By Dr. Kirsten Havig, MSW PhD –
When I was given the opportunity to write this piece, I struggled with how to frame the issue for kind-hearted folks who are inspired by love and community and faith. How could my anger inspire? How could my unspeakable rage be interpreted into the language of love? I pondered this, as I have many times over the years. My first attempt at a title was this:
Community Outraged by Rape-for-profit Scheme: Adults Who Buy and Sell Sex with Children to be Held Accountable
This is a headline that could rightly appear in any newspaper across the U.S. today. Unfortunately, while children are indeed bought and sold routinely in our country by adults for sex, few are aware (much less outraged), and the perpetrators are rarely held accountable. How can children be trafficked for sex right here in Oklahoma, in the U.S., in the Land of the Free? This is the story of how I came to be haunted by that question, and by the experiences of young people I have worked with over the years. It’s also the story of what we can all do about it.
My first job as a professional social worker was running a diversion program for adolescent girls referred to the juvenile justice system. Some of them were chronic runaways, some had drug problems, some truant or simply “incorrigible”. All of them had traumatic histories, most marked by sexual abuse and violence in the home. One girl – I will call her Cassie – of only 13 years had been arrested five times for “prostitution” and had spent more time in detention than she had in school. Cassie had run away from home over 20 times, had a pimp, and worked the streets every night, servicing as many as 15 men a day for money she rarely saw and never got to keep. She told me on a rainy Saturday afternoon that her step-father had turned her out at age 11. At first she ran away, time and again, to escape his advances and the men he rented her out to…only to be returned to him in handcuffs by do-gooders like me with little insight into her reality and no language to even talk about what was happening to her. Her step-father was her rapist, her trafficker, and her legal guardian. He was being paid by other adult men for the pleasure of sexually abusing her. Even as recently as a few years ago, it was routine practice for kids across the U.S. – too young to consent to sex with an adult under statutory rape laws – to be arrested for prostitution. National and state policies now recognize children as victims who deserve protection, healing, and justice – thanks to recent legislation in Oklahoma, minors are now protected as victims if found to have been trafficked for sex.
Another girl I worked with, Paula, aged out of the child welfare system and began working truck stops selling her body to survive…until she was murdered somewhere along I-70 by one of her customers. A young man, Ben, homeless at 15 after being kicked out by his parents and who I also met in detention, had survived by selling sex for food and shelter, a practice all too common amongst youth on the streets…and contracted HIV along the way. I don’t know what happened to him.
This is not just an Eastern European problem, or an issue south of the border. According to the Polaris Project website, “there is no official estimate of the total number of human trafficking victims in the U.S. With 100,000 children estimated to be in the sex trade in the United States each year, it is clear that the total number of victims nationally reaches into the hundreds of thousands when estimates of both adults and minors and sex trafficking and labor trafficking are aggregated. Victims are frequently lured by false promises of a lucrative job, stability, education, or a loving relationship”. Younger children are more vulnerable – many sources indicate the average age of entry into the sex trade is 12 – and members of racial minorities are more vulnerable overall to socioeconomic risk factors.
By the way, did you catch that? TWELVE. Through my contact with another organization active in this fight, Truckers Against Trafficking, I learned that Oklahoma is known amongst long-haul truckers as the place to go for very young girls, and such places are a-plenty along our interstates. Child sex trafficking activities, also referred to as the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) and domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST) happen in homes, hotels, truck stops, business fronts like massage parlors, in residential facilities, schools, on the streets…it truly is all around us, yet somehow invisible, and perpetrators are rarely held to account for the damage they cause. That damage includes physical abuse, drug abuse, loss of connections and identity, disease, and devastating trauma with effects that often last a lifetime.
What I have also seen is the amazing resilience of survivors. I have seen elementary school-aged kids confront their abusers in court and speak their truths for all to hear. I have seen girls rise from the ashes of their own childhoods to become advocates for others, with voices and spirits more powerful than the devastation of rape. I have seen citizens move past the strong impulse to look away, who are willing to have their hearts broken in order to help others put their own hearts back together again. If they can do that, I can do whatever I am able to support them – I have to.
I was asked to write about what allows me to keep doing this work, what inspires me, what keeps me going. So, back to my rage. I am so angry that I live in a world where injustice like this surrounds us like air, so angry that our culture blames victims and ignores perpetrators, angry that everyone is not angry about this too. How do I keep doing this? All I have to do is think about Cassie, Paula, and Ben and the countless other children out there who live lives marred by such abuse. I only have to think of the bravery I have seen in survivors and I know that what I experience as an advocate, former therapist, as a researcher, while difficult, is nothing compared to what survivors have endured. I am driven by outrage that this injustice exists and persists in our world, our country, our city.
All of us can play a role in confronting this injustice – below are a few pathways for action. Part of me feels an impulse to apologize for making you feel whatever you may feel reading this – sadness, discomfort, disgust, regret at knowing, anger – but really, I want you to feel those things. We all need to feel about this issue, and then turn those feelings into action:
- Make the culture connection – the sexualization of children and objectification of women creates the context for exploitation. Use your power as a consumer to reject products and advertising that contribute to this culture.
- Make the demand connection – the commercial sexual exploitation of children wouldn’t exist if there weren’t buyers willing to pay. Support legislation that holds these offenders accountable and the resources that systems need to do this work.
- As a parent or caregiver, provide children with age-appropriate education about their bodies, healthy sexuality, sexual abuse, and risk reduction. A big part of this is also internet safety – many instances of sexual exploitation begin online.
- Raise boys to become men who do not tolerate sexual exploitation, and who value women and understand the meaning of consent.
- Be men who do not tolerate sexual exploitation, and who value women and understand the meaning of consent. Say in the locker room, at the bar, in the street, and online.
- Support agencies in your community that serve at-risk youth and survivors of trafficking.
- Utilize your job/industry as a vehicle for change – organizations like Truckers Against Trafficking and The Code, which provides anti-trafficking resources for the hospitality industry are examples
Some resources for response to trafficking:
- National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline 1 (888) 373-7888 or
Text “HELP” or “INFO to 233733
- Oklahoma Department of Human Services Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline
- 911 for immediate risk/harm
- Polaris Project http://polarisproject.org/index.php
- Shared Hope International: http://sharedhope.org/
- National Center for Missing and Exploited Children http://missingkids.com/CSTT
- Unlock Freedom: http://www.unlockfreedom.org/ Tulsa-based non-profit agency specializing in trafficking prevention and awareness education