By Jill Gruenberg, CCASA Blogger
Through tears she told the story of how her husband seemed kind at the start of their relationship. Only after they had married and moved to the U.S., did he begin to abuse her: emotionally, verbally, and physically. The abuse was bad enough, but soon he began to force her to have sex with his friends and acquaintances for money. With visible bruises, she even told her story to the police and nothing happened. Married to an abusive husband, isolated from friends and family, with no money or job of her own, in a foreign country without the ability to speak English, this young woman found herself both a victim of domestic violence and sexual exploitation. And yet remarkably she used her courage and strength to escape from this life of abuse and later to tell her story for the first time to the 78 people gathered at the El Jebel Community Center on December 3rd, 2012 to attend a training given by the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking (LCHT).
On January 31, 1865 the United States abolished slavery with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. Although at one time the practice of indentured servitude deeply divided the nation, today it would be difficult to find an individual who would argue for the continuation of a practice that is recognized as barbaric, dehumanizing, and unjust. Yet shockingly, there still exists a pervasive yet concealed form of modern day slavery known as human trafficking. Human trafficking is the sexual and/or labor exploitation of another human being through the use of force, fraud, or coercion such as physical restraint, threats, the withholding of documents, the withholding of wages, or psychological manipulation. Victims are subject to physical, mental, emotional, psychological, and often sexual abuse. Simply put, human trafficking is no less than a form of theft and violence against an individual in which traffickers rob victims of their most basic human rights and dignity. While many of us are familiar with examples of human trafficking that routinely occur across the world such as the youth sex trade in Thailand or the labor trafficking that commonly occurs in China, very few of us are aware of the human trafficking that occurs daily in the United States and Colorado.
Commercial sex trafficking can unfortunately occur anywhere, as we seem to inhabit a world with an insatiable appetite for pornography, prostitution, escort services, and strip clubs. According to LCHT, in Denver alone, $60 million dollars per year is spent on the sex industry. If one is willing to look closely, it is inescapable to acknowledge the distasteful truth of sex trafficking which is that it most often begins as the sexual exploitation of minors. Just take a look at the following statistics provided by Detective Brent Struck of the Lakewood Police Department: 1)the average age of entry into prostitution is between 12 to 14 years old, 2)within 72 hours, 30% of homeless youth will be approached for sexual exploitation, 3) 92% of prostitutes report wanting to leave the sex industry, but are unable to, 4)prostitutes report being beaten 58 times per year by their pimp, 5) it takes a mere 48 – 72 hours for a trafficker to gain psychological and therefore physical control of their victim, and 6) 15% of U.S. men have paid for sex in their lifetime.
As a society we have not acknowledged that there is a spectrum of reasons that individuals work in the sex industry, and there are many who do not do so by choice. Perhaps this biased perception is what allows our criminal justice system to hold women working in prostitution to a greater level of accountability, societal shame, and negative judgment for their crime than the “Johns” that pay for them or even the pimps that exploit them. The simple reality is that traffickers provide food, shelter, clothing, and even the promise of love to their recruits, and for most that enter the sex trade these are the basic necessities of survival that they see no other way to obtain. Detective Brent Struck also explains that most victims of trafficking experience a perverse form of Stockholm Syndrome and trauma bonding in which they are loyal to their trafficker, blame themselves for their abuse, and view their pimp as giving them life rather than taking away their rights. It is easy as an outsider to view pimps and traffickers as the “bad guys”, but I believe that until we as a culture examine our own ignorance, deeply held beliefs and misconceptions about trafficking there will continue to be a sex trade that thrives on the subjugation and manipulation of others.
Just like we found societal justifications to enslave fellow human beings in the 1800s or to look the other way while others did the same, we are today allowing teenagers to become enslaved in the deeply abusive commercial sex trade and those without power or a voice to be oppressed in unfair labor conditions . Sadly, the exploitation of vulnerable human beings is not only a product of other eras, countries, or cultures. If you’d like to learn more about how you can become involved in the effort to prevent human trafficking please visit “polarisproject.org” and if you suspect an individual is a victim of trafficking please call CONEHT (Colorado Network to End Human Trafficking) at 1-866-455-5075.
Jill Gruenberg has worked for 7 years as the Advocacy and Prevention Program Coordinator for RESPONSE: Help for Victims of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault in Pitkin County. She is grateful to MESA: Moving to End Sexual Assault for the wonderful introduction to the field of advocacy and working with sexual assault survivors.