Imagine that you’re fourteen and you’ve just met a guy that you really like. He’s sweet and seems to genuinely care about the troubles in your life. You never tell your parents about him because he’s older than you. Late at night you talk on the phone, sharing your thoughts and dreams with him. Soon he convinces you to run away with him - finally, you think, your dreams will come true. It almost seems too good to be true. Could this be an escape to all the pressures of life as a fourteen-year-old? Finally you muster the courage to leave home only to discover that this man you trusted is instead a threatening and manipulative monster. He forces you to work the streets, with him as your pimp.
This isn’t a work of fiction - it’s the true story of Holly Austin Smith, author of “Walking Prey: How America’s Youth Are Vulnerable To Sex Slavery”. In the summer of 1992 she became a survivor of human trafficking. Holly was discovered by a police officer on the street and arrested. Soon after, the truth of what happened to her came to light. The man who tricked, raped, and sexually exploited her served only a single year in jail. Although Holly was quickly recognized as a victim, many others fall through the cracks and are punished as criminals.
300,000 teens become victims of sex-trafficking in the United States alone. Only 1% of the world’s 21 million victims are ever identified. Those forced into sex-trafficking are typically between the ages of 11 and 14. More than half of U.S. states don’t have adequate (or any) Safe Harbor laws in place to help underage victims. Although in 2014, Washington D.C. approved a law to grant immunity from prosecution to minors engaged in sex-trafficking because they are victims, not criminals.
Traffickers prey upon the vulnerable and disadvantaged. Teenagers can be impressionable, making them targets to be coerced, tricked, and ultimately trafficked. Victims are frequently tricked by someone pretending to care, often taking the form of an older man who feigns romantic interest to lure them into a false sense of security. The psychological phenomenon of Stockholm Syndrome can occur when victims feel an emotional connection to their trafficker. This is especially true in cases where victims are also threatened, isolated, and perceive the situation as inescapable.
Even when traffickers are discovered or arrested, too often they are handed light sentences. In many states, promoting prostitution of adult trafficking victims is only a misdemeanor. Criminal charges against victims often remain on their records permanently, unless the conviction is vacated as part of a Safe Harbor agreement. 32 U.S. states still do not allow this.
Life after sex-trafficking is made profoundly difficult by inadequate aftercare. A 2007 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study determined that, “across the board, it was clear that the services provided to this population were inadequate.” When you’re snatched at a pivotal time of development in your life, sexual exploitation of any kind can profoundly change the way you view yourself and others.
Human trafficking is everyone’s problem, and we all share the responsibility to advocate the compassionate rehabilitation of sex-trafficking victims. The “Bring Back Our Girls” movement is one such way that loved ones and victims alike are raising awareness. It was started following the 2013 kidnapping of 230 schoolgirls by Boko Haram. These abominable acts are dehumanizing. Sex-trafficking creates a cycle of punishment and emotional damage that is the antithesis of empowerment. Minors forced into sexual slavery and human trafficking are victims, not criminals. No child should ever suffer the soul-crushing anguish and degradation that inevitably accompanies the tragedy of sexual exploitation.