You might think sex trafficking happens only big-city back alleys, or Third World countries.
You would be wrong.
It’s happening in rural America, and not only to adults. Kids as young as middle-schoolers can be victims. In fact, the average age of a person forced into sex trafficking is 13 to 14.
And it’s not just the missing or runaways who are suspected victims. It could be happening to a child living with you now, experts say.
Maybe she meets an older guy. He pays attention to her, flatters her, invites her to a party. The guy – or a teen working with him – slips something into her drink, takes compromising photos, maybe even photos of her being sexually assaulted. Then he threatens her: Do what I say, or I’ll post these photos. I’ll send them to your parents, I’ll send them to your friends.
Terrified and ashamed, she becomes his next earner.
Illinois is rated fifth in the nation for incidents of human trafficking, of which sex trafficking by far is the largest component, along with labor trafficking.
Chicago and Rockford are the two largest sex trafficking hubs. Interstates 39, 80, 88 and 90, which crisscross Ogle, Lee, Bureau and Whiteside counties and run on into Iowa, are major thoroughfares over which the practice is spread.
Victims, both boys and girls, are “recruited” in many different ways, said Lori Johnson, vice president of Rockford Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, a nonprofit agency dedicated to trying to end the practice by helping victims, educating law enforcement, and raising community awareness.
Pimps and traffickers will sell sex from places you might expect, like exotic dance clubs and massage parlors, but also from unexpected spots, like lingerie stores – any place that can double as a storefront but still is private enough for illicit backroom activity.
They create brothels by preying on the vulnerable, especially youths, offering them drugs, food, a free place to live, then demanding they help earn money in order to stay. Truck stops also are prime locations for the sex trade.
Traffickers look for their victims in places youths frequent – the internet, including Facebook, is a huge tool, the space in which children are the most susceptible to falling into the industry, along with schools, malls, parks, bus stops, shelters, group homes, even teen parties.
Age is the biggest factor when it come to being vulnerable. Pre-teens or adolescent girls, especially those with low self-esteem, often are targeted, as are runaway or homeless youths, or those with a history of physical and sexual abuse.
“Maybe they are shy, maybe they don’t have enough self-esteem or maybe they’re neglected at home,” Johnson said. “Oftentimes there’s been some kind of abuse in their childhood, but they’re looking for love and they’re looking for romance and they’re looking for someone to pay attention to them.”
Those children often fall victim to what Johnson calls a “Romeo” pimp, a person who acts like a boyfriend, gaining their trust by buying them things, introducing them to drugs and creating a financial and emotional dependency.
The relationship blossoms like a romance until one day the victim is told she now owes him for all the things he has done for her. Failure to do as she’s told then typically involves some type of threat – cutting off the drugs, public humiliation, physical harm.
“Once that happens, he’s got her,” Johnson said. Through such manipulation, the pimp engenders such a fear of authority that it’s much more difficult for a victim to seek help to escape the situation.
That’s where RAASE can help.
Most women would rather die than go through withdrawals in jail, so one of the services RAASE offers victims is medical detox. It also provides safe housing in and out of state for those needing to escape their pimps.
RAASE staff also put on workshops and seminars for law enforcement, health care workers, educators and other groups.
In fact, they recently had a training session for the Ogle County state’s attorney’s office, the Sheriff’s Department, Rochelle Police and other nearby agencies.
“[The training] really opened our eyes to the fact there could be some of these things going on in small Ogle County and Lee County,” State’s Attorney Eric Morrow said.
Lee County Sheriff John Simonton said he hopes to hold a training session for his officers shortly after the new year.
RAASE and other groups hope such training will persuade police to focus less on the victims – the ones most often arrested – and more on the root of the problem: those buying the sex.
Many victims have trouble leaving their pimps, or won’t say much to police if they are arrested for fear of retaliation from their pimps, so tracking and catching pimps and johns is difficult, said Lynne Johnson, policy director at the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation.
Investigators often put little time and effort into charging the pimps and johns, which only exacerbates the situation.
“It’s about whether local leadership sees [trafficking] as a problem,” Johnson said.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
A person might be involved with sex trafficking if he or she:
• Is dressing differently and all of a sudden has nice things without the resources to buy them.
• Is more withdrawn or isolated, or has other notable emotional changes.
• Is in a relationship with an older person and is acting differently, such as being more shy or submissive.
• Is showing signs of physical abuse, such as burns.
• Is showing signs of drug abuse.
Source: Rockford Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation
TO BOOK A PRESENTATION
The Rockford Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation's mission is to promote safe communities by raising awareness of local sex trafficking.
To this end, RAASE will provide education and training sessions for human service providers, civic groups, youth groups, faith-based communities, health care professionals, hotel management and staff, law enforcement and educators.
RAASE has a 45- to 60-minute presentation that can be tailored to a specific group’s needs.
The group also is working to create an age-appropriate middle school curriculum.
The Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, 773-244-2230, caase.org and on Facebook, and the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, humantraffickinghotline.org or 888-373-7888, also can provide help for victims, resources, and more information.