Imagine a life of being traded, sold and bought. Brutally abused. Drugged. Forced to have sex for money. Stripped of basic human rights. No hope. No freedom. No identity.
Human trafficking rips away the hopes, dreams and liberties of 27 million people worldwide.
Adult human trafficking involves anyone who is forced to work in the sex trade or provide any kind of labor or service-related labor under conditions of force, fraud or coercion. Child trafficking occurs any time a child is exploited commercially for sex. In cases dealing with children, no proof of force, fraud or coercion is needed.
“Human trafficking is a global problem that exists in the United States,” said Teresa Downing, assistant professor in sociology. “Americans are participating here in the U.S. and when traveling abroad.”
Downing serves as executive director of Networks Against Human Trafficking, an Iowa-based organization fighting this form of modern-day slavery.
Human trafficking is more commonly thought of as extreme sex operations in countries such as Haiti, Iran, North Korea and Saudi Arabia. However, it is true victims are enslaved in America, specifically in Iowa.
“One of the reasons it’s hard to find trafficking victims is they’re oftentimes working alongside legitimate workers,” Downing said. “We’ve had cases in Iowa where teenage girls have been trafficked and forced to dance in strip clubs side by side with the women who are there voluntarily.”
This is why Downing recommends ISU students be careful while going about social life or going on dates. Downing also said online ads are hotspots for trafficking and for all to take caution while surfing through sites such as Craigslist or backpages.com.
One Iowa girl knows the sex trafficking industry all too well. Brittany lost her father at the age of seven, ran away from a group home and escaped from two different physically and sexually abusive homes.
At about the age of 14, Brittany was approached by a man in a Cedar Rapids Hy-Vee, who offered her a job in modeling. The flattery and temptation of food and shelter convinced Brittany to go with the man where he told her she would have her first “job.”
This led to three months of being trafficked from Iowa to Chicago. Brittany had been forced to strip and have pictures taken of her, and was verbally assaulted, brutally beaten and raped multiple times.
“I felt like I was living some story that I had read. I had no hope, [no] spirit left in me,” Brittany said in an e-mail interview.
While in a Chicago “crack house,” Brittany was given a wired phone to receive calls from customers who had seen ads on Craigslist.
“Online ads are where we think a lot of people are being trafficked in Iowa," Downing said. "In all of the cases that have been prosecuted in Iowa, there has been an online ad involved.”
After about a month and a half in Chicago, one night, Brittany received a phone call that would be her escape. An undercover cop called the phone for a service. Claiming to want oral sex, the cop placed Brittany under arrest, causing Brittany’s pimp, a legal term used for traffickers, and his men to flee from the scene.
“At [times] it scares me to tell my story because I wonder if maybe he is around or if it could get to him what I am doing, but it hasn’t yet, and that’s a risk I am taking,” Brittany said. “Having gone through all of this though has made me the strong young lady I am today.”
Now 20 years old, Brittany is pursuing a degree in criminal justice with hopes of becoming an undercover officer to help put away those who cause this trauma to victims.
Downing said that pimps know where to look for possible targets. Pimps, which is a legal term for someone who sells someone else’s sexual services, look at bus stops, grocery stores and other populated areas.
“We think the most vulnerable to sex trafficking are homeless and runaway youth,” Downing said. "In 2011, we had 3,800 homeless and runaway youth in our state. Research shows that within the first two days of hitting the street, one in three youth will be approached for commercial sex."
Downing claims the best way to fight human trafficking is to spread the word of its presence.
“Our sisters are being sold like cattle over the internet and being raped over and over again," Downing said. "What are we going to do about this? We need that voice. We need somebody to start a social movement among young women. To set the world on fire on this issue.”