In Francine Rivers’ powerful novel, Redeeming Love, eight year-old Sarah is sold into prostitution by her dead mother’s boyfriend. In a stomach churning scene at the beginning of the book, the brothel owner, Duke, pays off the boyfriend, and then has him killed in front of Sarah. Left alone in a room with Duke, Sarah cowers in fear. “As long as you do exactly what I tell you to do, we’re going to get along fine,” the man tells Sarah. He smiled faintly, and stroked her cheek, his eyes glowing strangely. “What’s your name?” Sarah couldn’t answer. He touched her hair, her throat, her arm. “It doesn’t matter. I think I’m going to call you Angel.” Straightening, he took her hand. “Come on now, Angel. I have things to teach you….”
This story, set in California in the 1850s, is fiction, but the selling of a child for sexual purposes is a very real form of modern-day slavery known as human trafficking that is happening today worldwide, including in North Carolina. According to advocacy groups and law enforcement agencies, the illegal trafficking of minors for sex is occurring across the state—in gangs, Latino brothels, at truck stops along Interstates like I-95, around the state’s military bases, and through websites like Backpage.com. A few recent local cases include:
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reports that the sex trafficking of adults and minors is the “fastest growing business of organized crime, and the third largest criminal enterprise in the world.” While the majority of sex trafficking involves victims from other countries, the FBI warns that the U.S. has “its own homegrown problem of Interstate sex trafficking of minors.”
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) describes the trafficking of minors for sex as a “problem of hidden victims” that is “under recognized and under reported,” and therefore difficult to measure. According to estimates of human trafficking, and data from the federal government and advocacy groups:
There are 100,000 children victimized by prostitution in the U.S. each year, with some estimates as high as 300,000.
Children under 18 represent the largest group of trafficking victims in the U.S.
The majority of the 2,500 human trafficking cases investigated nationwide between 2008 and 2010 involved adult and child prostitution, or child sexual exploitation, according to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).
Child Sex Trafficking Defined. The sex trafficking of a minor is known as child sex trafficking, or by the broader term of “domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST),” which was coined by Shared Hope International, to describe “the commercial sexual exploitation of American children within U.S. borders.” DMST includes “child sex slavery, child sex trafficking, prostitution of children, commercial sexual exploitation of children, and rape of a child.”
What distinguishes child sex trafficking from child sexual abuse is the commercialization of sex. “The commercial aspect of the sexual exploitation act is critical to separating the crime of trafficking from sexual assault, rape, or molestation crimes against children,” Shared Hope International, explains in a 2009 report. “The term ‘commercial sex act’ is defined in [federal law] as the giving or receiving of anything of value (money, drugs, shelter, food, clothes, etc.) to any person in exchange for a sex act.”
Federal Law. The federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), which is the main U.S. law prohibiting human trafficking of both adults and minors, divides “severe trafficking of persons” into two groups: labor and sex trafficking. The TVPA defines sex trafficking as: “a commercial sex act … induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.”
When it comes to child sex trafficking, the age of the victim is the major issue. Under federal law, anyone under age 18 who is “induced to perform a commercial sex act” is considered a victim of human trafficking, and the victim is not required to prove that the trafficker used “force, fraud or coercion.” The federal penalty for the sex trafficking of a minor ranges from a maximum life sentence in prison, to a minimum 15-year prison sentence, depending on the victim’s age.
Child sex trafficking victims come from a variety of backgrounds, but certain factors place a child at greater risk. According to Shared Hope International, the “average age of entry into prostitution or the commercial sex industry in the U.S. is 11 to 14 years old.” The overwhelming majority of victims are girls, although boys and transgender youth are also victimized. Children who are most at risk for trafficking include:
• Victims of child sexual abuse. Studies show that between 60 to 90 percent of child victims of prostitution in recovery programs were sexually abused prior to being trafficked.
• Runaways or “throwaways.”
• Homeless youth (30 percent of homeless shelter youth and 70 percent of “street” youth are estimated to be victims of commercial sexual exploitation).
• Children in foster care or child protective services.
• Children with drug-addicted parents.
According to the NCMEC, child sex traffickers typically engage in three actions to gain control over their victims. First, they target minors by seeking out the most vulnerable, especially those in the previously mentioned groups. Next, they trick them by posing as a “boyfriend,” or, when online, as a peer, and often by using gifts to draw them in, gain their trust, and make them dependent. Finally, they traumatize victims by using psychological manipulation (such as making victims believe they love them), and physical control methods to force or coerce them into the sex trade (this includes: starvation, beatings, gang rape, confinement, threats of violence, forced drug and alcohol use, and exposure to pornography.)
