Shelby was an underage teenager from an upper-middle class Latter-day Saint family living in Orem.
One night, she attended a club. She met a man who was attentive and flattering. By the end of the evening, he had given her drugs and taken pictures of her. Within days, he blackmailed her with the pictures and claimed she owed him drug money. He coerced her into sexual encounters in order to “pay him back.” This encounter led to years of sex trafficking. Shelby was still living with her parents at the time.
“When I was trafficked, I was very young, vulnerable, sick, addicted. I was really struggling. I had no idea that could happen to me. When it happened I didn’t even realize what it was. I knew I was terrified. I didn’t want to do what this man was telling me to do but I didn’t know how to get out of it. I had so much shame I didn’t know how to tell,” Shelby said.
January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. It’s time we talk about what is going on all around us.
Human trafficking is illegally exploiting an individual using means such as coercion, abduction, deception, abuse of power, or psychological manipulation. There are an estimated 20 million to 40 million trafficked individuals globally. Forms of human trafficking include forced labor, sexual exploitation, domestic servitude, forced marriage, child soldiering, forced begging and organ trafficking.
Sex trafficking has been reported in all 50 states. About 18,000 individuals are trafficked into the U.S. every year, mostly from Thailand, India, Philippines, Mexico, Haiti, Honduras, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic.
U.S. citizens are also victims of sex trafficking. The majority of sex trafficking victims are female, although males can also be victims. Runaways, homeless, children in foster care, individuals who lack legal status, people who are mentally ill, individuals with drug addictions and minorities including Native American women are especially at risk.
We usually think of trafficking by abduction. Although this does occur, there are other subtler means of recruitment. “In Utah, it doesn’t usually look like forced kidnapping in a dungeon. A lot of it is exploiting you for your vulnerabilities. A mental exploitation where they keep you in their control. Taking videos and pictures of you. Using physical abuse on top of that to keep you under their thumb,” Shelby said.
Traffickers may form romantic relationships with the target to lure them in. They exploit this relationship and use various tactics to get the victim to engage in commercial sex. Traffickers commonly use false advertisements in regard to job, educational or travel opportunities. Ads calling for photoshoots for aspiring models or actors can be trafficking in disguise. Dating and hookup websites are platforms for sex trafficking. Traffickers may use personal social networks and relationships to recruit new victims. Sometimes they throw parties within their social network for purposes of recruitment.
Victims are often forced to create pornographic videos and livestream themselves. This gives the trafficker financial gain and also allows them to use blackmail and exert psychological control over the victim. The production, distribution, reception, or possession of child pornography is a federal crime. This includes any visual depiction of sexually explicit content of a person under 18 years old.
How you can help
Talk to your children about consent. “A lot of parents don’t know about the evil out there. Underage sex with a minor is always rape. I wish I would have learned about consent, bodily autonomy, being able to say ‘no’ to men. I didn’t hear about consent at home, in school or in church. I didn’t learn what it meant until I was an adult,” Shelby said.
Be aware of your child’s social media use, privacy settings, who they accept as friends and more. Apps like Snapchat and Kik are big platforms for recruitment because they don’t leave paper trails.
Educate teenagers about the dangers of online dating sites and the potential for trafficking and sexual abuse. Warn them about potentially fraudulent ads for modeling or acting.
Look for warning signs in your children. “I would encourage parents to really make sure your kids are OK when you ask them. Look for symptoms of depression and anxiety, withdrawal, lack of interest in activities they used to enjoy,” Shelby said.
Keep communication open and nonjudgmental. “What would have been helpful to me would be open communication with my parents where I wouldn’t worry that their morals and values would condemn me for what I’d done. I felt I had sinned so badly. I was afraid I would get disowned for having sex and other things I knew my parents didn’t approve of. Tell your kids you will love them no matter what they’ve done, even if it’s really bad or scary. ‘I’m going to stick by you.’ Tell them that,” Shelby said.
Watch for signs of human trafficking when you are out and about. Signs in victims may include undernutrition, physical injury or abuse, lack of identification or personal possessions and traveling with someone who seems to be in control of where they go and who they talk to. Look for behavioral signs such as avoiding eye contact, not speaking for themselves, speech feeling scripted or rehearsed, confusion about where they are or where they are going and appearing to be fearful of authorities or their travel companion.
If you suspect something, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. You can also volunteer with or donate to organizations such as Operation Underground Railroad, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, or Free the Slaves.