Every year, over 100,000 American children are trafficked for sex: stalked by pimps in their schools and neighborhoods, brutally exploited in a $9.8 billion a year industry.
Children. Their average age is 13. They are lured away with promises, and coerced with threats. They are starved, drugged, imprisoned, beaten, tortured, gang raped. They are sold—filmed and photographed; rented by the hour for sex; sometimes killed.
And it’s happening in the Pacific Northwest.
Meet Brianna. She grew up in a loving two-parent home in La Center, Washington, a little town surrounded by rolling fields, with a view of the Cascades. Brianna did well in sports and school, worked part-time as a waitress, and planned to attend nursing school.
Then she met Nick.
Nick was a handsome college football player from Seattle who started coming to the café where Brianna worked. He flirted, struck up a friendship, and days after she turned 18, invited her to Seattle. There he bought her expensive presents, let her stay in his spare room, and got her a job so she could earn money for college.
In hindsight, red flags were everywhere: The job was in a strip club. That first night, Brianna worked for four hours and made more than $300—much better money than waitressing—but somehow Nick ended up pocketing most of the money. Then he invited her to Vegas, where the real money was. He wanted to take her phone. He was in the process of isolating her from her family and friends. And he was so smooth that Brianna didn’t realize anything was wrong.
Fortunately, her friend Evan recognized the warning signs Brianna missed.
Fortunately, her friend Evan recognized the warning signs Brianna missed. She needed to return her dad’s car before heading to Vegas, and she asked Evan to drive her back to Seattle. He agreed—then got help.
Meet Linda Smith. A graduate of Fort Vancouver High School, Smith has lived in Southwest Washington most of her life. A mother of two and grandmother of six, she worked for years as a tax consultant, until a legislative vote doubling her business taxes spurred her into politics. She spent the next 16 years as a Washington State Representative, a Washington State Senator, and finally a Congresswoman. Then in 1998, as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Smith was invited to India, where she visited Mumbai’s notorious Falkland Road brothel district.
She prayed with them at a tiny church—and watched their owners call them out of the service to be with a client.
She saw thousands of women and girls—many as young as her 11-year-old granddaughter—literally caged, and sold to as many as 40 customers a day. She prayed with them at a tiny church—and watched their owners call them out of the service to be with a client. She learned their stories—how they were sold, kidnapped, beaten, starved, raped.
And she decided that God had put her there so that she could do something about it. With a few phone calls, Shared Hope International was born.
Shared Hope’s first mission was to “rescue and restore”—to get trafficking victims out of the industry, give them a safe place to heal, and offer them hope for the future. So they started a mobile HIV/aids clinic and food van, to help women still in the brothels. They founded Homes of Hope, which work with existing local organizations to provide food, housing, medical care, counseling, education, and job training. They created the Women’s Investment Network to give survivors the ability to support themselves. Smith says, “Our outline was simple: get well first, become mentally and physically stable, and then start building your future.”
But it wasn’t enough to intervene once someone had been prostituted; Shared Hope wanted to stop her from being prostituted at all. Prevention became a key part of their work, with a focus on both education and legal reform. In countries around the world—India, Nepal, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Moldova, Fiji, Indonesia, South Africa, Singapore—Shared Hope hosted training seminars, backed public awareness campaigns, and worked to increase punishment for traffickers and protection for victims, all while continuing their work of rescue and restoration.
And then their comparative review of sex trafficking in different cultures and regions of the world revealed what was happening in the United States: While the government was working to help the approximately 18,000 men, women, and children smuggled into the US each year for labor or sex, more than 100,000 American children—boys and girls—were being added to the ranks of sex trafficking victims annually. The focus of US anti-trafficking efforts needed to change.
So Shared Hope set out to do at home what they had been doing around the world: change laws; punish traffickers and buyers; protect victims; help survivors; and educate lawmakers, law enforcement, service providers, and community members. With offices in Washington, DC, and Vancouver, WA, their efforts span the US. But nowhere are they more active than in the Pacific Northwest.
Several Shared Hope board members hail from the Northwest, and when the organization talks about “key cities,” Seattle and Portland have made the list from the beginning, with new training tools utilized for the first time in Skagit County, Vancouver, Olympia, and Redmond. Shared Hope has been instrumental in passing tougher anti-trafficking legislation in Washington and Oregon. They partner with the Washington’s Genesis Project to provide shelter and recovery tools for trafficking survivors, and have just opened a new safe house in the region. Local headlines document the results of their advocacy: “Tacoma man gets 23 years in sex trafficking case,” “Tough child sex trafficking bill clears Oregon Legislature,” “Report: 469 child victims of sex trafficking in Portland in last 4 years,” “Portland teens rescued in US sex traffic sting.”
Brianna was lucky. When she asked Evan for a ride, he turned for help to his dad, who got in touch with the woman who had presented on sex trafficking at his Rotary club: Linda Smith. Brianna came home to drop off the car and found her parents and Smith waiting for her. As Smith told story after story of trafficking victims, Brianna began to realize that all those stories sounded just like hers. She cut off all contact with Nick. She escaped. Today Brianna works with Shared Hope to share her story, hoping she can help other young women avoid her mistakes.
They’re mistakes that are all too easy to make. People often think that “good kids from good homes” aren’t really at risk. But while age (pre-teens and teens are most vulnerable), a history of abuse, and a volatile situation as a runaway or a homeless child make someone more vulnerable, Brianna’s story is one of many emphasizing that anyone can become a victim.
Pimps are experts at finding and exploiting vulnerability. Shamere was a 21-year-old college junior on an athletic scholarship when she was trafficked. She spent 18 months in the industry. Jennifer was 13, a good student at her rural Clark County, WA, middle school. She was trafficked for years. Everyone has hopes and dreams, and those are the very things pimps use to manipulate their victims. Shared Hope’s work in raising community awareness gives people the tools they need to protect themselves and look out for each other.
In any country, in any culture, one thing determines the extent of sex trafficking: demand. Pimps wouldn’t sell children if people weren’t buying them, and people wouldn’t buy them if it wasn’t, to some extent, socially acceptable. “[W]e are culpable,” Smith says. “Cultural tolerance—in other words, you and I pretending that trafficking doesn’t exist—forms the backdrop for the operation of commercial sex markets and dictates their breadth, diversity, and strength.” And there is definitely cultural tolerance for trafficking in the US, with widespread acceptance of shows like MTV’s “Pimp My Ride,” songs like Jay-Z’s wildly popular “Big Pimpin’,” and video games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, where “pimping”—driving a prostituted woman to a buyer—is one of the “missions” players can complete.
But even one person whose eyes are open can save a life.
The problem of sex trafficking is so big and so terrible that sometimes fighting it seems hopeless. It would be easier to look away. But even one person whose eyes are open can save a life. And taking action can be as small a thing as speaking up the next time someone says “pimping” like it’s a good thing.
To learn more, check out SharedHope.org or follow them on Facebook or Twitter.