Mary Rose Somarriba
Originally published at Verily Magazine.
She remembers it like it was yesterday. It had been many years since Jessica Richardson was involved in the sex industry—years of getting herself back on her feet, starting a career, building a place in her community, and growing a family—when one day she was recognized. A man looked at her, cocked his head, and said, “I know who you are. You wear red, don’t you?”
It “sent me into a horrible spiral,” she told me in an interview. He had recognized her from online pornography made while she was forced into prostitution as a minor. Richardson was trafficked against her will by people for whom pornography and prostitution have a large goal in common: money.
For Richardson, porn is “more damaging than prostitution in the physical sense; the photos are out there forever.” There’s an added humiliation that comes with the staying power of Internet content, which lasts for eternity.
Richardson has a remarkable candor about her. She’s a successful professional in Portland, Oregon, with a book coming out. She is polished, organized, and has what appears to be effortless business savvy. But she can also jar you with the painful reality of her past. Like when she described her attempt to return to normalcy after escaping the pimp who manipulated and exploited her: “Try to fill out an application at McDonald’s after you’ve been raped a few hundred times.”
Domestic human trafficking is a national scourge that is only beginning to command attention. Many Americans assume that a black market for people only exists beyond our borders, in countries devastated by economic collapse or in the developing world—certainly not here. But more than a century after slavery was abolished in America, it still exists. The government is trying mightily to eliminate it—most notably with the United States’ Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), which defines sex trafficking as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act”—“any sex act on account of which anything of value is given to or received by any person.”
In America, it’s rare that someone’s just “snatched off the street and exploited,” Richardson told me. “Exploitation or abuse starts at birth. . . . Years of abuse and trauma lead up to it . . . lay the groundwork for someone to come and fulfill a need in their life” that hooks them into trusting the wrong person, the trafficker.
This person usually comes in the form of a pimp, someone who controls several women and profits from making them perform sexual services for buyers. Like sex offenders who prey on youth, pimps are skilled manipulators with an eye for targeting the vulnerable, those lacking parental support who have often been previously abused. These factors increase a pimp’s chances of being able to break a girl down through sustained abuse and mold her into a profitable commodity.
For Richardson, the groundwork was laid early in life. Beginning when she was four in Houston, Texas, she was sexually abused by neighborhood boys. For months, she was raped and told no one, believing their threats that they would kill her if she did. One day her family moved away from the abusers, but, as she describes it on her blog, “the damage was done, and I thought sex was a normal activity at age five.”
At age ten, Richardson lost her father. More difficult years followed, and she grew to yearn for the affirmation of a father figure. When she was seventeen, now living in Portland, Oregon, “Martin,” a forty-three-year-old, “extraordinarily charming” man, entered the scene. To Richardson, he was “all the amazing things I wanted”; he “listened, knew I was smart and beautiful,” gave me “acceptance, love, gentleness.” She began to trust him, and a sexual relationship developed. Then “one day, he said, ‘Since you’re already having sex, what do you think about getting paid?’ [He said] I was worth more and should not just give sex away,” she recalls. It was the 1990s, and “Pretty Woman had just come out.” He showed her a “scrapbook of all the places he’d been, and it looked glamorous.”
What Richardson didn’t know was that Martin was a seasoned pimp. His actions were characteristic of many traffickers: he manipulated a vulnerable girl into feeling attached, then he proposed she sell herself to make money, giving her the sense that it was her own choice. Not long after, Richardson found herself “beaten, abused, [and] enslaved,” working what she describes as “the West Coast circuit”—California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Hawaii, and British Columbia—being sold in prostitution and photographed in pornography.
“What I didn’t understand was that with fifteen, twenty, thirty tricks a day,” she says,” I was [on a path to] getting the life beat out of me.” Moving from place to place all the time, she quickly learned that even “water was a luxury.” When she turned eighteen, it “didn’t turn me into a consenting adult,” she says. A mere number didn’t change the fact that she remained under Martin’s coercive influence.
Richardson was one of an estimated 100,000 American juveniles who are or have been sex-trafficked, according to a figure published in the National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking, published by Shared Hope International and also cited by the Polaris Project, the organization chosen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to run the nation’s twenty-four-hour hotline dedicated solely to human trafficking. “That number ranges as high as 300,000,” according to Ernie Allen of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).