Sex trafficking victims suffer from a variety of physical and mental health problems, including: sexual trauma, drug and alcohol addiction, anxiety, depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), sexually transmitted diseases, miscarriages, forced or coerced abortions, and physical injuries (i.e., broken bones, burns, concussions).
Shared Hope International defines a trafficker as anyone “who profit(s) by receiving cash or other benefits in exchange for the sexual use of a minor by another person.” According to the DOJ, many U.S. traffickers have left other criminal activities, such as drug dealing, for child sex trafficking because they can make more money through prostituting a child. For example, one child prostitute can earn up to $1,000 a night. Traffickers range from individuals, such as pimps (who “force adults and minors to sell commercial sex … by means of physical abuse, threats, lies, manipulation, and false promises”), older “boyfriends,” or family members, to street gangs, Latino sex trafficking rings, and organized crime networks.
Residential Latino brothels are among the most commonly identified cases of human trafficking in North Carolina. According to Shared Hope International, “criminal elements within the closed Latino communities along the East Coast are deeply involved in prostitution and the operation of massage parlors and brothels.” Typically, they cater only to Latino clients, who pay $30 for 15 minutes with young girls and women, who “are primarily illegal immigrants,” often from Mexico, and are transported weekly by bus or van to different cities along the East Coast.
Traffickers frequently use the Internet, such as the online advertising site, Backpage.com, to advertise minors for prostitution. Since 2010, when Craigslist closed down its “adult services” section, Backpage. com has been dubbed by the media as the “nation’s top forum” for online prostitution ads.
For example, in North Carolina, the majority of minor sex trafficking victims referred to the Salvation Army of Wake County since May 2012 have been identified through advertisements on Backpage. com. This includes a 16 year-old girl who was advertised on the website by her “boyfriend,” as well as a group of teenage girls who were being trafficked out of a brothel.
The National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) stated in a 2011 letter to Backpage.com:
Nearly naked persons in provocative positions are pictured in nearly every adult services advertisement on Backpage.com, and the site requires advertisements for escorts, and other similar “services,” to include hourly rates.
The letter went on, “This hub for illegal services has proven particularly enticing for those seeking to sexually exploit minors.”
North Carolina’s Attorney General Roy Cooper joined 45 other state attorneys general in signing the letter to Backpage.com, regarding its “ongoing failure to effectively limit prostitution and sexual trafficking activity on its website.” The letter cites “more than 50 instances, in 22 states, over three years of charges filed against those trafficking or attempting to traffic minors on Backpage.com.”
The letter continues:
These cases often involve runaways ensnared by adults seeking to make money by sexually exploiting them. In some cases, minors are pictured in advertisements. In others, adults are pictured but minors are substituted at the ‘point of sale’ in a grossly illegal transaction.
The letter urges Backpage.com to follow Craigslist’s example by removing its adult services section to “eradicate advertising on its website” for child sex trafficking.
Outrage over Backpage.com’s association with child sex trafficking has led a number of its major advertisers to pull their support. Additionally, in September 2012, the Village Voice, which owns and operates Backpage.com, was sold along with all of its affiliated alternative weekly newspapers, except for Backpage.com, which was reportedly excluded from the deal due to its association with sex trafficking.
According to anti-human trafficking advocacy groups, North Carolina is consistently ranked among the top eight states for human trafficking. It is also the 10th state in the nation in the annual number of calls received by the Polaris Project’s National Human Trafficking Hotline.
Pam Strickland, executive director of Eastern North Carolina Stop Human Trafficking Now, explains that the Tar Heel state is a natural hub for human trafficking because of its:
• Seven military bases with their transient population and close proximity to sexuallyoriented businesses;
Combatting Human Trafficking in N.C. Across North Carolina, advocacy groups, law enforcement agencies, and faith-based ministries are working together at the state and local levels to combat human trafficking.
NCCAHT began in 2004 as a “collaboration between the N.C. Attorney General’s Office, the N.C. Coalition Against Sexual Assault, and other groups.” The coalition is a: group of professionals from multiple fields (i.e., law enforcement, legal services, social services, legislators, etc.) working to raise awareness about human trafficking across North Carolina, to support efforts to prosecute traffickers, and to identify and assist victims. NCCAHT helped facilitate the creation of local Human Trafficking Rapid Response Teams throughout the state. These teams consist of professionals from local law enforcement, social services, shelters, case managers, and the medical profession who work together to “provide immediate crisis response” to trafficking victims. Currently, there are Rapid Response Teams across the state, including in the Triangle, Triad, Pitt County, Wilmington/Cape Fear, and Charlotte areas.
