Memories come back to Rebecca Bender at unexpected times. Adrenaline-producing, heart-pounding flashbacks to the time in her life when she was controlled by a sex trafficker.
Even years later, in the safety of her own family, triggers can come without warning.
“My toddler was 3 or 4, and you know, throwing a temper tantrum not wanting to go to bed. And my husband is taking her to the room like, ‘No, it’s bedtime.’ And she’s just saying, ‘Please no, please no,’” Bender says.
That everyday moment of parenting recalled her experiences from more than a decade ago.
“I started panicking. I remembered other girls being taken in the other room, hearing them begging their trafficker to stop. And I could remember being dragged into other rooms and begging him to stop. Little things like that I’m not sure I’ll ever get over.”
Bender’s experience is horrifying but not unique. There are hundreds of thousands of human trafficking victims in the U.S., estimates Polaris, a non-profit that operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
It’s not yet clear how many victims will be identified in the law enforcement sting of illicit massage parlors in Florida that are suspected of being part of an international human trafficking ring, but several high-profile names have been charged with soliciting, including New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, billionaire equity firm owner and prominent Republican donor John Childs and Johnny DelPrete, the longtime boyfriend of an LPGA star. They deny the charges.
The investigation has brought renewed attention to sex trafficking and prostitution, a problem that remains overlooked and misunderstood by many Americans, experts say.
“People like to think it’s a victimless crime, but that’s a myth that seems like it’s never going to die,” says Lisa L. Thompson, vice president of policy and research at the National Center for Sexual Exploitation. “Whether it’s from a situation like this – an illicit spa establishment, or engaging in prostitution by going to online sites, every man who buys sex from a woman in a brothel or any of these establishments, they have contracted out the job of violence, intimidation or coercion to a pimp or brothel owner.”
Turning a blind eye
The nature of sex trafficking, experts say, makes it not only a crime with victims but a particularly heinous one.
“Unlike most crimes which involve the buying and selling of a consumable product … human trafficking entails the buying and selling of human beings, and they’re exploited over and over again,” says Jay Albanese, professor and criminologist at Virginia Commonwealth University. “You can only sell a pile of drugs once, only sell guns once, you only sell stolen or counterfeit property once. But human trafficking you re-victimize a person every day, every hour. And I would argue that’s why it’s one of the most serious of all crimes.”
Survivors often describe near constant abuse that can last for years or decades.
“Can you imagine having sex with someone you don’t want to and you have to hide the disgust on your face because if you show anything other than pretending to be pleased then you’re going to blow the call, and not get the money, and if you don’t get the money you’re going to be be faced with violence?” says Rebekah Charleston, a trafficking survivor who now works as a consultant and advocate for victims. “That’s what every single day is like. Over and over, every day.”
Some survivors say they had astronomical quotas to fill, and if they didn’t they faced violence. One survivor told the Naples Daily News that on her first day as a trafficking victim she was forced to have sex with 21 men in six hours.
“Do about 40 at least, you don’t even reach 40,” she said her traffickers told her.
(The Daily News, a USA TODAY Network newspaper, withheld her name and some details to protect her identity, which was verified through the SWFL Regional Human Trafficking Coalition.)
Visible signs of abuse are also often present but willfully overlooked by buyers, experts say.
“I have seen a victim with a fractured arm and I ask her how long she had that issue: ‘Oh, for 2½ months,’” says Kathy Chen, a researcher for Praesidium Partners and former executive director of Asian American Community Services in Columbus, Ohio.
Charleston, who was trafficked for more than a decade after running away from home at 17, says signs are apparent even in high-end villas and luxury jets where she says she was frequently brought by traffickers.
“You’re taught as someone in that world exactly what to say. It’s thinly veiled lies. ‘I’m putting myself through school,’ or ‘I’m a single mom.’ Often times you’re showing up with black eyes,” Charleston says. “People are calling your phone the whole time and checking on you, obvious signs of control and abuse, yet these men don’t want to see that. They choose to ignore it.”
When she was in Las Vegas, Charleston says, it wasn’t uncommon for married men to stay at luxury resorts with their wives then go across the street to a motel and solicit women to their rooms.
“They’ll call the number in the yellow pages basically and hire a stranger to come to their room and perform whatever acts which are very degrading and oftentimes violent,” Charleston says. “They begin to play out whatever role they have in their head that their wife doesn’t want to do and then they go back and kiss and hug their wife like nothing happened. That is devious behavior. It’s predatory-like behavior that we just expect as a society is OK because it’s just a man getting his rocks off.”
Bender, who was trafficked from Oregon to Las Vegas when she was 19, was arrested several times in the nearly six years she was forced into sex work by a trafficker. In one of her last brushes with law enforcement, Bender says, she was at a casino ATM with a man who had solicited her when an officer approached. The officer recognized Bender.
“He’s like: ‘I just arrested you in this hotel two weeks ago. You’re not even supposed to be on property.’ And he grabbed me by the arm, and he said to the buyer, ‘Get out of here before you have a charge,’” Bender says. “That guy turned and left, and I got arrested for trespassing with intent to solicit. And I was being trafficked, my daughter is being held hostage at home, I was being beaten at least once a week if I didn’t bring in a quota, my trafficker was under surveillance by federal agents for an organized prostitution ring. And I went to jail. Not the buyer, the victim.”
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SOURCE: USA Today, Cara Kelly