I knew nothing about sex trafficking.
2013, Bucharest, Romania.
On our first trip to this Eastern European country, Mike and I ordered a pizza, drank a beer, and watched the locals at the cafe not far from the university. The topic on the table was whether to stay at the hotel which wasn’t up to our cleanliness standards. My partner already registered, paid, and taken our luggage to our room, so a change of heart might create a front-desk issue. Plus at that moment, we had no alternative hotel picked.
Underneath the shade of the plane trees of Rosetti Square, the waiter, a university graduate who spoke English well, delivered our Margherita pizza. While he and Mike discussed Russian authors, I listened to half a phone conversation that took place at the table next to us. The man, who spoke English with a German accent, confirmed he would meet her, here, at this hotel, and wait for her at the cafe. Then, he ordered a Sikaru Stout, rolled up the sleeves of his business shirt, and concentrated on the screen of his smartphone.
Two policemen nearby continued to converse with one another, one sitting on his cycle, while the other stood nearby. The security guard from the lobby of the hotel, walked down the front steps, and drove off in his Rav 4. The waiter delivered our pizza as the man with the German accent greeted a taxi that dropped off a woman. She was dressed in a sherbet-green dress, reminiscent of a bridesmaid’s, and turquoise four-inch platform heels. The shift’s low back did nothing to camouflage her black bra. He paid the drink bill and escorted her inside the hotel.
A late-model Audi drove into the security guard’s now-empty parking spot. A handsome, young Richard-Gere-type went round the car and helped out a blonde, her short skirt rose higher to reveal more thin and lengthy legs. I looked at her and she towards me, but her glazed eyes did not focus. She seemed unsure of her footing and leaned on the Gere-type to guide her up the front steps into the hotel.
The waiter brought us our bill, and Mike, nodding at the hotel, asked, “Are they running a prostitution ring?” The waiter didn’t look at him directly, but said as he cleared off our empty drink glasses, “I don’t know. I hear there are pimps on the other side of the square.”
I scoffed at the two young women. Women shouldn’t be prostitutes, I thought. It’s appropriate, demeaning. It lacks strength. My attitude towards sex, especially that which is paid for, was an odd mixture of my mother’s Victorian-based modesty and my own teen years built during the sexual liberalism of the 1970s. Then again, I knew nothing about sex trafficking.
2018, Southern Wisconsin.
Mike and I attended a presentation sponsored by the Elkhorn Rotary. On the day nationally recognized to promote awareness about Human Trafficking, sex trafficking survivor, Theresa Flores, founder of Traffick Free and author of “The Slave Across the Street,” led the evening. A speaker from Fight to End Exploitation, Inc. and a panel of local dignitaries followed her presentation with other information on the subject.
Sleet pummeled the streets outside while organizers at Elkhorn High School asked attendees to move towards the front of the auditorium to deal with the smaller-than-hoped-for turnout, sad given the calibre of presenters. I guessed the average age of the individuals attending to be in their mid to late forties. Wisconsin Representative Amy Loudenbeck, to be on the panel, took a seat in the front row. Others from local judicial, legislative, and social services units in the area buzzed about the audience networking.
- Flores’ opening remarks astounded me: Wisconsin claimed the third highest number of individuals involved in human trafficking of all the states (Ohio is #1 and Minnesota, #2). Our ranking is high because the area has the characteristics necessary to help sex trafficking thrive:
- An interstate system of highways that touches international borders;
- Truck stops through which victims are transported;
- Universities and colleges from which victims are recruited; and
- Military bases, strip clubs, and tourist areas such as casinos, which provide customers of sex, alcohol, and drugs.
Estimates ranged from 100,000 to 300,000 children (average age 15) are trafficked every year in the U.S. Those figures are high enough to suggest at least one student attending the high school at which we sat was involved.
Theresa Flores spoke on the topic of sex trafficking many times since her own involvment. She’s comfortable on stage and moved into its center as her family’s photograph project on the screen behind her. She’s gained weight since her high school days running track, but the long blonde hair, diminutive frame, and easy smile remain the same.
