Sex trafficking: Closer, more threatening, misunderstood

May 2015 Posted in Community, News
Help is available
There is confidential support
regarding any kind of interpersonal
violence – sexual assault,
domestic violence or child abuse:

Ester Craig
County Line Safety Compass
503-400-2801 (confidential voicemail)
or see Facebook page.

Kirstin Heydel
Center for Hope and Safety
24-Hour hotline: 503-399-7722

By Kristine Thomas

It’s not like in the movies. Prostitutes are not glamorous like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. Those buying sex –  the “johns” – are not polite like actor Richard Gere.  The pimps – exploiting others sexually for financial gain – don’t all wear fedoras with pink feathers and chunky gold necklaces. And sex trafficking is not like the movie Taken.

Ask Kirstin Heydel and Esther Craig, each with years of experience working with the survivors of sex trafficking

The stories they tell aren’t glamorous, polite and flashy. They are gritty, frightening and grim. The two quickly dispel the myths and provide the facts.

While they don’t share confidential information about individuals, they do make the case that sex trafficking happens closer to home than most people would like to acknowledge or know.

Heydel works for the Center of Hope and Safety in Salem. Craig started County Line Safety Compass last year.

On April 30, the pair presented a sex-trafficking awareness program to about 25 people in the Silverton High School auditorium. The event was hosted by Silverton Area Community Aid.

“We want to start a conversation to increase sex-trafficking awareness,” Craig said. “To begin with, instead of calling it trafficking, we call it commercial sexual exploitation.”

Modern-day slavery

According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s website, “Human trafficking is a modern-day form of slavery involving the illegal trade of people for exploitation or commercial gain.”

The website states that millions of men, women and children are trafficked around the world, including the United States.

“It is estimated that human trafficking is a $32 billion per year industry, second only to drug trafficking as the most profitable form of transnational crime,” the website reports. “Human trafficking is a hidden crime, as victims rarely come forward to seek help because of language barriers, fear of the traffickers, and/or fear of law enforcement.”

Too often, Craig said, people think sex trafficking means people are taken from one country to another to work. Commercial sexual exploitation is happening everywhere in the United States, she said, including in Salem and nearby small communities.

An ‘organized’ crime 

Craig said the majority of commercial sexual exploitation is done by organized crime groups, like traditional gangs.

While a gang member can sell drugs or weapons and get a one-time profit, a person can be sold numerous times in one day. Pimps take the money “earned”; the women and children used don’t receive it.

“We must educate people that buying a girl is not supporting her as she works her way through college or whatever myth the consumer is telling themselves to feel good about themselves while they buy that girl or woman,” Craig said.

“Every child has a pimp who is taking all that money. So none of them are personally profiting.”

What sex buyers should realize, Craig said, is that when they buy sex they should feel confident their dollars are going to fund organized crime and in some cases even terrorist groups.

Profiles of ‘buyers’ and ‘sellers’ 

Craig said people have a false stereotype about or the men who pay for sex. “Johns” are anybody and everybody, Craig said, adding she used to teach a diversion class to men who were arrested for soliciting sex. The men she met weren’t men people would think would pay for sex.

Craig asked the audience what words they associated with the word prostitute.

Responses included hooker, drugs, money, homeless kids, criminal and stripper.

Then she asked for words that came to mind when she said, “child sexual abuse victim/survivor.”  The audience responded with rape, innocent, exploited, secret, trauma, shame and fear.

Craig told her audience most people in the sex trade are not in it by choice.

“We heap a lot of negativity on people in the sex trade,” Craig said. “What we need to understand is people working in the sex trade were coerced or forced into it, often by the pimp lying to her.”

She educates people about commercial sexual exploitation so they can understand the dynamics and put the blame on the pimps and johns and come to see the survivors as “strong, respectable people who deserve justice.”

Grooming the victim

Craig said pimps carefully pick their victims, often looking for females who are vulnerable. Initially, the girl or woman thinks the pimp is her boyfriend. He is kind, attentive and makes her believe he genuinely cares for her. He asks lots of questions and then he becomes those things that she needs. Meanwhile the pimp does little things to separate his victim from her family and friends, making her rely on him even more.

“Pimps know how to recruit and groom the person,” Craig said. “They know the right words to say so a strong bond is created between them.”

Pimps also will try to recruit girls at shopping malls or other public places. A common ploy involves the pimp telling the target he works for a modeling agency and thinks the girl is beautiful. But the most common recruitment zone is even more frightening because it is so pervasive – social media sites.

“I have seen it where the girl puts on her Facebook page she is in a relationship and the guy puts on his page ‘ho in training,” Craig said.

Both Heydel and Craig said pimps pry on the person’s insecurities.

Then there is the breaking stage, where the girl is “broken in” by gang members. The pimp will tell the victim he will protect her, but she has to listen to what he tells her to do. She’s being taught the “rules of the game.”

Craig says the victim becomes too fearful to report what has happened. Frequently, she said, a pimp will tell a victim he will kill her or hurt her family members if she does not follow the rules.

Pimps often work in pairs and usually are sexually exploiting more than one person. If caught, Craig said, pimps rarely go to jail because they have put everything in a women’s name, so she takes the fall.

Warning signs

There are warning signs that a person may being groomed by a pimp and is at risk of becoming a sex-trafficking victim. They may include:
• having more than one cell phone;
• a secret Facebook account;
• a change in clothing or look that makes the victim more sexualized;
• fake acrylic nails
• a new boyfriend, and,
• use of gang language or lifestyle.

Craig said she has been approached three times in the last six months about possible incidents of commercial sexual exploitation cases from students in the Silver Falls School District.

Resources to aid victims 

In starting County Line Safety Compass, Craig discovered the depth of the need for assistance for victims of domestic and sexual crimes. Calling herself a navigator, Craig said County Line is a project partner with SACA, where she puts victims in touch with resources.

Heydel said the Center of Hope and Safety provides information, a safe house and support to victims and survivors of domestic abuse, sexual assault and human trafficking. Heydel said survivors are given options, including on whether to report to the police crimes committed against them.

Heydel and Craig have made presentations at police departments, schools, civic groups and churches. “We both can provide resources on where to get help and support,” Craig said.

Next: In the June 1 Our Town a local mother shares the story of her daughters who fell prey to social media scams

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