What You Didn’t Hear: Understanding Human Trafficking

A crowd of more than 200 was in attendance at the Center for Civil and Human Rights to preview the CNN Special Report – Children for Sale: The Fight to End Human Trafficking. The atmosphere was somber as we had a glimpse into the lives of our children caught in the web of human sex trafficking. Yet there was hope—a public conversation of the countless sexually exploited children in our city has begun. We remained hopeful as we witnessed three of our courageous girls triumph throughout the documentary. Participants left the screening in silence, realizing there is still much to be done.

One week later the rest of the world viewed the Special Report on CNN and CNN . We invited others across the country to host viewing parties—safe spaces for watching and holding an open dialogue – for individuals, families, communities and houses of worship who wanted to encourage prevention, intervention and accountability. These parties took place across North America in 39 states, including Alaska, and in Canada.

The Special Report was eye-opening. It exposed and elevated the problem of child sex trafficking and exploitation in Atlanta – and more broadly in America. Conversations began that night via gatherings, telephone calls, e-mails, and Twitter and Facebook chats. And again, at the end of the night, what we learned, what echoed the loudest is this: There is so much more that needs to be done and said…much more than a special report could expose as truth in 41 minutes. 

My life’s witness, and that of my work with children and young women through Circle of Friends and its Living Water programs, demonstrates a hard truth that for some is incomprehensible: American children are being bought and sold in the communities we call home, throughout the United States and around the world. Their disbelief contributes to the difficulty of ending the sexual exploitation of our children.

No child, girl or boy, ever wakes up thinking, “Today, let me have a quota placed upon me. Let me be sold or rented by the hour to those who seek further to harm me. Let me have men from all over the world exercise their most devious and destructive acts upon my body, spirit and mental health. Let me welcome them to expel their urine and feces upon me. Let them walk away with impunity so that they don’t feel or accept any guilt or harm. Let them still be known as Mr. Jones, Mr. Abram and Mr. Lee while I am known as the whore, prostitute, bitch, slut, chicken head, troll and the teenage prostitute.” 

This language makes these children seem less than human; less than the victims that they truly are; less than animals that seem to have more protections and rights than they do.

The children themselves often cannot express what has been done to them in terms that make sense to our ears or minds. But we must listen with the deepest compassion and alarm.

Stephanie*, seen briefly at the beginning of the Special Report, spoke so quickly her words were likely missed. “He beat me. He raped me.” This child was taken – kidnapped off of public transportation. And when she dared to escape, the trafficker—her pimp—pulled his gun. She thought for only a moment, “Do I want to die?… No.” So she returned to his house where she was beaten and put back up for rent. Because, after all, she had to make the nightly quota of $1,000 placed upon her—or risk the bullet that was still waiting to be fired. 

Don’t rush to judgment. Don’t rush past the six words that tell of months of rape and psychological torture.

Sacharay*, featured in the documentary, never wanted to be violated. What she withstood would make the toughest among us try and seek solace through death. The audience gasped as she revealed she “had sex with 40 men in one night.” But the truth is she didn’t have sex with 40 men in one night. She was brutally violated by 40 men in the most heinous way possible – in one night alone. A child – held captive, threatened at gunpoint—did not consent to having sex with one man, let alone 40. She was raped. In her eyes, she was doing what she had to do to live. 

We hear those shocking words, yet fail to recognize the profound truth and horror that she lived through. The truth of that statement is that her trafficker—her pimp—had threatened her with a gun, beat her into submission, held her against her will, and then sold her 14 year-old body and spirit to 40 men who brutalized and raped her for profit and their perversion.

Let us stop for a moment. Take a pause; a breath. Occupy this space in order to dive deeper. At this point you may be asking yourself, “Who would facilitate the exchange of a child for money? Who are those that believe they are entitled to violate our children?” We already know the answer. They are men and women from every culture, every religious affiliation, and every political affiliation. They are our brothers, uncles, fathers, husbands, sons and grandfathers. They wear second-hand clothing, khaki pants, braided belts, loafers and tailored suits. They are our co-workers, friends and family members. They are we, those of us who have the unmitigated gall to subjugate our most vulnerable citizen.

