It’s sex trafficking, not prostitution, and it’s happening here

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By Claire VanValkenburg

“Talking about human trafficking is difficult. Experiencing it is harder,” reads the campaign poster of WI, We Need to Talk, an initiative organized by the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families (DCF).

It’s a powerful ad aimed at addressing the sex trafficking epidemic occurring across Madison. According to an investigation by the Wisconsin State Journal, police have identified about 300 girls under the age of 18 who were trafficked between 2012 and 2016. Additionally, in a 2011 study on the prevalence of sex trafficking in Dane County, a pediatrician estimated 90 percent of girls at the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center had some history of sex trafficking.

Some would say Madison is thriving. The GDP is growing, and job opportunities are increasing, but sex trafficking is not a distant crime. It’s happening right under our noses. But how do victims end up trapped in such a pervasive yet evasive system?

Typically, it begins when a young girl runs away. Perhaps she is attempting to escape abusive parents or a toxic foster care family. She will find herself homeless and alone — but not for long. A third of runaways girls will be coerced into sex trafficking within the first 48 hours of being on the street. It happens at the food court, at the bus stop, outside of homeless shelters.

Pimps, or men looking to financially benefit from coercing girls into having sex for money, will approach girls who appear lost, frazzled, or generally vulnerable in public places around Madison.

They will offer them a place to stay, some cash, a few meals, and usually highly-addictive drugs. Often, she will accept. But before the week is up — she owes him. He says he needs sex in exchange for providing her with a bed, food, clothes, protection, cash and drugs.

“I ran away from home at 13. For two nights I slept in a boiler room of an apartment building on the west side. The third night I ran into an 18-year-old on the bus. He had sex with me when I was 12 and he was 17. He let me stay with him for 4 days in at an apartment on the west side in exchange for sex,” a 20-year-old sex trafficking survivor said in the 2011 Dane County study.

Victims often become addicted to drugs, and dependent on their pimps for food, protection and shelter, making it hard for them to just walk away. At this point, the pimp will begin trying to make money off the victim, creating listings that attempt to sell her sex to others. This is known as a “trick.” He’ll pay $11 to put her first escort ad on Backpage, a website used to advertise girls to local men for sex. Men can buy a “date” with the girl of their choice, then agree to meet for sex — usually in a motel or parking lot.

She’ll get the money, but after a few tricks, she will owe him for the motel rooms and the ads. The pimp may threaten to beat her if she doesn’t pay up. So she pays, but doesn’t have money left to escape and nowhere to escape to, having run away from her family.  

Wisconsin statute 948.051 defines child sex trafficking as knowingly attempting to “recruit, entice, provide, obtain, harbor, transport, patronize, or solicit any child for the purpose of commercial sex acts.” This is different from prostitution because rather than someone choosing to sell sex, a victim of sex trafficking is coerced into the act.

Social Transformations to End Exploitation and Trafficking for Sex (STREETS) is an organization in Madison aimed at spreading awareness about sex trafficking in Madison. But instead of encouraging community members to address the problem, STREETS tackles sex trafficking by amplifying the voices of victims.

“Survivor voices are critical to understanding the problem and how to both confront it and support the people affected. It takes creative collaboration to provide safe spaces for survivors to share their own diverse views with researchers and practitioners working on the challenge of human trafficking. STREETS has provided such a space for unusual forms of fruitful collaboration and that is our proudest accomplishment,” Co-Director of UW-STREETS Initiative, Dr. Jean M. Geran, said over email.

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According to the aforementioned 2011 Dane County study, it can be difficult for law enforcement to determine whether a person is a victim of sex trafficking. For example, if an officer arrests a victim for drug possession, and the officer hasn’t been trained on identifying sex trafficking warning signs, then appropriate mental health or medical services may not be provided to the victim.

“Nobody knew what was going on. No one asked if anything was wrong. I didn’t look like I was out there doing it… I didn’t ask for help because I didn’t want anyone to know,” A 30-year-old survivor who became involved with sex trafficking at age 13 said in the 2011 Dane County study.

Often, victims will hide the truth from authorities because the issue is so intricately tied with other crimes like drug use and theft. Additionally, victims may be fearful of the consequences. Pimps may threaten victims with violence if they attempt to leave, and a victim may not have a safe place to go upon escape.

STREETS and WI, We Need to Talk are just two of many resources and organizations around Madison working to end sex trafficking. Slave Free Madison is a community-based coalition that advocates for legislative change. Polaris is a national organization that offers a 24/7 hotline to victims of sex trafficking, among other efforts. The 2011 Dane County study offers a list of organizations that have worked with victims of sex trafficking directly.

If you or someone you know is a victim of sex trafficking, or would like more information about the issue, you can reach out to the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1 (888) 373-7888. Or, report the suspected activity to the Wisconsin Department of Children and families.

By Claire VanValkenburg

Who are the victims?

According to the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children: Dane County Needs Assessment, there are various compounding factors that attribute to a person’s likelihood of becoming a victim of sex trafficking. When these factors go unchecked, they can fuel the expanse and prevalence of the issue. 

Research reports that if a person has experienced childhood abuse they are more likely to become a victim of sex trafficking. This can range from physical abuse, to emotional abuse, but the largest indicator of sex trafficking victimization is experiencing sexual trauma in early adolescent development. 

People living in poverty, drug addicts, or people involved in gangs are also more likely to fall victim to sex trafficking. The study attributes this to a victim’s need for food and shelter, or an unshakable drug addiction because trafficking can protection, shelter, and money to fuel an addiction.

There are many pathways that lead victims to sex trafficking, and once a person is in the network, it’s incredibly difficult to escape. Researchers point out that it is important to keep these various factors and pathways in mind when looking for solutions so that advocates can be sure to address the entire issue, rather than just a cross section of it. 

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