Traffickers will hone in on these children’s vulnerabilities drawing them into exploitation. They do this through manipulation, bribes, empty promises, flattery, coercion, and force. Exploiters know how to find a child’s area of weakness and use them for financial gain.
When a runaway is promised a hot meal for the night and a soft bed how do they refuse? What they may not realize is that in exchange for that bed they will be required to perform sex acts for “paying customers. ” When a 13-year-old girl is told by an attractive male that she is beautiful it is not surprising when she follows him to the party he has invited her to. Little does she know that he will put something in her drink that will make her easier to handle as multiple men rape her. When a child’s parent tells them to leave unless they can find a way to help pay the bills what resources will that kid turn to? A trafficker will spot that child, listen to their story, and promise to help their family. Trapping that child as a sex slave with very little ability to escape.
Reports are Shocking
Many survivors will tell you the first time they were raped, sold for sex; filmed, or beaten they never believed they could do anything different again. Shame of what has happened becomes their “Scarlett Letter,” that makes them different from others. (Hawthorne, 1850). In Rachel Lloyds Book, Girls Like Us, she explains how Survivors of sex trafficking refer to people that have not been exploited as squares versus survivors who are considered to be in “the life” (2011). In other words if you do not sell your body for sex you are living a normal shame free “square” life and if you are being sold for sex you are in “the life.” Leaving the life unscathed is not an easy task.
As reports of women and children escaping from Boko Haram and ISIS come pouring in many will even deny that anything sexual has happened to them. They are afraid that they will not be accepted back into their communities and families. For many to have been raped or sold for sex becomes like a death sentence in which they can never lead a normal life again. The same rings true for women and children trying to leave “the life” in the United States. They are afraid that they will be seen as different, dirty. Many are ashamed to admit that they were used for money. They are struggling with multiple traumas that many people cannot even imagine. The affects of this type of abuse on a human soul are immense and take courage to confront.
After being objectified, sexually abused, manipulated, beaten, tortured, and used a survivor may struggle with a variety of issues. It is common for people that have experienced this sort of trauma to struggle with anxiety, depression, anger, post-traumatic stress, eating disorders, dissociation, self-mutilation, and a variety of other mental health concerns. As a result of this trauma survivors will often struggle to maintain stable housing, perform well in school, obtain safe jobs, and foster healthy relationships. Many safe homes across the world that specialize in working with survivors of sex trafficking report similar challenges. It takes a community of committed individuals to help survivors feel empowered and able to step away from their exploiters.
The Situations are Complicated
But leaving their traffickers is no easy task. Exploiters use various tactics in getting a victim to stay put. Some will convince a youth or woman that they have nowhere else to go. They may tell them that no one will love them they way they do. They may use threats of violence. A trafficker will also convince their victims that no one else would want them once they know what they have done. They may even say where else can you make a thousand dollars a night? A thousand dollars they never see. These tactics and many others create what some refer to as a trauma bond.
Patrick Carnes explains trauma bonding to “mean that the victims have a certain dysfunctional attachment that occurs in the presence of danger, shame, or exploitation. There is often seduction, deception, or betrayal. There is always some form of danger or risk.” (1997). When the trauma bond occurs not only will victims hesitate to leave their captors they will often return to them after they have been rescued. While this may be difficult to understand when one knows how poorly they were treated by the trafficker, to the victim it may feel like the only place they belong. Breaking this bond is not a simple task and requires ongoing support and understanding.
Once a survivor escapes their exploiters they need safe places to live, supportive communities, medical care, educational support, life skills, job placement, and ongoing mental health treatment. Sometimes it will surprise people to hear that these youth are not always receptive to help. They have been trained by their exploiters to not trust anyone. Previous life experiences have told them people will use and abuse them. These women and children are afraid to connect or attach to anyone. They are afraid to believe that someone could actually care about them.
Communities throughout the country are working on creating effective responses for the treatment and support of survivors coming out of the sex trade industry. There is a need for experts of all backgrounds to engage and contribute in this fight against what many refer to as modern day slavery. Shared Hope International recently published results at http://sharedhope.org/what-we-do/bring-justice/reportcards/ for their 2014 Protected Innocence Challenge, which outlines how each state in America is responding to this issue (2014). When one looks at their state’s response they can imagine the variety of professionals and community members that are needed to engage this issue.
What You Can Do
It is not feasible for many people to do something tangible for the victims and survivors of Boko Haram and ISIS, but there is so much a person can do in their own communities. In response to the Boko Haram kidnappings Michelle Obama made #Bring Back Our Girls a National issue when she spoke during her husbands weekly presidential address (2014). Awareness was raised and there was general outcry from our nation. Awareness is often the first step in creating a powerful response and solution. Continued awareness regarding the issue of sex trafficking in America is needed but perhaps it is time for citizens in America to step up efforts to bring back our girls, our boys, our women, and our men that are being sold as a sexual commodity. They have a voice and a story that needs to be heard. They need compassionate individuals within their own country to be willing to respond. There are many ways to address this issue and each person has a gift or a strength that can be used as part of the solution.
Barnitz, L. 2001. Effectively responding to the commercial sexual exploitation of children: A comprehensive approach to prevention, protection, and reintegration services. Child Welfare 80(5):597–610.
Botelho, G. 2014. ISIS: Enslaving, having sex with 'unbelieving' women, girls is ok. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2014/12/12/world/meast/isis-justification-female-slaves/
Carnes, Dr. Patrick J. (1997), The Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitive Relationships, (Deerfield Beach, FL: HCI Publisher), pg. 29.
Estes, R., and Weiner, N. 2001. The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children
in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work. Available from www.sp2.upenn.edu/~restes/CSEC.htm.
Hawthorne, N., & Lathrop, G. (1882). The complete works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin.
Lloyd, R. (2011). Girls Like Us. New York: Harper.
McVeigh, T. (2014). Michelle Obama raises pressure over kidnapped schoolgirls. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/may/10/michelle-obama-nigeria-presidential-address
Shared Hope International - Leading a worldwide effort to eradicate sexual slavery...one life at a time. (n.d.). Retrieved January 20, 2015, from http://sharedhope.org/
Taken [Motion picture]. (2009). 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.
Those Terrible Weeks In Their Camp,(2014, October 27). Retrieved from http://www.hrw.org/reports/2014/10/27/those-terrible-weeks-their-camp-0