The U.S. government considers all minors exploited in pornography to be victims of human trafficking, by virtue of their youth and inability to consent. And child pornography is a booming business. “With the advent of the Internet,” Allen notes, “the problem of child pornography has exploded . . . with that sense of anonymity and the ability of people to connect with each other, like-minded individuals, and trade images.”
The Department of Justice and NCMEC “both recognize that pornography is an element that adds to the serious problem of sex trafficking,” notes Elaine McGinnis in her 2004 report The Horrifying Reality of Sex Trafficking. “Many traffickers are found with filming equipment and cameras to create and sell pornography.”
While it’s impossible for a porn viewer today to know whether the people pictured are consenting to the photographs or being trafficked, it is nearly as difficult to know whether the younger-looking girls and boys pictured are over the age of majority. Often younger-looking models are marketed as “new to college” and “just turned eighteen,” but with no way of verifying their ages, many are in fact minors.
Can we blame viewers? “A man might not know the difference between a fourteen- and an eighteen-year-old,” Richardson admits. But in the course of her work helping trafficked victims and researching pornography, she has observed that a lot of girls “branded as eighteen years old couldn’t have been a day over fourteen.”
I asked Tina Frundt, founder of the trafficking-survivor shelter Courtney’s House in Washington, D.C., if in the course of running her shelter she had encountered any formerly sex-trafficked people who had been abused specifically in pornography.
“All of them. Every one of them. Myself included.” Frundt’s life in sex trafficking started when she was abused at nine years old in foster care.
Girls who reach puberty early are especially sought after for pornography. Katariina Rosenblatt, a formerly trafficked woman who now dedicates her time to combating sex trafficking in the Miami area, speaks at high schools partly to warn girls about this phenomenon. “Lots of kids are photographed” by traffickers, Rosenblatt told me in a phone interview. She had recently helped a “very developed” twelve-year-old who was actively being lured by a trafficker online. The girl had shared naked photographs by webcam, and the pornographic images were “worth very much.” As Rosenblatt put it, soon “the customers wanted more.”
“Whenever I speak at schools,” Rosenblatt remarked, “someone comes up to me after the talk who has experienced or is in the process of being recruited to sex trafficking.” When I spoke to her in October 2012, “over a dozen kids from three schools she visited” in the past few weeks had come forward and indicated that they had been abused in prostitution or pornography. She estimated that about 20 percent of the students who had approached her for help have been involved in pornography, whether in “videos or pics,” some even being recruited in school.
Miami is one of the nation’s hotbeds for sex trafficking, and the overlap with pornography is borne out in criminal records. In a press release in December 2011, for instance, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida described its conviction of two traffickers, Lavont Flanders and Emerson Callum, who had tricked “aspiring models” into attending an audition for an alcoholic-beverage commercial. “Unbeknownst to the victims, the alcoholic beverages Flanders provided them with were laced” with the common date-rape drug benzodiazepines. “Once the drugs had taken effect, Flanders would drive the victims to Callum, who had sex with the victims while Flanders filmed.” The traffickers “edited, produced, and sold the footage of the sex acts over the Internet and to pornography stores and businesses all across the country.”
Rosenblatt, who experienced sex trafficking in Miami in the late 1980s, between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, started a nonprofit organization in 2011 called There is H.O.P.E. for Me. During her teen years in Florida, Rosenblatt was trafficked three times by different people—once by a prostitute who was tasked with recruiting, once by a classmate’s father, and once by someone who appeared to be a kind old man in her neighborhood.
As a professed Christian who “became a born-again Christian at Billy Graham’s church at age nine,” Rosenblatt might not seem like a typical participant in the risky behavior associated with prostitution, but opportunistic abusers are known for exploiting childish vulnerability. The increasing numbers of students who come to Rosenblatt’s organization and law-enforcement authorities to report being trafficked testifies to how many minors continue to fall into the trap.
Although most of those trafficked are girls, Rosenblatt emphasized that boys are exploited as well. One boy who approached her anonymously had been abducted and molested by his pastor. Sex traffickers have “their own market” for boys in pornography, Rosenblatt said, indicating that it was further underground. She also recently helped a boy and a girl who had been sex-trafficked primarily into stripping.
