Sex Trafficking in Your Backyard Part Two: Time to Start Helping Youth

By Maggie Berndt

When you hear the term “Sex Trafficking,” what comes to mind? Girls in countries far away from Milwaukee being forced to perform sexual acts for the monetary benefit of a pimp? Or maybe you know that sex trafficking is happening in this country as well, so then you imagine pimps bringing young girls over from Africa or South America to work the streets of L.A. or Las Vegas. Would you believe it if I told you sex trafficking was also happening right here in Milwaukee involving youth who are Milwaukee born and bred? Or that youth in foster care and runaways are at a higher risk of being trafficked? And that boys are just as much at risk as girls? Let’s start by dispelling a few myths about trafficking. Myth: A person has to be taken to a different city, state or country in order for it to count as trafficking. Reality: The legal definition of trafficking has nothing to do with transportation. A young person can be trafficked out of his or her own home. Myth: It only happens in other nations or involves foreign victims.Reality: Sex trafficking is a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States involving 100,000 – 300,000 U.S. children a year in addition to adults and foreign victims. Accurate statistics are difficult to obtain, because most research is focused on minors. Myth: Most kids are kidnapped off the street and forced to work for a stranger. Reality: While unfortunately some kids are kidnapped, it is far more common that the victim knows his or her trafficker. Sometimes a child is first pimped out by a parent or other relative, or a child and parent are pimped out together. Other times victims think of their pimp as a boyfriend and refer to him as such. If you’re hearing from a 14 year old about a 30 year old boyfriend, think twice. Myth: If a person isn’t getting paid for sex, it’s not a crime.Reality: Pay, as well as initial consent, is irrelevant if the victim is under 18. If someone under 18 is involved in a commercial sex act, it’s considered trafficking. It doesn’t matter if the youth never sees any of the money. For victims over 18, proof that a sex act is performed by force, fraud, or coercion constitutes trafficking and again the victim does not have to see any of the money. Myth: Victims are going to identify themselves and want help leaving their pimp. Reality: Oftentimes victims don’t immediately seek help, or even identify as victims for a number of reasons. They have experienced abuse their whole lives and trafficking is not that different. In some instances they may blame themselves for the things they have done. Other times a pimp has a youth convinced either that this is only a short-term solution until the two of them can afford a house together or that the youth is worthless and doesn’t deserve anything better than “the life.” This is why, if you work closely with youth, it is important to not make snap judgments and have patience as it takes time to build trust. Sex trafficking can carry many images and connotations, and sometimes “sex trafficking” isn’t an appropriate term to describe a situation, such as having a “sugar daddy” (an older male who gives fancy gifts in exchange for sex) or working a supporting role for a pimp or prostitute – such as recruiting or babysitting while other girls work – but never actually having sex. For this series, we use the term sex trade to include all of these circumstances and cover the bases that the term “trafficking” does not. While law enforcement officers are concerned with trafficking and the sexual assault of minors, they shouldn’t be the only ones fighting this issue. People who work with youth need to be concerned about any impact the sex trade is having on youth. Don’t just leave it to law enforcement to fix this problem. We can make a difference. It is also important to be aware of the youth at a higher risk of involvement in the sex trade. This includes youth in foster care, homeless and/or unemployed youth, LGBTQ youth, and youth of color. A youth’s involvement with the sex trade does not always start or end with sex trafficking. There is a continuum where one thing can lead to another.   What starts off as an innocent night of dancing, can lead to years of being abused and pimped as a prostitute against a young girl’s will. (Watch this short video: Making of a Girl) There are a number of factors that push and pull a youth into the sex trade.  These factors include money, survival, the influence of family or friends, or a search for love and attention. More details are available here. It is very important for anyone working with youth to be aware of this continuum. It helps so we can intervene early or in situations that don’t technically fall under the jurisdiction of law enforcement. Imagine you are the high school teacher in this story and you hear from one of the students in your class that another student is listed on an escort website as 18. You know she’s only 14. What do you do about this? It can be overwhelming.

The first step is to arm yourself with knowledge. In the next part of this series – which you can find here – we sit down with Claudine O’Leary, Milwaukee’s resident expert on working with youth impacted by the sex trade. She’ll offer her advice on how we can help our youth before it’s too late.

More Human Trafficking Resources

  • Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault

To Report a Trafficking Tip: 1-888-3737-888 or online   **If you are a youth involved in the sex trade in need of emergency shelter, please go to: Walkers Point – 732 S 21st Street, Milwaukee, WI for 11-17 year olds 24 hour crisis hotline: 414-647-8200 or Pathfinders Youth Shelter – 1416 E Kane Place, Milwaukee, WI for 11-17 year olds Pathfinders Drop-In Center – 4200 N Holton Street, Suite 400 – day use for 11-25 year olds 24 hour hotline for issues of youth sexual violence: 414-271-9523

Note: Foster youth should call a hotline or visit the Pathfinders Drop-In Center to request assistance.  Due to funding restrictions, foster youth may face limitations on stays in emergency shelter.  Other options may be available.