Sex trafficking is the fastest growing criminal industry globally and in the U.S. second only to drug trafficking, with more than $150 billion earned by traffickers each year.
To that end, Selah Freedom, a Florida-based charity organization with a mission to end sex trafficking within the U.S., wants residents locally to know the signs of sex trafficking and how it is helping its survivors.
Locally, Selah Freedom recently opened its newest, and largest, safe house at an undisclosed location in Kenosha County. Volunteers over the last two years transformed the 7,700-square-foot structure that welcomes survivors 18 years of age or older in a fully staffed, 24-hour facility.
They also offer a number of programs for education, outreach and prevention.
Often survivors are physically and sexually abused as children. In fact, one out of 10 children will experience sexual abuse before the age of 18, according to Paul Meyer Besler, Selah Freedom’s vice president of advocacy and operations, who spoke to about 50 people Sunday afternoon at First United Methodist Church, 919 60th St.
Often the abuse occurs at the hands of someone they know, whether a relative, a friend or a teacher, she said.
“It can start at any age,” Besler said.
If they escape the abuse, within 48 hours, according to national data, they are approached by two types of traffickers — the “Romeo” or a person who appears to be kind at first or the “Gorilla pimp,” who uses violence and threats to force them to do things against their will.
“The victims are predominantly women and girls,” Besler said. “But make no mistake, it’s boys and young men, as well. And it’s a far greater stigma for men and boys.”
Besler said that often traffickers use threats and violence to coerce their victims to perform sex acts, and they will offer them drugs as the victims are sold 15-40 times a day.
“They tell them, `You’re going to have 40 dates, so you can take the drugs or not,’” she said.
Among the signs that someone may be a victim of sex trafficking are the tattoos from being branded.
Some of the most common words on them include “daddy”, the name of the trafficker or the “crazy life.”
“Traffickers brand the woman to claim ownership,” she said.
Besler said Selah Freedom is training health care professionals and others to recognize other less obvious signs, including:
Inability to get their story straight — from where they’re at, to lacking a sense of time, lying about their age or unexplained expensive gifts.
Poor health or behaviors, such as depression and fear, especially around law enforcement authorities
Sex trafficking occurs not just in strip clubs and bars, but through websites, social media, maid and nanny services and large conventions.
Besler emphasized that none of the people Selah has served are choosing prostitution.
“They’re doing it for survival,” she said.
She said that at large events, such as the Super Bowl in Atlanta, children trafficking was in extreme demand.
“The No. 1 (sex trafficking) demand at the Super Bowl was a 12-year-old boy,“ she said.
Besler encouraged those who attended the presentation to talk about the issue and to change the national conversation to end sexual exploitation and trafficking.
“If we shine the light on it, we can change it,” she said.
For more information on the Selah Freedom program, visit www.selahfreedom.com.