Editor’s Note: Brooke Axtell is the founder of She is Rising, a healing community for survivors of gender violence and sex trafficking. She is the author of “Beautiful Justice: Reclaiming My Worth After Sex Trafficking and Sexual Abuse.” This article is based on an excerpt from the book. The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.
When I speak on sex trafficking in the United States, I meet many people who believe this crime only impacts children from other countries, who are smuggled across our borders. The truth is approximately 83% of sex trafficking victims in the United States are US citizens.
According to a 2016 study by the University of Texas, approximately 79,000 children are victims of sex trafficking in Texas alone. The majority of these children experienced abuse prior to trafficking. Homeless, runaway and foster care youth were identified as being most vulnerable to exploitation.
Through my years as an advocate, the majority of survivors I’ve supported were American girls who were trafficked by someone who posed as a caretaker or potential boyfriend. Instead of being kidnapped, they were subjected to emotional manipulation, physical violence and psychological coercion.
This pattern is confirmed by the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which identified an offer of dating or partnership as a top recruitment strategy of sex traffickers.
In my new memoir “Beautiful Justice: Reclaiming My Worth After Human Trafficking and Sexual Abuse,” I share the story of two American teen girls who were coerced into sex trafficking by a man who offered to help them when they were on the streets. Their story is a common one for sexually exploited youth. Yet their resilience and bravery is extraordinary.
In 2016, the prosecuting attorney for the Texas Attorney General’s office asked me to support these two courageous survivors as they testified at a federal trial in Austin, Texas. On their first day at court, I met the girls, who were 15 and 17 at the time.
The younger one, Lily, was outspoken and sassy. The older one, Kayce (not their real names), was more melancholy and reserved, with gentle, blue eyes. We waited at the courthouse for several days before they were allowed to testify.
The wait was excruciating for them. They knew the man who trafficked them across several states was in the courtroom, trying to convince the judge and jury that the girls “wanted to work” for him when he drugged them and forced them to have sex with up to 10 buyers a day.
As the defense tried to blame the girls and minimize the role of their pimp, I was in a side room trying to help them stay grounded. I told them I was a survivor of sex trafficking as well and they could ask me any questions they wanted about my recovery. They both wanted to know what happened to me and how I got out.
“I was seven and trafficked by my nanny while my mom was in the hospital. It ended when she finally came home.”
“What happened to him?” Lily asked.
“I don’t know. He left. I was too young to understand what happened to me.”
“So you never got justice?”
“No. I had to create my own justice.”
When her turn came to testify, Lily said, “Where am I going to look? I don’t want to look at him.”
“I’m going to sit right in front of the witness stand, and if you start to feel overwhelmed you can just look up at me,” I said.
As we walked toward the courtroom, Lily turned to me and said, “Brooke, I am doing this for myself, but I am also doing this for you, because you never got any justice.”
“You are so brave,” I said, smiling, with tears in my eyes.
Both Lily and Kayce were articulate and courageous on the stand. They spoke clearly about their experience, even when the defense attorney tried to lead them away from the truth. As a result of their testimony and the skilful strategy of the prosecuting attorney, their primary trafficker was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison.
Protecting our children
We need to teach children the red flags for abusive relationships to protect them from the most common tactics traffickers use. Here are a few common red flags that I have witnessed in both dating violence and traffickers posing as boyfriends.
This is the period of time when the abuser is “selling the dream.” It is the honeymoon phase. The abuser quickly makes promises about what he can give the young woman to fulfill her needs and desires.
He will identify what is missing in her life financially and emotionally and then pledge his support. Instead of slowly getting to know the victim, he will immediately start talking about the future and may suggest living together right away.
It is different from healthy giving in that it happens very quickly and creates a dependency on the abuser.
The abuser positions himself as being the only one who can provide for the victim’s material or emotional needs. He does everything he can to distance his victim from any support she may have. This includes criticizing anyone she cares about and trying to turn her against her own family and friends.
He will try to establish control over her life: where she can go, who she can communicate with and what she is allowed to do. If she doesn’t comply she will be punished physically or emotionally.
In the beginning, this may show up as jealousy. A trafficker will eventually demand that she “work” in the sex trade to take care of their “family.” This is often framed as something she has to do to “help.” If she refuses, she will experience emotional and/or physical abuse, including threats against her loved ones.
Other red flags for abusive relationships, in general, that also show up in sex trafficking are:
- Untreated mental health and addiction issues in the abuser.
- Anger that is disproportionate to a situation (small frustrations quickly escalate to rage).
- A psychology of entitlement (an expectation that they should always have their way).
- Speaking about past partners or other women, in general, in derogatory terms.
I advocate for dating violence prevention education highlighting the connection between partner abuse and sex trafficking. In addition to schools, we need to target teen drug and alcohol treatment centers, foster care programs, and homeless youth shelters, so vulnerable and at-risk children know how to spot a potential abuser and find safety.
In order to protect our children, we need to let go of cultural myths about who is trafficked and how it happens. We cannot end child sex trafficking in the US unless we know what are looking for.