Her father, a well-paid corporate executive, moved his family into a Ohio suburb her freshman year. She had few close friends and often felt alone. She smiles as she tells the audience she took up with a handsome, out-going young man. “He went to my church and he was always kind to me. He’d tell me I looked pretty, or he liked a blouse I was wearing. He paid attention to me! One day, offered me a ride home from school.” She paused and said, “I listened to my parents and heard all of their warnings — but it was a ride home from school from a boy at my church! Still, I asked him why he turned left when my house was to the right.”
“He said he needed to pick up something from his house and lied that his parents were home.” When he offered her a pop to drink, she didn’t fathom she would be drugged and raped.
At school the next day, he and his friends confronted her with an envelope full of compromising photos of the evening she blacked out. He threatened to pass the envelope to her parents, her teachers, her priest.
“I thought it was my fault. He threatened me and my family. I was scared of what he would do,” Theresa said.
For the next two years she slipped out the back door of her family’s house to meet him in his car. Nightly he took her to have sex with strangers and introduced her to drugs.
As we listened to Theresa’s story, my mind shot back to the two young women at our hotel in Bucharest. I looked at Mike and said,“Romania.” He nodded and gave a weary look. We both knew, once we heard the characteristics of sex trafficking, those women at our hotel were probably sex slaves.
At the time, I did not feel empathy or concern for those two ladies. Theresa’s story reinforced prostitution rarely looks like Pretty Woman, the 1990s cinematic love story starring Julia Roberts and Richard Gere. More often, the individual has NOT chosen her profession and often takes drugs to relieve the psychological hardship. As Theresa noted, “Most victims don’t live this life for more than seven years and they have a 40 percent higher chance of death from overdose, murder, or suicide than the average woman.”
Mike and I did nothing for those women in Romania. Could we do something differently in Southern Wisconsin?
Yes, you can help victims of sex trafficking.
Flores offered a real-life situation to answer that question. “I was standing in a line at a fast-food restaurant when the gentleman ordering a meal next to me said to the young woman behind the counter, ‘You’re pretty and you seem like a smart girl. If you want to get out of this dead end job, call me,’ and he handed her his card. I was pretty certain he was recruiting for sex trafficking. It doesn’t take much more than that to begin.”
Then she asked the audience, “What would you do?”
Individuals in the audience called out responses: “Call the police,” “Tell the girl who you think he really is,” “Confront him!” “Tell the manager so he can watch out for his staff,” “Ask him, in front of her, if he IS a trafficker,” “Follow him to the parking lot and get his license plate number for the police.” “Call the human trafficking hotline.” (National Human Trafficking Hotline (24/7): (888) 3737-888)
Theresa recommended not confronting him directly for safety reasons, and she wouldn’t wait for police to take action as he would be gone by the time they arrived. She suggested waiting until the man left and then tell her suspicions to the girl, asking if she would give Theresa the card to show police.
She also developed an outreach program so that individuals could help trafficked girls and women. in need. The SOAP (Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution) Project began six years ago distributing to hotels and motels bars of soap labeled with a phone number for help. Volunteers help buy the soap, wrap the bars with the labels, and distribute it — especially targeting areas near major sports events like the Super Bowl, when the number of trafficking incidents rise. Their efforts get results:
* Generally at least one missing child is identified by hotel staff during each outreach.
* Polaris Project has reported that calls double to the hotline number the week S.O.A.P. has done an outreach.
* Michigan Crimes Against Children agency reports a dramatic increase in calls to their tip line during outreaches.
In Romania, I spent the rest of the lunch tapping into the wifi of the café to search on my iPad an alternate hotel. We checked out and walked past the private security guard in the lobby, now back from lunch, and the two policemen on the street, still in the same spot, chatting.
That day, we easily left the problem behind by closing our eyes and walking away.
Now I know sex trafficking is NOT foreign. It is most often NOT a choice of employment that individuals seek. And victims often will NOT ask for assistance.
Sex trafficking is in our own back yard and, like other crises our society faces (Opioid addiction, misogyny, racism, family violence), our awareness of the issue, our empathy for its victims, and our willingness to stand up to its perpetrators will be the first steps to its eradication.
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Judy O Haselhoef, a social artist who writes, travels, and authored “GIVE & TAKE: Doing Our Damnedest NOT to be Another Charity in Haiti,” blogs regularly at her website, www.JOHaselhoef.com.
Copyright @2017: If you’d like to use any part of it (up to 200 words), please give full attribution and this website, www.JOHaselhoef.com.