I can't imagine what it would be like to be abducted and forced into human trafficking, but it's something that constantly crosses my mind when I'm walking alone at night or with my teenage nieces. Coincidentally, my husband shares the same fears.
Perhaps I'm being premature in my silent worries, but the horror stories that I have seen in the media about young women who weren't sex workers, yet unwillingly found themselves abducted and forced into sex slavery, is alarming. That fear hit home even more for me this week when I read a story about authorities who discovered images of a 15-year-old girl having sex with about two dozen boys in a Fort Myers, Fla. high school bathroom.
According to The Washington Post, the teenage girl had lived a hard life before she was old enough to have a driver's license. The girl's mother told a human trafficking victim's advocate that her daughter had spent several years in and out of treatment facilities for help with coping with the effects of sex slavery, of which she had been forced into at the age of 13.
According to the latest reports, the girl found herself victimized again recently when she met up with her high school crush. He asked her for sex, and she agreed. Later that day, she went looking for him in the boy's bathroom. When word got out that the girl was having sex in the bathroom, someone started filming her acts, and over the next hour, as many as 25 male students were shown walking in and out of the bathroom on the school's surveillance footage. Video of the teen girl's sex acts with the boys were posted to social media, which set off a fire storm of emotions from social media users alike.
The good news is that the school took action right away, and disciplined some of the male students involved in the incident. The bad news is that residents in the girl's community are outraged at her promiscuity.
But this is more than just a case of promiscuity.
It's common to hear stories from sex trafficking victims who face extreme mental or physical abuse, especially if they don't obey their attackers. Like the Mexican girl who was raped more than 43,000 times, beaten with chains, and burned by her pimp. Or the Phoenix girl whose sex traffickers put her inside of a dog kennel to break her down, and force her into prostitution. Or even the Chicago girl whose attacker threatened to rape her sister if she didn't agree to be raped herself. It's very easy to see that a sex trafficking victim's biggest fear is not doing what they are told - even if that means sleeping with more than a dozen people at a time.
Meagan Estrem, founder of the sex trafficking advocacy group Be The Light, told NBC2 News that like many victims, the teen at the center of the South Fort Myers High School bathroom incident was not "equipped" to make a stable, rational decision at the time she was approached by a group of boys looking for sex.
Perhaps the young lady feared for her life the moment she was approached by a group of eager boys holding their sausages. Or maybe she was scared that her high school crush would blackmail her with gossip (which can be quite vicious in high school). Who knows what her reasoning was at the time, and perhaps only a sex trafficking victim would understand the girl's rationale. All I know is that the end result of social media users pointing the finger at the girl's promiscuity, instead of the boy's anxiousness, is telling.
The other problem may lie in the fact that there aren't many people who would know how to spot a human trafficking victim. The US State Department reports that 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders every year, of which 80% are female and half are children. That means that you could be sitting next to a trafficking victim while you're out shopping, getting your nails done, or traveling, and not even know it.
The best way to stop another incident like what happened in the Fort Myers high school bathroom is to be aware. Here are several warning signs that could point to a young person, especially of school age, who is being sexually exploited.
1. THEY HAVE A TATTOO OF A BARCODE, OR THE WORD "DADDY"
Of course not everyone who has a tattoo is a sex trafficking victim, but there are certain kinds of tattoos that are red flag indicators of a person who is in danger. Via CNN,
...Traffickers or pimps feel they own their victims and a barcode tattoo, or a tattoo with "Daddy" or even a man's name could be a red flag that the person is a victim.
2. CONSTANT VISITORS AT ONE PARTICULAR ROOM IN A HOTEL
Pimps do not limit themselves to operating out of sleazy hotel rooms. You can find a sex trafficking victim in a five star hotel, but the key is knowing what to look for.
According to TIME, hotels attract sex trafficking victims because it's convenient - they can get in, make money, and leave without pulling too much attention. Although guest privacy is important to many hotels, helping sex slaves is just as critical to their business. This is why many hotels require their staff to take courses in spotting sex trafficking victims.
But sometimes, even hotel staff could miss the signs.
If you’re checking in or in the lobby, do the women being checked in have their own credit cards and forms of identification? Do they look to be in good health? Do they seem disoriented or disheveled? Are their “boyfriends” significantly older? Do the men seem to be preventing the women from moving about freely?
While all of those signs may scream "drunk college girl," or a sugar baby, a tattoo of a barcode or a man's name on the woman's body, along with the aforementioned signs, should set off alarm bells for any hotel guest.
Another way to spot a sex trafficking victim is if you notice a lot of men hanging around or outside of a hotel room on your floor, or a constant stream of visitors to one hotel room. Even though there could be a perfectly reasonable explanation for a constant stream of visitors, or a lot of dudes kicking it in the same hotel room, it's best to err on the safe side, and alert hotel staff if you notice any of these activities on your floor.
3. THEY ARE AFRAID TO SPEAK
Seeing a person not dancing at a nightclub isn't that odd, especially in the social media age where most club goers Snapchat themselves dancing. But Laura, who was a sex trafficking victim in New York, said that when she went to a club with her pimp, she would stand in the corner quietly, while her pimp canoodled with celebrities. What's even more strange about Laura's story is that a club full of people noticed her demeanor, and did nothing about it. According to Juvenile Justice Information Exchange:,
Someone else may have felt awkward standing alone at a party, but Laura didn’t. Feeling awkward would have required Laura to think critically about how other people saw her. Laura hadn’t thought for or about herself in years.
...Laura didn’t wonder why the outside world — white-collared men, rappers, neighbors, and town car drivers — either overlooked what DJ did or, often, helped him do it. She didn’t find it upsetting, or even odd, that people saw pimps like DJ as hard-knocks heroes — and women like Laura as property. Survival instinct and delusion subdued any impulse to question DJ’s perverted version of the truth.
In essence, sex trafficking victims aren't allowed to speak with anyone because they may say something that raises concerns. This is why it's important for your alarm bells to ring out loud if you see a woman who looks afraid to speak, constantly checks behind her back, or flinches when you speak to them. She just may be in fear for her life.
4. SIGNS OF CHILD ABUSE AND AN OLDER BOYFRIEND
According to the Texas School Safety Center, the differences between a child who is being abused, and a child who is a victim of sex slavery, runs neck-in-neck. Also, Trafficking victims aren't always of middle or high school age. Victims can be as young as three-years-old.
Some of the signs that a child is being trafficked includes a student who resists being touched, appears malnourished, has bruising, shows signs of drug or alcohol abuse, has sudden angry outbursts, or lives with a much older partner.
If your teen notices that their friend or school mate with any of these issues, it would be best to speak with school personnel, or authorities, immediately.
5. UNCHARACTERISTIC PROMISCUITY
The epithet THOT (That Hoe Over There) is probably the most dangerous word a child could use, especially when they overuse it to diminish the feelings of another student. Most kids use the word THOT to describe someone who is promiscuous, but the reality is that using the term diminishes the severity of a person who is actually being sexually exploited.
That said, it's easy for teens to shrug their shoulders at a young girl who is sexually promiscuous, but some things should set off alarm bells. Any child who is well versed in sex situations or terminology well beyond their age specific norms is most likely a child who needs help.
If you or someone you know is a victim of trafficking, contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888.