Despite Sacharay’s distress and fear, she didn’t run, because running was a guarantee of more brutal beatings and chokings; of the unloaded or loaded gun being placed at her head or in another place that you couldn’t even imagine, trigger pulled. She faced psychological abuse akin to those used on prisoners of war – more psychological abuse than any one should be subject to. We may think to ourselves, “Why didn’t she run?” Why? Because she was acutely aware of what would happen if she didn’t make it to freedom…

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a serious, potentially debilitating condition that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a serious accident, terrorist incident, war, a violent personal assault or other life-threatening events. PTSD is very real for these young girls, and so is trauma-bonding/Stockholm syndrome. Trauma-bonding occurs as the result of ongoing cycles of abuse, where intermittent reinforcement of both reward and punishment creates powerful emotional bonds that are resistant to change. Often the girls become trauma-bonded to their pimp—acting out in any way they know that will keep them alive, even though they’re praying for death. Sacharay had trauma-bonded with this trafficker/pimp so deeply that his version of right was wrong, and wrong became right through her eyes. He preyed on the child’s limited life experiences and underdeveloped mind from the beginning, manipulating her so that she believed what was happening to her was her choice

The trafficker made Sacharay human while dehumanizing her. He used simple psychology to gain her trust by listening to her for hours so that she felt she had value in someone’s eyes. She was a child and could not differentiate his evil from all of the goodness she longed to feel. He made sure that she wasn’t ever presented as a victim, but as a willing partner, which allowed for control of her body, mind and spirit. He hears what many miss—her voice—and he purposefully, methodically silences it, so that she will remain his possession.

We hear Sacharay say that her friend recruited her, and we possibly think ill of that friend. But the truth of the matter is that she brought Sacharay into this scenario out of her own distress – to protect herself...It doesn’t make it right, but it is truth. 

And then there is Rachel, who was seen but ironically didn’t speak in the Special ReportRachel first had a faceless predator. She was lured, deceived and befriended through a social media site into a web she never could have seen coming. Her presence in the Special Report spoke volumes, because she symbolizes courage and hope. The same courage and hope she used in her witness testimony before the Senate panel in support of the Safe Harbor Bill. She lifted her powerful voice to ensure the passing of this law to protect all the children of Georgia. This Safe Harbor bill is officially named the Safe Harbor/Rachel’s Law Act, and it is the first legislation in the United States to be named after a survivor. Rachel is that survivor. 

How can we use the Special Report and the information that we have been given? First of all, let’s place it in the proper context of the complexities that exist within this criminal enterprise, which destroys the human spirit and body. The CNN Special Report has opened the door for us to do just that – for America and the world’s audience. It’s a disturbing truth to tell, but it must be told.

The truth must be spoken for us to prevent and hold accountable those who facilitate and engage in this criminal enterprise.

There are systemic issues across the nation that allow this crime to spread. We have parents, educators and people in leadership who don’t know what to look for, don’t notice children who are presenting with warning signs. This perpetuates our children’s vulnerability.

How can you – one single voice – make a difference?

•  Join with other grassroots organizers who are looking for ways to disrupt and
change the systemic issues (abuse, homelessness, poverty, lack of quality education) that continue to make our children vulnerable prey.

• Commit to inform your sphere of influence – near and far – about this issue. Take this film into schools and houses of worship, so that we all understand not only the problem but also who we need to protect.

•Contact your local and state Parent Teacher Associations, and religious and community leaders, and request that they view the film. Offer parents, teachers, community administrators a variety of workshops/seminars/training sessions to focus on preventing the demand and keeping youth and young adults safe.

•Stand and demand that children who are victims of this atrocity be treated as victims, not criminals. Demand they not be held in detention for “their” protection. Demand they not be referred to in degrading and derogatory terms or names and not be denied therapeutic care or services because of a lack of funding. Demand that they not be judged as complicit in the crime because money exchanged hands or they refused to provide information or testimony.

•Most importantly, let us pursue justice and hold accountable those who groom, facilitate and demand to victimize our children and young women. Let us ensure that these criminals are arrested, charged and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

•You can help by contacting your local law enforcement officers,prosecutors and legislators. Let them know you are concerned about the commercial sex trafficking of children in your community, and that you want perpetrators to be held accountable for their criminal actions.

Tell them you want to be part of the solution. Ask how you can best help them.

•If you see or believe that someone is in danger of becoming a victim of human trafficking, report it immediately to law enforcement by dialing 911.

•To report trafficking in your area, contact your local law enforcement agency and the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888.

•Connect with us via our Facebook page. Follow us on Twitter, and share this blog post.

This issue is overwhelming, and it will absolutely take each of us — all of us — doing our part to combat this evil and providing services to our most vulnerable citizens: our children.


*Names have been changed for protection.

Lisa C. Williams