We are sipping coffee near the courthouse. I’ve just witnessed a man plead guilty to a felony charge: trafficking a minor. Everything fits the televised version—the orange jumpsuits, bailiff-guarded doors, hands cuffed to waist. What does not fit is the dull, monotonous tone of the judge, attorneys, and defendant. Another day in court, except a man’s life is set to change today. I expected a bit more emotion.
My friend is explaining the terminology over our shared muffin. She’s an investigator and thrilled he pled guilty. New laws are making cases stick, and our community is starting to get convictions. At least she is emotional. The minors she works with keep her heart tuned. They break it, daily.
I ask if she sees trends that match the national ones: early sexual abuse, family chaos, child welfare system, substance abuse. Yes, yes, yes, she says, and she adds more. She lists the previous few cases, and they all fit into the profile in some way or another.
But I’m unsettled. In the last few weeks, I’ve fielded two phone calls that confuse me. The calls are from middle class parents. Educated parents. Church-going parents. Parents who took family vacations, enrolled their kids in sports, encouraged summer reading, and had dinner around a table every night. And yet, the worst thing imaginable has happened, and they are worried.
They call me when they fear the worst. When the red flags they’ve heard about are flapping in their face. They call when they want confirmation, even though what they really want is for me to assure them that it’s going to be fine and that this looks nothing like sex trafficking. The parents call when they need a bit of parenting themselves.
Each case involved a girl over 18, which makes it dicey. These girls are legally adults. Each one was in risky relationships with a guy who quickly talked her into moving in with him or leaving the state with him. There were other men in and out of the house as well. Drugs were involved, suddenly and out of the blue. Contact with her had been difficult, if not severed. It would not be a huge leap for the guy to ask her to sell sex to make money for them in the short term.
I’m explaining all of this to my friend outside of the courthouse. We’re not counselors, but it’s easy to see a pattern: a young woman from a stable family quickly abandons friends, common sense, and her self-worth has been triggered. There has been an inciting incident, and the most common culprit is sexual assault. Something has jarred her reality, and she is now in an alternate one that is dangerous and self-destructive.
Parents view her behavior as disobedience and selfishness. I think it is self-protection. Woundedness takes on all shapes, does it not?
“Welcome to the new face of sex trafficking,” says my friend. Suburban sex trafficking.
While we don’t know for sure what is going on in my two examples, we have concerns. There are indeed red flags. On the surface the “profiles” look very different than what the trends show and the minors who come through court, but are they all that different? Brokenness has led to exploitation. For some, it began at a young age when mom stopped caring. For my two, it began later, despite how much mom cares.
What, then, are we to do?
- We need to learn the red flags! Dating an older guy, particularly if met online, distancing long-term friendships, and suddenly changing behavior are a few examples.
- We need to educate youth that traffickers are not always gold chain-clad gangsters, but often “boyfriend” types or older girls promising things without backing it up: “If you can just earn some money for us, we can leave here and start that new life you want!”
- Area sex assault centers need to be trained to understand and recognize the connection between assault, high-risk behavior, and potential trafficking. Is yours?
- Let’s look beneath behavior to discover the origin of the wound and seek healing.
Like it or not, aware of it or not, sex trafficking can easily happen in all of our communities.
Let us cultivate hearts that stay tuned, and let us not abandon emotion. May we have eyes to see differently, and may we have ears that hear pain.
Beth Bruno is founder and director of A Face to Reframe, a non-profit committed to preventing human trafficking through arts, training, and community building. She writes about women in ministry, girls becoming women, and exploited women. Her writing has appeared at Relevant, Today’s Christian Woman, InterVarsity’s The Well, and she is a proud member of Redbud Writer’s Guild. She can be found in the mountains of Colorado with her husband and 3 kids or at www.bethbruno.org.