January is “Human Trafficking Awareness” month, but for many Americans the term is likely to call to mind Hollywood scenarios, with Albanian Mafiosos kidnapping fresh-faced college students, vile foreign millionaires in the shadows bidding on scantily clad girls quaking on auction blocks, while a hero (Liam Neeson, maybe) is prowling in the background, hell-bent on rescue and vengeance.
Actually, the trafficking problem is much closer to home. The Hollywood scripts make great movies, but they are a far cry from what trafficking victims actually experience, and they sidestep what amounts to an epidemic in human trafficking that is playing out in communities across America.
A case in point is West Virginia’s eastern panhandle, where the Shenandoah Women’s Center has been operating for over 30 years to provide services to victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, LGBT targeting, and trafficking.
In our state, which leads the nation in poverty and drug overdoses, trafficking frequently looks more like this: A drug-addicted parent loses his or her job and other supports, and spirals downward into addiction. With nothing left to sell or steal, the addict decides to sell their partner—or their child—for drugs or money.
“Anne” is a classic example of how the opioid crisis in West Virginia has fueled human trafficking. Anne was a 25-year-old white woman with no kids, living in the urban Martinsburg area. She had a history of childhood trauma and no stable family ties. After Anne’s boyfriend started using heroin, she soon became addicted as well. A few years into their relationship he told her that she would need to start sleeping with some of his friends and drug connections.
Although Anne didn’t want to, she did it. About a year into the arrangement, she encountered some violent johns who wanted her to perform sex acts she wasn’t comfortable with. Anne told her boyfriend that she wanted to stop. It was at that point that he threatened her life. Finally, after a brutal rape, she called our hotline and entered our shelter.
Anne was one of the first victims our agency labeled as being trafficked by an intimate partner. Although we had been serving victims like her for years, we hadn’t been identifying them as trafficking victims. Anne said that many of her friends on the street had similar stories, and in fact, referred a number of women to us over the years.
Identifying victims of inter-familial trafficking can be difficult. Children often are unaware that money has exchanged hands. It is common for perpetrators to go through a grooming process with young teens who may feel that this person is their “boyfriend.” Meanwhile, the individual is not aware that he or she has been bought for sex.
Crittenton Services is a trauma-focused residential treatment facility serving girls in ages 12-18 in West Virginia. In a Jan. 3 interview, Laura Smith, clinical therapist at Crittenton Services told NPR’s Morning Edition that at least nine of the 30 girls living in the facility at that time reported they were sexually trafficked by a family member.
“So in those cases, they don’t understand mom or dad is getting money on the side from that relationship, too,” Smith said. “That part is kind of hidden, usually when the girls feel like they’re in a relationship with those individuals.”
Intimate partners such as wives or girlfriends are sometimes viewed by the legal system and those “outside” of the situation as prostitutes or, perhaps, as victims of domestic violence.
But under the definition of trafficking as the “use of fraud, force or coercion” to obtain labor or commercial sex, they have been trafficked. Additionally, while the vast majority of trafficking victims are female, boys and men are not immune.
Our program serves the three counties in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, home to both rural and DC Metro areas. Berkeley County is split down the middle by Interstate 81. Easy travel via the Interstate, close proximity to large cities, the desperation of living in an extremely rural and impoverished state all make our region susceptible to both trafficking and opioid abuse.
According to Shared Hope International, 90 percent of prostitutes and those working in the commercial sex industry are controlled by a pimp or a trafficker. That staggering statistic should give us all pause.
We see them every day: Young girls and women walking the streets of downtown Martinsburg, near the 7-Eleven. Hanging out at the hotels on Winchester Avenue where most of us wouldn’t even pull in to do a U-turn in broad daylight.
What if, instead of a fleeting moment of pity and revulsion, we thought of these people as victims? Are they drug addicts? Probably. Addiction has been an issue with at least half, if not more, of the trafficking victims we serve at the Shenandoah Women’s Center. It is much easier for a trafficker to control an addict.