Local Advocacy. Pitt County is home to Eastern North Carolina Stop Human Trafficking Now, an advocacy group in Farmville that is operated by Pam Strickland. She first learned about human trafficking in 2006, when she heard the founder of International Justice speak at a conference about child sex trafficking. As she watched a video detailing the rescue of a group of five to six year-old Asian girls from a brothel, she remembers thinking, “This can’t be happening in this day and age.”
Strickland left the conference deeply troubled by what she had seen and heard, but mistakenly believing that trafficking is mostly an international problem. However, when she learned that North Carolina was among the top eight states in the nation for human trafficking, she felt called to do more locally. She founded Eastern North Carolina Stop Human Trafficking Now with local faith leaders in 2010. The nonprofit “seeks to create a community that actively works toward abolishing all forms of human trafficking through education and awareness,” including its promotion of fair trade (slave and child labor free) products.
Rescuing Victims. In August 2011, The Salvation Army of Wake County created Project FIGHT, which stands for “Freeing Individuals Gripped by Human Trafficking.” According to Erica S., who serves as the Injury Project Coordinator, Project FIGHT “provides case management for human trafficking victims and works to generate education and awareness of human trafficking.” Two full-time case managers work with victims to provide “holistic case management,” including referrals for safe housing, medical attention, and counseling.
To date, Project FIGHT has worked with law enforcement and other groups to rescue 37 individual victims of human trafficking, including men, women, and children ranging in ages from 14 to 63.
Fifteen of those victims are from the Triangle area, and nine are minors. The majority of cases involving minors—mainly girls ages 14 to 16—were cases of sex trafficking. “We anticipated having maybe a total of 11 cases in the first two years of Project FIGHT, so we were surprised to have already served 37 victims in just over a year,” Erica says.“We knew human trafficking was happening in North Carolina, but not to the extent that we have seen.”
Safe Shelter. An important component of fighting human trafficking, especially child sex trafficking, is the availability of specialized safe houses, where rescued victims can heal in a private and safe environment. These shelters typically accept a small group of adolescent female victims, and provide them with food, shelter, education and job training, and counseling from licensed therapists. According to a study by Shared Hope International, there is a nationwide “lack of protective shelter and specialized services that is responsible for the revictimization and criminalization” of sex trafficking victims. North Carolina has a handful of shelters specifically for child sex trafficking victims, including the award-winning Hope House in Asheville, as well as Emma’s Home in Durham, which is a new safe house for female sex trafficking victims ages 12 to 17. Emma’s Home is a project of Transforming Hope Ministries, which was founded in 2010 by Abbi Tenaglia, who is a recovered drug addict. In August 2012, Abbi shared her story on the North Carolina Family Policy Council’s weekly radio program. She said:
The first three years of [my daughter’s] life were spent with me on cocaine. [Hearing about the rape and murder of Shaniya Davis, the five year-old girl from Fayetteville who was sold for sex by her drug addicted mother] just made it very personal for me, and helped me to realize how close my daughter got to not living past five years old, and how close I got to being that mom.
I just determined in my mind that wasn’t going to happen to any more girls as long as I was alive. As much as God will allow me to stop it, no other girl will feel that her value is only found in her body.
Nearly every state in the country has laws against human trafficking, including North Carolina, which prohibits both labor and sex trafficking under a law passed in 2006. G.S. §14‑43.11 states that a person is guilty of human trafficking “when that person knowingly recruits, entices, harbors, transports, provides, or obtains by any means another person with the intent that the other person be held in involuntary servitude or sexual servitude.” It makes human trafficking of an adult a Class F felony, and human trafficking of a minor a Class C felony.
Similar to federal law, North Carolina’s law recognizes that a minor who is used in a commercial sex act is a victim of human trafficking, regardless of whether force, fraud, or coercion was used (see the definition of “sexual servitude” under G.S. § 14- 43.10). There are also laws prohibiting the commercial sexual exploitation of a child. For more on N.C.’s human trafficking law, see sidebar.
During the 2012 “Short Session” of the General Assembly, a provision was added to the Budget Bill (H950) that established a State Human Trafficking Commission within the Department of Justice. Additionally, the General Assembly passed S910, which increased the legal penalties for the sale, surrender, or purchase of a minor from a Class I misdemeanor to a Class F Felony.
