The U.S. sex trade flourishes: how adolescent girls become slaves

By September 15, 2010

USA (MNN) — As many as 300,000 minors are being trafficked for sex in the United States each year, but what brings them to this ultimate fate? More than that, what keeps them from getting out? In Part Two of our four-part series today, we will explore issues surrounding the victims of sexual slavery.

There is unfortunately little in the way of a prototype to describe the kind of person who is at risk of trafficking. Marcia Ghali with Word Made Flesh says as many as 85 percent of victims have been abused in the past. Theresa Flores, founder of Grace Haven House in Columbus, Ohio, and partner of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, says, "Generally [victims] are going to be kids that have lower self-esteem, kids that don't have a lot of adult supervision, ones that are really starved for attention and love…. But everybody is vulnerable in a certain way, and [traffickers] are just very good at finding those ways and using that against them."

Because of these widespread vulnerabilities, even kids that don't fit Ghali's or Flores' general profiles are at risk. "Probably 90 percent of the kids these days are at risk," says Flores.

But how are these kids trafficked? They must have negligent parents in order to just suddenly end up prostituted, right? Not necessarily. Ghali says that victims and their traffickers often know each other beforehand. "They are building relationships in really normal sorts of places. [Traffickers are] family members sometimes. A lot of times it's a pimp posing as a boyfriend."

Still, each victim's story is different. Flores explains, "There's going to be a small number that are actually abducted and kidnapped: a large number of them that are running away from home and on the streets and don't know what to do, and some of them from home." Flores says that many young girls are simply offered rides home in the rain, or told by a good-looking man at the mall that he can make them a model. These girls, often naïve by default due to their young age, take many of these men at their word, glad to be singled out as special.

Whatever the circumstances may be, it is important to understand that although a girl may make one bad decision to talk to a man or to run away (often because they don't know any better), becoming a sex slave is never their choice. As Pat McCalla with Food for the Hungry put it in our interview yesterday, "When you learn what happens–the abuse that takes place with these young women, there's not a 13, 14, 15-year-old girl ever in the history of humanity or in any culture that sat on the edge of her bed one day and said, ‘You know what I dream of happening to me?' and then lists what takes place with these girls really every day. It is a degrading, abusive, humiliating existence, and it's literally slavery."

Flores knows this better than anyone. In her book The Slave Across the Street, Flores describes her experience as a victim trafficked from home. Although this is certainly not the most common way minors are trafficked, Flores says she continues to meet girls with similar stories to her own.

Flores lived in a wealthy, suburban neighborhood when she became trapped in the trade. At 16, she began getting to know a handsome and friendly male classmate. One day after she got to know him, he offered to give her a ride home. The young man took her away and raped her. His cousins took photos of the scene, telling Flores that if she didn't do what she said, they'd show the photos to her parents. Flores believed this would ruin the professional and social lives of her parents, since she couldn't prove it was rape.

After that, night after night, the group of young men would call her after her parents were asleep, tell her to meet them outside, and take her to a house where she would be raped for the profit of her captors. Flores was told if she complied, the pictures would be returned to her, but nothing ever seemed to be enough. For two long years, Flores was a slave.

So why didn't Flores just tell her parents or the police? Flores says as a traumatized adolescent, "I didn't know any way out. Telling my parents was not an option. I would never have admitted it to anybody because I believed that [the traffickers] would kill my family. So that just keeps you in it and makes it very hard to escape from it."

Ghali explains that young victims have a difficult time getting out because they are essentially brainwashed, as well. "The relationship that is built between the perpetrator and the victim, so much of it is about the psychology of it. There's violence and the threat of violence that is used. [There's] systemic and repeated psychological trauma. The early stages are commonly referred to as "seasoning" — destroying the victim's sense of autonomy, destroying the victim's sense of self in relation to others, creating isolation, forcing the victim to violate their own sense of morality."

All of these factors combined with the developing and sometimes naïve mind of a young girl make it difficult to get away. If they never get away, trafficked women in the U.S. unfortunately often end up in and out of prison, arrested as a perpetrator in regard to prostitution rather than a victim of slavery. Drug addictions are common, and early deaths are the norm for girls who aren't rescued.

"The life expectancy of women who prostitute is very, very short. There are really high rates of murder, actually, because in our society, women who prostitute are seen as disposable," says Ghali.

How do you stop such a pressing problem? There are several solutions to help put a stop to this crime, many of which will be discussed in Part Four of this series on Friday, September 17. In the case of response to the victim though, you can get involved with local ministries like Flores' Grace Haven that provides a safe place for women, help them overcome the trauma of their experience and teach them their worth in Christ.

You also need to educate your children or other adolescents in your life to look out for men with too-good-to-be-true offers, and the reality of the ease with which traffickers snatch their prey in the States. For more information on this, Flores' book The Slave Across the Street is an excellent resource. This remains the only book about domestic sex trafficking of a minor in the United States written by one of its victims.

Above all, you need to pray. Pray for the hundreds of thousands of young girls enslaved in the United States. Pray that they will be rescued and given worth in Christ. Pray about your role in this. Pray also that the traffickers exploiting these young girls will be brought to justice.

In Part Three of this four-part series, we will discuss the mindset of a trafficker, and how, as believers, we ought to respond to them. Come back tomorrow for this next important installment. View Part One in the series here.


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