Every county in Wisconsin has had an incidence of human trafficking but it’s often called the unseen crime because human trafficking happens right in front of us and we simply don’t know.
Two women share their harrowing story of victim to survivor from this horrendous crime.
“My physical intimidation came with me not wanting to get up one day and doing what was asked of me and getting up ready to make money. When I refused, he ended up taking the cigarette that he was smoking and putting it out on my neck. I just remember screaming in agony,” recounts Esther*.
“I was almost strangled to death. That was a big moment for me. I thought that was going to be it. I can remember thinking my baby’s not gonna have a momma. I felt very much what’s the point and tried to kill myself during that time,” recalls Rebecca Bender.
Esther and Rebecca were victims of human trafficking.
For many human trafficking victims in Wisconsin, oftentimes their story can be found near the hustle and bustle of busy highways .
Lt. David Maas with the Grand Chute Police Department says, “We see a lot of issues related to human trafficking occurring at the hotels and motels, particularly along the I-41 corridor. We think about the Fox Valley area as a very safe area and it is a very safe area but the reality is that there’s trafficking that goes on on a regular basis.”
Terra Koslowski, Outreach Director for Damascus Road says, “In our area, human trafficking may happen from the different trucking routes. The different interstates that exist so from Milwaukee to northeast Wisconsin and then into Wausau and then across the state into Minneapolis.”
Esther says, “When you don’t know where you’re at exactly and you don’t know how close you are to the next place you call home. When you’re in that lifestyle at times you don’t exactly know where home is.”
Koslowski says, “It’s a business governed by supply and demand. So where there is demand, there is going to be movement and girls being taken to different locations.”
Human trafficking is the use of fraud, force, or coercion to obtain labor or commercial sex. Victims can be of any age and are usually women.
Bender recounts, “The young man who pretended to be my boyfriend was who took me to Las Vegas and forced me into human trafficking. I didn’t actually know I was being trafficked.”
Victims often don’t know they are victims because a main recruitment tactic is pretending to be a boyfriend.
Esther says, “A lover of mine started off as a boyfriend relationship, then it started with physical abuse. I didn’t ask for permission, to go out one day and I received a punch in my lip. I had six stitches on the outer and four stitches on the inside of my lip, which was split completely open, you could see straight through it.”
Lt. Maas says, “A lot of human trafficking is about power and control, keeping control of in most cases, a female companion involves the male counterpart, keeping their identification, keeping their money, keeping drugs on them in order to control them.”
Koslowski says, “It might seem like they are choosing they may have been mentally manipulated or physically manipulated into doing it.”
“I just thought I was in domestic violence and that I had made bad choices. I wasn’t marrying the two that it was domestic violence. It was the violence that was actually forcing me to make bad choices,” Bender says.
Unlike so many human trafficking victims, Esther and Rebecca were able to escape.
“It took me enough courage just to leave all my things behind and walk away with nothing,” says Esther.
Bender says, “December 31, 2007, I ran for good. I remember that date because I watched the ball drop on the television in New York while sitting in the Las Vegas airport. I hope people realize trafficking happens in every community across America. It’s gonna be very different than what it looks like in Wisconsin than it does maybe in northern California. So what’s important is that we learn more and educate ourselves.”
One survivor– Rebecca Bender is now a human trafficking advocate. Rebecca has written a book called ‘In Pursuit of Love’. The book details the six years she was trafficked.