Advocates for victims of sex trafficking often speak up during the Super Bowl. I don’t know about your newsfeed, but mine is sprinkled with ways to identify both trafficking victims and perpetrators during this time of year. I appreciate any opportunity to increase public awareness of this horrible evil.
Domestic minor sex trafficking is on the rise in Colorado. Last year, while working with an organization that serves survivors, I was horrified to learn of the extent of this underground industry right here in my home state. An October 2015 Denver Post article states that, “federal authorities estimate there could be up to 2,000 child sex trafficking victims in Colorado and Wyoming.”
TWO THOUSAND. KIDS.
I’m guessing moms and dads like me picture the sex trafficking of minors to be a far away danger—something that happens in other neighborhoods to daughters who are unlike mine. We think of the problem in terms of anonymous kidnappers who lurk in the shadows of other parts of the city and prey on girls with inattentive parents. But what I learned last year from my friends at Hope Academy is that human trafficking can happen in what we perceive to be the unlikeliest of places. The reality is that exploiters have evolved with the times and all girls in all neighborhoods are at risk and all parents need to be informed.
The staff at Hope Academy enlightened me of a scenario that is becoming all too frequent. They personally know of pimps who have lured and ultimately enslaved girls they met at the local shopping mall. Their approach is to engage groups of girls in flirtatious conversation. The perpetrators observe the group and look for the girl who has the least confidence and the quietest demeanor. They prey on those qualities by singling her out, getting her phone number, and following up with texts and phone calls to establish a relationship. Oftentimes the pimp willplay the role of boyfriend and convince the girl to send him sexual photographs of herself so that he will have material to bribe her with—this is known as sextortion. Or he may convince her to sneak out with him and he’ll either further the fake relationship to keep building trust, rape her immediately, or even bring her to a group of men who will rape her repeatedly.
In most cases, the girl at this point has disobeyed her parents—either by sending sexually explicit texts or by sneaking out. This disobedience is then leveraged in a few ways: the girl believes she cannot be honest with her parents because they would be angry and ashamed of her, the girl believes she brought this on herself and she deserves it, and/or the pimp has convinced her that he will kill her or her family members if she doesn’t continue in the role he has forced upon her. In one nearby case, under the threat of harm, a young teenage girl routinely snuck away from her own home, was trafficked for the evening, and brought back home by her pimp without her parents knowing.
I can only imagine the weight of (undeserved) guilt, shame, and sorrow such a girl would feel. I’m told that this immense burden causes great trauma to her brain, such that over time (sometimes quickly) she views her parents as her enemy and her pimp as her ally. Girls who have endured this trauma, when discovered by law enforcement, sometimes reject help because they are scared and have believed the lie that their pimp is their protector.
This shopping mall scenario has played out several times over the past couple years in situations that staff at the Hope Academy are personally aware of in the suburbs of Denver. Though typing these words makes my stomach churn, my desire is that moms and dads like me would know that daughters like ours have fallen prey to this very scenario—right here in suburban Denver and in seemingly safe places all across America. Undoubtedly, the few incidents of which the staff at Hope Academy are aware only scratch the surface.
Based on conversations with my friends in the field, here are a few ways you and I can safeguard our children:
- Raise confident daughters. Encourage your girls to look people in the eye, stand tall, and vocalize their desires and hesitations clearly.
- Teach them about trafficking—don’t hide this evil from them. Girls around the age of 12 are at the greatest risk, I’m told, because they are the most sought after by men who pay for illicit sex. It’s a horrible, painful conversation, but you need to have it.
- This one is pretty obvious, but if your daughters go to the mall with their friends, make sure that you know and trust their friends well. It only takes one girl with leadership skills to encourage the rest to talk to the group of cute guys on the other side of the food court, which may be more harmful than the girls ever imagined.
- Consider not giving your teenager a smart phone or keeping her off of social media. I realize everyone is doing it, but we really can think twice about these options. They genuinely do not need phones or social media—weigh these decisions carefully rather than handing them that kind of freedom and responsibility without really thinking it through.
- Consider not giving your teen her own bedroom. I know this rails against all that is American—space, autonomy, privacy, style and more—but how many fewer bad things would happen if a sister were watching? Sexting and sneaking out would be much harder to accomplish.
- Lastly, let’s lean heavily on the Lord, begging Him for wisdom to raise girls who will prize Jesus above all and recognize their own self-worth as daughters of the King. May we impart to them a value of life and a pursuit of Christ that leads them far from being allured by the cunning of an evil man. And may we cry out to the Lord to meet our girls and protect them from the evil one.