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She may look like any other teenager, but if she slides up her pant leg she reveals a tattoo covering her thigh that reads, “Daddy’s Little B—h.” She is far from most women her age, but she may be living right in the neighborhood as a sex worker. This is not a woman who has freely chosen this life; she is a victim of sex trafficking.

It may be hard to believe, but every day, women in the Chicago area are sex-trafficked. To some, sex trafficking fits the description of an underdeveloped nation, but not the wealthiest country in the world, much less in its middle- to upper-middle-class suburban neighborhoods.

With a president who boasts “grab ’em by the p—y,” however,  many think it is time to confront the reality that women are being exploited for sex right at home.

“It’s absolutely something people don’t recognize,” said Elyse Dobney, Program Manager of STOP-IT, an organization that works directly with victims to end sex trafficking in the Chicago area. “If people do recognize that trafficking exists, they recognize it in Chicago, but many are surprised to hear it happens in the suburbs, too.”

According to Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE), 16,000 to 25,000 women and girls are sex-trafficked in the Chicago area annually. Additionally, about 250,000 men in the Chicago area procure sex, said Gayle Nelson, Engagement and Development Director at the Jewish Coalition Against Sex Trafficking (JCAST).

Sex trafficking, as defined by the National Human Trafficking Hotline, is the “recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act, in which the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age.” This definition includes both U.S. citizens and others.

One in three youth who run away from home will be picked up within 48 hours for sex trafficking, said Donna Fishman, Co-chair of JCAST. “We want the community to understand what happens to kids that puts them in roles as sex workers,” said Ms. Fishman. Rae Luskin, who spoke at a JCAST meeting this past summer, said the average age of a sex worker is 14 years old, a vulnerable age, when young girls are looking for love and attention.

“Most teenagers are at a very vulnerable place in life, and traffickers target these vulnerabilities,” said Ms. Dobney. “Everyone has a desire to be loved and feel special, and traffickers target and exploit that vulnerability in young girls. It’s easy for them to build trust by telling girls, ‘You’re so special’ or, ‘You’re so beautiful.’”

Whether buying her new clothes, driving her around, or offering her a place to stay, the trafficker’s attitude towards her can quickly change, forcing her into the sex trade as repayment of the “debt” she owes him for his initial kindness.

“Once the pimp does them one favor, it can turn into a slippery slope for exploitation,” said Ms. Dobney.

The use of Internet ad sites and social media to sell sex is also very troubling to Ms. Dobney. She noted that the Internet allows pimps to stay hidden and continue the cycle of trafficking. “Trafficking is largely unidentified. If we knew where the victims are and who the pimps are, there wouldn’t be a need for the amount of outreach that currently exists.”

Ms. Fishman said obtaining exact statistics on sex trafficking presents a lot of problems. “As issues of sex trafficking may become more known in the media, statistics can rise because more women may be encouraged to report,” she said. “It’s all in the shadows.”

“We see this happening in our community at every socioeconomic level, to both boys, girls and trans youth, to teens in one- or two-parent households,” said Ms. Dobney.

Another stereotype of sex workers is that they are physically barred from leaving one place. “Typically, we don’t see victims of sex trafficking locked in a basement or a home,” said Ms. Dobney. “The pimps have instilled fear in the women. They walk around freely but are psychologically trapped.”

Ms. Fishman wants education about trafficking to extend to all types of people: to youth, so they can change their attitudes towards women; to parents, who need to monitor signs of trafficking; and to first-responders, police, teachers, and social workers, so they can recognize who the victim really is.

 “We need to stop dismissing this ‘boys will be boys’ behavior that can develop into sex trafficking,” said Ms. Fishman. She cited aspects of rape culture that can transfer into the normalization of women as second-class citizens, such as jokes about prostitutes, strippers for bachelor or fraternity parties, or degrading music.

“Five to 10% of men in the U.S. buy sex, so 90 to 95% can be upstanders [men who take a stand against those who denigrate or abuse women]. We need to hold everyone responsible in trying to combat rape culture and end sex trafficking and the behaviors that condone it. It’s time for a change in culture and [time] to learn to think critically about the media and our own behaviors.

“This is modern-day slavery,” said Ms. Fishman. “If you care about the history of the enslavement of African Americans, if you care about wars around the world, you should care about humans suffering in this country.”

Forced prostitution represents the perversion, not the fulfillment, of dreams.

Sherry Petlin, a member of JCAST, asked, “If you ask a little girl what she wants to be when she grows up, do you think her answer would be a sex worker?”

All too often, those on the street – young or old, male or female – find that the only currency they have is their body. Sex can be traded for food, clothing, drugs, or even shelter for the night.  “It’s extremely common for men and women to engage in survival sex. ‘I’ll let you stay on my couch as long as you have sex with me or with my friends, or as long as you do what I ask you to do,’” said Betty Bogg, Executive Director of Evanston’s Connections for the Homeless. “It’s exploitative and extremely common.”

Melody Rose, Director of Clinical Services at Youth & Opportunity United (Y.O.U.) said she has seen incidents of survival sex “particularly with teens and young adults who have struggled with housing and/or family stability.”

For a host of complicated resaons, people of any age can turn to survival sex. “They do it for money, drugs, or connections,” Ms. Bogg said. “Women are very vulnerable, but certainly not only women are victims. It’s exploitative and power-based. … The power balance is very complicated and sex plays a part of it.”

Ms. Rose said, “The most significant common thread is trauma; as defined by the CDC’s ACEs [adverse childhood experiences] study who have exhibited three or more traumatic incidents since birth.” She added that, from what she has seen, survival sex was “most significantly prevalent with LGBTQ+ youth.”

In “Exchanging Sex for Survival,” which appeared in The Atlantic in June 2014, Mike Mariani wrote, “According to the Polaris Project, a nonprofit combating human slavery and trafficking, 300,000 children are at risk of sex trafficking in the U.S. each year. In response to this rising epidemic, safe harbor laws have been enacted in [many] states.

“So-called ‘safe harbors’ grant immunity from criminal prosecution to minors under the age of 18 engaged in prostitution. The thinking is that these minors are not criminals but victims, often homeless and runaway teens who are exploited by malicious, manipulative pimps. Such laws comply with and reinforce federal law, which has decriminalized prostitution for minors and now legally classifies them as victims of human trafficking.” 

Because the safe harbor laws deal with “prostitution,” they do not protect the victims of survivor sex nor punish the predators who exploit the already damaged and vulnerable people living on the street, “couch-surfing” or otherwise wresting a day-to-day life from an uncaring environment.

This abject cycle is difficult to escape. “Often people don’t get out of it,” said Ms. Bogg. “For people without resources, the only thing that can get them out of this is a job …and that’s hard to come by. … People need a safe, affordable place to live. If we had these things it would be easier. We need a society that doesn’t judge people.”

Those who seek help from Connections will find a non-judgmental staff, Ms. Bogg said. “We’re not in a position to tell people that what they’ve doing is wrong. We are trying to offer the alternatives . … We help them explore their options but we don’t say what you can’t do. It can be overwhelming to try but the thing is to help the person in front of you, to help one person at a time. When someone’s sitting right in front of you, you can help that person. … “You can make a difference for that person.”

                                                                                       — By Mary Helt Gavin