The 10th Annual International Human Trafficking, Prostitution & Sex Work Conference took place last week in Toledo, a city that, sadly, ranks fourth in the nation in terms of sex trafficking, investigations, arrests and rescue of domestic minors.
Speakers at the conference, held Thursday and Friday (Sept. 26 and 27) at the University of Toledo, said the characteristics of a sex trafficking hub include lenient laws and little risk, proximity to the Canadian border and the East Coast, and an abundance of farms, massage parlors and strip clubs where people can be enslaved.
Like many Americans, slavery wasn’t something I had thought much about. Before attending this conference, my concept of the prostitute was that she would be “the happy hooker” type — someone who had either chosen this path of life to make more money than she could in any other job, or a drug addict earning cash for another fix.
I learned that many times a sex worker is a slave. Sexual slaves can be male or female, adults, teenagers, even children. They may be held in captivity, or seemingly free but in reality they are never free. They are kept in physical, mental or emotional bondage by coercion, extortion, blackmail, addiction or physical abuse. Sometimes, the worker is a slave to economic need.
There are children as young as 3 years old working as sex slaves in Thailand, Nepal and Mozambique, where they are supposedly being taken to “foster homes” but, once there, are used as objects for sex or servitude, according to conference speakers.
We were told about an especially horrific form of slavery: A teen girl is kidnapped, impregnated, and her child taken and raised from infancy, all the while being groomed for life as a sex worker. The mother, meanwhile, continues to work as a sex slave and gives birth to more doomed children.
What the people I talked to most wanted to communicate was that it could happen to anyone. No one wants to be a prostitute when they grow up. The trade preys on the most vulnerable and the perpetrators know well how to spot their next victim. A runaway, a child from an abusive or a troubled home, alcoholics and drug addicts, the homeless – all are potential victims.
That’s the key word — victims. These human beings who get caught in the horrific trap are victims. It could happen to your daughter, the boy next door, or a struggling single mom. That’s what this conference was all about — raising awareness of the plight of trafficking victims.
The conference, founded through the efforts of UT professor Celia Williamson, was attended by researchers, survivors, activists, professionals in the social services, criminal justice, and health care fields, and Mayor Mike Bell of Toledo.
Ohio passed last year the Safe Harbor Law that increases penalties for adults who profit from human trafficking and treats juveniles forced into prostitution as victims with access to treatment, counseling and other services.
The law was championed by Rep. Teresa Fedor (D. Toledo) who now is advocating for the End Demand Act that would further address trafficking in the state. The proposed law increases penalties for the solicitation of minors.
“It is imperative we build on this momentum in Ohio to continue to make great strides in increasing awareness about trafficking and curbing the practice that continues to victimize far too many young people,” said Williamson, who also is the founder of Second Chance, a social service program located in Toledo that provides comprehensive services to victims of domestic sex trafficking and prostitution and a member of the Ohio Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Commission.
For two days, the conference offered three simultaneous presentations each hour.
All aspects of the problem were addressed. The purpose was to teach and learn about the latest research, practices, and activism. They addressed the marketing techniques used in the sex trade, pornography, political and human rights, and the particular problems of women, youth and transgendered people.
They discussed strategies for treatment — the lists goes on, with 44 presentations and two keynote speakers.
One of the keynote speakers, Sarita Skagnes, is the author of “Just a Daughter.” It was published in Norway in 2007, Finland in 2010, Sweden in 2012 and Sri Lanka in 2013. She has received several awards for her book, including “Apenhetspis,” an openness and honesty award.
In the book, she tells the story of her upbringing in Punjab, India, where daughters are deemed to have little to no value. Her father traded her for her male cousin, leaving her with no one who truly loved her. She was at the mercy of people who didn’t care about her at all. Her only purpose was to serve. She suffered great physical and emotional abuse. She faced her life with grace, courage and great fortitude. She escaped that life and is now a successful author and lecturer.
I read her book cover-to-cover in one sitting. I won’t spoil it — you can buy it here.
The next speaker, Theresa Flores, has a very different story. She was raised in an affluent suburb near Detroit. At 15, she was raped, pictures were taken, threats were made and she was blackmailed for two years, helpless to do anything but obey. She escaped, too, when her parents finally moved. She endured the whole thing without disclosing her agony to anyone. Her tormentors silenced her with threats against her family if she told anyone, and she bravely went through hell to protect them. Now she is a licensed social worker and has a master’s degree in counseling education. Flores is an active member of the Ohio Attorney General’s Trafficking in Persons Commission and received the “The Courage Award” from Ohio Governor John Kasich for her work to stop human Trafficking.
Flores wrote “The Sacred Bath” and “The Slave Across the Street,” both award-winning books. “The Slave Across the Street” is on the Wall Street Journal and USA Today best-seller lists. She also runs a rescue organization called SOAP, which puts bars of soap in motels frequented by sex workers. Each bar is wrapped in paper with toll-free helpline numbers printed on them so that people seeking to escape trafficking can call for help.
I bought and read “The Slave Across the Street,” and stayed up all night reading the entire book, in which Flores describes her experiences as a teenaged trafficking victim. It changed how I view so many things, from the sullen girl on the bus to the car that peels away from a neighbor’s house to the skimpily dressed “tweens” in the mall.
I was amazed at the depth and scope and breadth of this problem. It’s absolutely overwhelming.
It is a worldwide problem, but it is especially bad in Toledo, which is ranked fourth in the nation — not a distinction to be proud of.
As people of conscience, as people of God, we have a responsibility to act against this evil.
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Below are links to websites that can provide ways to help and to be helped.
SERVICES & PROGRAMS:
Adriel: Foster care & adoption,family `coaching,respite services, foster care & group home placement, parent education
Children’s Advocacy Center: Family & Child Abuse Prevention Center.
The Daughter Project: Christian holistic prevention and survivors’ recovery program.
Destiny Rescue: Christian rescue – children from sexual slavery –Thailand,Cambodia,India, Burma and Mozambique.
The Lucas County Delta Project Family and Child Abuse Prevention.
A Renewed Mind: Mental health and substance abuse treatment for youth, adults and families.
Rahab’s Heart: Faith-based Protestant rescue services for street-level prostitution.
Second Chance: Toledo Area Ministries supportive services to women, youth and families affected by or at risk for involvement in sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation.
Zonta Club of Toledo: Advancing the status of women worldwide.
Trafficking Education Network: Education and certification in fields of human trafficking, criminal justice, health care, social work or counseling, and other helping professions.
Stop Trafficking of Persons (S.T.O.P.): Anti-trafficking program founded by five Toledo-area Catholic nuns religious orders provides DVDs, videos, books, articles and binders.
Make a Stand: 8-year-old Vivienne Harrs’ lemonade stand to end child slavery.
People Called Women: Books, gifts, music and more.