“You can make someone do just about anything when they are dope sick,” according to Katie Spriggs, executive director of the Shenandoah Center.
Consider this. The average age a victim enters “the life” of prostitution is between 12 and 14. Traffickers are experts in selecting victims who are vulnerable and even have their own glossary of terms to refer to both perpetrators and victims.
For example, a “Romeo Pimp” prides himself on his ability to control his girls primarily through psychological manipulation. These pimps often shower their victims with expensive gifts, dates, and affection while recruiting them, but extreme violence is a constant threat.
In 2016, Carlos Curtis, currently serving a life sentence for trafficking a 12-year-old girl, spoke to a Baltimore Sun reporter about the grooming process.
“Why does a prostitute need a pimp?” Curtis said. “To guide her, to love her, to protect her. The pimp is her father that she never had. He is that big brother that she misses, or the boyfriend from back in the day…
“He is the popular guy in school that never paid her attention in class. To her, he is what Christ is to a Christian… The blood that pumps in her heart and keeps her legs moving. Without him, there’s no her.”
The term “Guerilla Pimp” refers to a pimp who uses physical violence and force to control his victims. If a girl is resistant to being “turned out,” she may be put through the “seasoning” process. This includes psychological abuse; gang rape; beatings; sodomy; deprivation of food, water and sleep; holding her children hostage; or threatening loved ones.
Seasoning is a pimp’s way of breaking victims and ensuring their compliance. When a vulnerable girl realizes what she has gotten into, it is often too late for her to escape safely, or the feelings she has for her trafficker, similar to those of victims of domestic abuse, keep her tethered to him by a sick sense of loyalty and gratefulness.
To date, the Shenandoah Women’s Center has served an estimated 150 victims since 2012.
“As we have done our research, trained our staff, and done outreach, our numbers are rising exponentially. We realize now that we have been serving trafficking victims all along, but they were not labeled as such,” Spriggs said.
“We have no way of knowing how many we are missing. I think the problem is much bigger than anyone realizes.”
What can the average person do to help? At the Shenandoah Women’s Center, advocates are trained to recognize and serve victims of Human Trafficking. We conduct outreach to truck stops and hotels. We partner with local medical providers as well as interested persons in the community to enable them to recognize a victim when they encounter one. We provide medical and legal advocacy, counseling services, an emergency shelter, and a 24-hour victim hotline for victims all at no cost.
We also reach into schools to talk to kids about this issue in hopes of preventing students from becoming victims, and to enable teachers and counselors to spot at-risk children.
Rebecca Bender, a survivor and nationally recognized expert on domestic Human Trafficking, says that it is time to stop glamorizing prostitution and the sex industry. Lured away from her Oregon home with her young daughter by her trafficker, whom she thought was her boyfriend, she was trafficked in Las Vegas and traded between three pimps for six years before escaping.
“Those who bought me were usually in denial. They wanted to believe I was working my way through school and that I was, in fact, that independent ‘happy hooker’,” Bender said. “They’d say things like, ‘You’re putting yourself through college, right?’ As if they were grasping at any last justification of their own conscience.”
On her website, Bender said the day of reckoning is on the way.
“It will be here sooner if the truth about prostitution were known,” she writes. “If men and women would stand up and start changing the way our culture glamorizes and normalizes ‘prostitution.’”
Each of us can do something.
Educate yourself on this crisis. Have compassion when you see someone you think could be a victim. Teach your sons to respect women, and most importantly, hold your daughters close and show them how special they are.
Step into the life of an at-risk young person in your circle.
You could be the one who prevents him or her from falling prey to a modern-day slave owner.
Kristin Detrow is is a freelance writer who lives with her husband and three children in Maryland. She is a Sexual Assault, Stalking and Human Trafficking Victim Advocate at the Shenandoah Women’s Center in Martinsburg, WV. Kris welcomes readers’ comments.