An essential part of empowering trafficked victims, for Rosenblatt, is incorporating law enforcement immediately upon identifying the case. Law enforcement needs to know “how the trafficker knew how old [the victim was]”; if the trafficker knew the person was a minor, the trafficker is liable, and an opportunity exists for prosecution. From her experience working with hundreds of people lured into sex trafficking, Rosenblatt is convinced that in “prostitution, stripping, porn—half the girls there are going home, beaten, not getting a dime, and aren’t there by their own free will.”
Though advocates like Rosenblatt say the police are essential to solving the problem, many anti-trafficking organizations notice holes in the law-enforcement system that can compound problems for trafficked victims. Shared Hope found that many states’ law-enforcement systems, ill-equipped to identify trafficked victims as tools controlled by their traffickers, instead arrest and convict trafficked minors for soliciting and prostitution. Tina Frundt of Courtney’s House, for example, was trafficked at fourteen and arrested for prostitution at fifteen.
Authorities can easily miss the crime’s complexity. Many of those convicted of prostitution are in fact controlled and abused by traffickers who expertly shape their victims at vulnerable and impressionable ages. It is not uncommon for pimps to habituate their victims to lying about their names and ages, train them to deny that they have pimps, and convince them to think the streetwalking life is the life they chose, or the life they deserve. When law-enforcement officials then incarcerate trafficked girls as minors for acts of prostitution into which they were forced, the sense of hopelessness is compounded.
Even when the law is looking for trafficked victims, they can be difficult to recognize. For one young woman, referred to as simply FV for “female victim” in the 2004 indictment United States v. Bagley et al., eight years of psychological manipulation and dependency allowed her traffickers to shop her in the more public areas of the sex industry; she was “forced . . . to dance at local strip clubs” or pose in pornographic spreads published by Hustler Magazine Group. Only after a “torture session” with her traffickers brought her to “a state of cardiac arrest” did federal investigators get involved.
According to sociologist Meagan Tyler, author of the 2011 book Selling Sex Short, not only are “brothel and street prostitution” often linked to “pornography, stripping, phone sex, [and] peep shows,” there are “practical crossovers such as the use of pornography by pimps to ‘season’ or train women for prostitution.” Mingh Dang, a teenager in San Jose, California, in the 1990s, experienced exploitation at the hands of her own parents. Her father got her into pornography as a means of training her to be prostituted for their financial gain.
While porn, stripping, and other legal “adult” services are gateways to prostitution for many women, for others it happens in reverse. Shelley Lubben of the Pink Cross Foundation recounts that after her parents kicked her out of her house at age sixteen, she was approached by a pimp on the street who negotiated her sale for $35 to the first buyer. What followed was “eight years of stripping, prostitution, and plenty of porn.” For Lubben, pornography was the most damaging. “Even prostitutes have . . . more privacy” than porn stars, she said in a January 3, 2013 video on YouTube.
Richardson told me that at the time she partook in the commercial sex industry, “I would have argued anyone to death about the empowering nature of sex work,” she said. It “felt empowering, but was it? Absolutely not.” It was “the most degrading work in the world. How are you supposed to get out?”
For Richardson, the way out came through an epiphany. She found out she was pregnant. “To me, suicide was a very real option, not because I was depressed but because I had no help. . . . Finding out I was pregnant kept me alive.”
Her daughter is now twelve years old. Richardson, who has since married and given birth to four more children, tells of her journey at her blog, Sex, Money, and a Herd of Children. Along with two colleagues, she cofounded Freedom’s Breath, a group dedicated to empowering sex-trafficking survivors through art, music, and poetry. The website boasts its buoyant mission: “Freedom is a basic human right, yet thousands of Americans are enslaved today. On our wings, we carry a message of hope and freedom for all people.”
Richardson’s voice has a fierce joy to it. She has found strength in vulnerability by sharing her story of trauma, being honest and forthcoming with readers on her blog, and going by her familiar nickname, “Jes.”
“My thoughts are big; my life is random; my voice is loud,” she writes. “I am strong.”
Mary Rose Somarriba, culture editor for Verily magazine, is completing a Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship on the connections between sex trafficking and pornography.