Despite these efforts, North Carolina was one of 41 states to earn a “D” on a recent analysis of child sex trafficking laws conducted by Shared Hope International, and the American Center for Law and Justice. The state’s low grade is due to a number of weaknesses in its current laws, including that:
National advocacy groups, such as the Polaris Project, cite North Carolina’s lack of a Safe Harbor law as one weakness related to DMST. According to the Polaris Project, a Safe Harbor law:
recognizes sex trafficking individuals under 18 as victims of a crime in need of protection and services by granting immunity from prosecution, or diverting the child delinquency proceedings and instead directing them to child welfare services.
New York became the first state to enact such a law in 2008. The law recognizes “that children in prostitution are not criminals or delinquents but victims” of sex trafficking and abuse in need of specialized services. Similar laws exist in Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, Vermont, and Washington state. There are also Safe Harbor provisions (not complete laws) in Connecticut, Florida, Michigan, and Tennessee.
Sarah Bowman is an attorney with the Christian Action League of North Carolina, who is currently working with advocacy groups across the state to “assess how public policy can be changed to more effectively combat human trafficking and sexual servitude, and enable victim’s to receive services.” “North Carolina law has many strengths in how it addresses the various aspects of human trafficking, but there are also some critical gaps,” says Bowman. She explains:
Some states have Safe Harbor laws for minors involved in prostitution. While we believe no minor can consensually be involved in a commercial sex act, we also believe that any legislative change needs to be North Carolina specific.
Child sex trafficking would not exist without the commercial sex industry, and the demand from adults who are willing to pay to sexually exploit minors. In an interview with National Review Online, Lisa Thompson, National Liaison for the Abolition of Sex Trafficking at The Salvation Army, discussed the link between sex trafficking and the sex industry. “Those who demand bodies to consume in commercial sex fuel the need for a supply of those bodies,” Thompson said. “Traffickers are simply supplying women and children through acts like recruiting, procuring, transporting, and the selling of persons to meet that demand.” She notes that the: global marketplace [is] made up of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of brothels, bars, strip clubs, massage parlors, escort services, and street corners where men purchase people for use in sex acts.
The demand for commercial sex and DMST is fueled by a culture that promotes sexual promiscuity, tolerates widespread pornography of both adults and children, and portrays women and young girls as sex objects. A 2007 report by the American Psychological Association Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls concluded that across American culture, “women more often than men are portrayedin a sexual manner and are objectified.”
According to the task force, the sexualization of girls impacts both women and men, negatively influencing a girl’s sexual development and body image, and leading to increased rates of sexual abuse and harassment of women by men. As Pam Strickland explains: In North Carolina, as in many other states, the perception is that prostitution is a victimless crime—that the men who buy sex are not criminals, and that the girls and women are there voluntarily.
She continues: That is simply not the case. We would not have this issue of sex trafficking if it were not for the demand from men. Society often blames the girls, but the problem is the grown men who are willing to pay for sex with these minor girls.
Like every good novel, Redeeming Love has a happy ending. After being trafficked into the sex trade as a child, an adult Sarah ends up in yet another brothel, forced to have sex with several men a day to survive. While there, she is rescued by Michael, a devout Christian who not only liberates her from the brothel and a life of prostitution but who also marries her. Instead of viewing Sarah as a “bad” woman, Michael recognizes her as a child victim of sexual abuse who was forced into prostitution by adults who exploited her body for financial gain. Although it is not easy, through prayer, forgiveness, and unconditional love, Michael helps Sarah heal from her past abuse by leading her to Christ. The novel ends with a redeemed Sarah, who is finally free from the sex industry and her traffickers, and is able to build a new life.
Nationwide, there are thousands of young people, like Sarah, who are trapped in the commercial sex industry, many as a result of trafficking. Right now in North Carolina, these hidden victims may be imprisoned in a brothel, or forced to “work” a truck stop on I-95, or sold to a stranger through an online ad. Without intervention, they are destined to endure the lifelong chains of sexual exploitation, with little hope of escape. Thankfully, like Redeeming Love’s Michael, advocacy groups, law enforcement agencies, and Christian ministries across the state are working tirelessly to identify minor victims of sex trafficking, including those at risk, and to rescue them—before it is too late.
Alysse ElHage, M.A., is associate director of research for the North Carolina Family Policy Council.