Sex Trafficking: What it is, why it matters, and what you can do about it

I used to think sex trafficking was something that happened on the far side of the world and was sensationalized in movies. I was just like most Americans in that way. Then I met people who were involved in ministry to eradicate sex trafficking here in the U.S. and to care for victims. Here. In the U.S. In neighborhoods just like where you and I live and work. As I learned more I was stunned. The scope of the trafficking industry is mind-blowing. The damage done to young women and young men is horrific. It’s injustice in the basest form, something we all ought to care about.

I had the chance recently to reconnect with an old friend, Stephanie Clark. When we were in college we did student ministry together, and even then Stephanie was a passionate and driven person driven to make a different in Christ’s name. She now serves as the executive director of Amirah, a Boston area non-profit seeking to eliminate sex trafficking and restore the victims of it. Here is the interview I did with her.

1) In recent months and years sex trafficking has becoming significantly higher profile and more people have turned their attention to abolishing it. However, it’s still a shadowy world most of us know little about. Could you explain what actually happens and who the victims are?

SC: There is a question that I am asked often, “Sex trafficking happens here? So, this is like the movie Taken?” While I am a huge fan of a man with a certain set of skills, the unfortunate truth is that this is not what this world looks like on a day-to-day basis.  Yes, there are women, girls and boys that are physically taken, drugged and then put into a life where they are sexually exploited, but the vast majority of trafficked women and children are put into “the life” by force, fraud or coercion.

There is a multitude of ways that a person can be sex trafficked, whether that is from being a runaway and being picked up, or from the long play of a pimp pretending to be your boyfriend. The one thing that remains consistent though is vulnerability.  Traffickers prey upon those that are vulnerable.  These women can be vulnerable because they grew up in the foster care system. They can be girls who grew up in wonderful homes with supportive parents, but they simply are looking for someone to show them love and attention. They can be runaways; studies have now shown that a pimp will approach a runaway girl within 48 hours. They know the signs, and begin to promise them the world. After a nice hot shower, a quick meal, and a small gift or token, they ask them to make some money for them in order for their dream to come true. If she refuses, then she is gang raped and severely beaten. If she gives in and begins to show signs of refusal, she is raped and beaten. If she didn’t make enough money that night, she is beaten.

This is the shadowy world of trafficking. It is lies, coercion, force and a lot of manipulation upon young girls who are thinking that their pimp is their boyfriend, their man, and that they will be the one to help him go straight. In the state of Massachusetts, it is known that the average age for a woman to be sex trafficked into this life is 14-years old. I often say that I grew up watching and loving the movie Pretty Woman. I have realized now how much of a lie this movie is.  It is not a “pretty woman” that is this life, but it is a beaten, bruised, broken 14-year old.

2) For victims, what are the long-term effects of having been trafficked?

SC: Those that survive this life come out of it with multiple mountains that they have to climb. The biggest problem that we are seeing among women who have been sex trafficked in New England is drug addiction. Their pimp gets them hooked on heroin to the point where it is enough that they need that constant relief. This can be part of the hurdle in getting them out of this life. Once they begin to detox, it is extremely difficult to break free from this addiction and not want to return to this life merely to have the addiction fed.

Survivors also have many complicated mental and emotional hurdles. Their pimp has been the most important person in their life for years. While he has abused, trafficked and traumatized them, he has also been their provider and in some cases the only person that they have ever loved and ever received “love” from.

Because of this, many display the signs of Stockholm syndrome and have a deep struggle with wanting to return to the life because they truly want to be with their man, who was their captor and their pimp. On top of all of this, they begin to face the real world where you don’t make $1000-$2000 in a night any longer, but you work hard and hopefully can make that a few weeks. If a woman went into the life at the age of 14, and is now getting out a decade later, this means that in all of her developmental years she has learned no life skill, no trade.

She faces a world that asks for experience, a resume, education and references.  Is she going to write down that she satisfied 12-15 men a night risking her life, because johns can actually be far more dangerous than pimps? Who are her references going to be?

3) In the last few years some major areas  (Boston, Atlanta, etc.) have passed legislation that does away with the prosecution of sex trafficking victims for prostitution. Why is this so significant?

SC: This is a significant help because it recognizes that these women were brought into this life not by their choice, but because of force, fraud or coercion.  It begins to lay the foundation for there to be services for the victims of trafficking. In Massachusetts, they are actually working on strengthening this bill, as the provision for safe homes and services for victims is currently an unfunded mandate. It is our hope that the new bill that is in the State House will strengthen the current law and provide the much-needed funds for programs and safe homes for the survivors of sex trafficking.

4) The ministry you oversee, Amirah, seeks to care for victims. How do you go about that?

SC: Amirah, which comes from the Arabic word for “Princess,” seeks to provide whole person care to women over the age of 18 that want to break free from the world of sexual exploitation.  We currently are working to open one safe home by the end of the summer, and our goal is to have three safe homes opened within five years – because the constant question before our minds is what happens to these women who want to break free? Where will they go to get the care that they need?

Amirah is much more than a safe home though; we work with local community partners, clinics, and Christian counselors to help these women receive the care that they need for their physical, psychological, emotional, vocational and spiritual needs. We offer more than just a safe home for these women, but we give them time, space and the opportunities to get the care that they need to help them realize that they are loved, they are valued and that they truly have been created for an amazing purpose and reason.

5) What are some ways people can get involved with stopping sex trafficking and/or caring for victims either with Amirah or a ministry near them?

SC: We need prayer support (as does everyone involved in this ministry). I send out a prayer partner email every other week and would be happy to have anyone join this list – just shoot me an email and I will add you to our list. Our safe home will only get up and running because it will be covered in prayer. The lives of these women need to be covered in prayer. This is an evil that is so incredibly forceful and we need prayer partners that will lift us up and hold us before the throne of grace – because we will only sustain in this fight through His power, His Spirit and His grace.

You can also become a monthly donor. You may be saying, “It all comes down to money, doesn’t it?” The truth of the matter is that running a safe home that meets the daily needs of these women is not cheap. We can house 10 women in our current safe home, and it is about $20,000 a year per resident. What we need in order to sustain and continue to open more safe homes is monthly support – anywhere from $25 a month all the way up to $1000 a month. We are actively seeking 300 people who will commit in June and July to partnering with us for $25 a month. Just that would provide close to half our annual budget! You can find out more about us at Amirah’s website. You can also find out about volunteering opportunities there.

The biggest step that you can take, no matter where you are, is to begin to educate yourself on this issue and to decide to stop remaining silent about it. All it takes is a google search (how I first discovered Amirah) of ministries in your area, and you can find a way to pray and be involved. Speak up when you hear that people think this only happens “over there.” If you see something that looks like it could be trafficking call the National Hotline (1-888-373-7888). Begin to take steps into this fight and together we can work toward eradicating sex slavery.

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Editor’s Note: Most major metro areas in the United States have ministries and organizations involved in both stopping trafficking and caring for victims. No matter where you live you can take the same steps Stephanie laid out for your own area and your own neighborhood. A great resource to help you learn more and give an eye opening, heart rending account of sex trafficking is The White Umbrella: Walking with Survivors of Sex Trafficking by Mary Frances Bowley of Wellspring Living out of the Atlanta area.