Harry Hines Boulevard in northwest Dallas is a “track,” a place where prostitution is, at least in normal times, visible and available. It’s a wide, treeless expanse of concrete, low-slung buildings, and neon signs. On a Saturday in early August, a nearly full moon glowed in the southeastern sky. A couple of strip clubs had reopened and, judging from the parking lots, were doing good business. Outside of one, a doorman stood wearing a surgical mask.
The pandemic hurt strip clubs like those on Harry Hines Boulevard, and it also put a crimp on prostitution generally. The Dallas Police Department (DPD) reported that cases of johns “purchasing prostitution” dropped 63 percent during the first half of 2020 compared with the same period in 2019. Human trafficking reports dropped by 39 percent. “COVID has definitely had an impact,” said Maj. John Madison of DPD’s vice unit.
But the pandemic effect has not been all good. Harmony Grillo, founder of Treasures, a California-based ministry to sex trafficking victims, said traffickers are forcing some women to do more porn webcamming “to meet the increased demand that’s created by those in quarantine.” Carol Wiley, director of A Way Out, a similar program in Tennessee, said fewer johns may be renting women face to face, but she fears that “violence toward the women [by traffickers] increases.”
Some of the heaviest and least-anticipated impacts of the pandemic have fallen on victims of sex trafficking who had already escaped the life. One such victim—call her Ava, because she has legitimate fear of her trafficker tracking her down—was recovering from three years of being sex trafficked when the pandemic hit.
Ava, 24, escaped her trafficker in 2018. She built a relationship with God and overcame deep-rooted social anxieties. But the pandemic shutdown took away much of the community she had built since escaping prostitution. In-person worship services at her church in Fort Worth stopped. Small groups she attended on issues from emotional support to financial coaching could no longer meet.
Ava was living in a house run by Valiant Hearts, a Texas-based group that helps women escape the sex industry. As the pandemic lockdown continued, house parent Tiffany Kiser noticed that Ava had lost the optimism she’d gained since being in the program. She stayed in her room and refused to talk about what was bothering her.
In normal times, Valiant Hearts provides women with choices, something victims lose when they are trafficked: To appear controlling risks having a victim equate you with her trafficker. But Ava was at a critical point in her healing, one that called for an unorthodox approach. Kiser and Emily Chavez, Valiant Hearts’ program director, demanded that Ava sit down with them. When she did, her hands shook and her face looked as if a year and a half of therapy had completely unwound. Ava said she couldn’t explain how she felt or why. “Just start talking,” Chavez said.
SEX TRAFFICKING IS A LARGE, sophisticated, underground economy, with its own networks, business models, and jargon. Criminals like the one who trafficked Ava are the successful entrepreneurs of the industry. They own multiple homes and drive expensive cars. At any one time, they may control dozens of prostitutes, sometimes trading them with affiliated traffickers in other parts of the country. They diversify across every segment of the market, from prostitution conducted along streets to discreet, “agency-level” procurement deals for wealthy and prominent johns who shield themselves behind third parties.
Ava’s trafficker controlled 30 women of different ethnicities, shapes, and hairstyles. He used a combination of charm, coercion, and physical assault to keep them in line. One night after a birthday party for one of the women, police responded to a call about an attempted robbery and shooting. When the police saw so many women and only one man in the house, the officers became suspicious—but could find no grounds to arrest anyone.
The next day, one of the women told Ava she wasn’t feeling well and needed to go to the hospital. Ava loaned her a cell phone so she could call for a ride home. Ava never saw the phone again. At the hospital, the woman told authorities her real problem: She was being trafficked and needed help. The phone became evidence in the case against the trafficker.
Six months later, police raided the house where Ava lived, arresting her, the other women, and the trafficker. Since she was recovering from invasive cosmetic surgery, police placed her in a segregated cell as a protection against infection. There she remained for six weeks: “It was the first time that my brain had freedom to think the way it wanted to.”
“It was the first time that my brain had freedom to think the way it wanted to.”
In jail, Ava began asking God to show her if He was real. He opened her eyes to see her situation: The trafficker claimed to care about her while beating her and crushing her sense of self-worth. One day as she lay on the skimpy jail mattress, a letter arrived from a friend. It contained a Bible verse, Jeremiah 29:11—“For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. Plans to prosper you and to harm you.”
Ava wasn’t sure what to make of it. Were there plans to harm her? She looked the verse up, and realized her friend had miscopied it. The actual verse reads “… not to harm you.” In that moment, she realized if she stayed with her trafficker she might share with her trafficker some of the affluent, glamorous life he portrayed to the world, but there would be harm.
She decided to take her life away from her trafficker and give it to God.
When she met with her lawyer, she pleaded to find a place where she could learn how “to be human.” That’s how she ended up at Valiant Hearts. Ava was baptized a year ago. Photos from after the service show Ava’s face stuck in a smile that, as she described it, almost covered her eyes.
Ava’s battle was not over. She had to sort through years of emotional damage. For three months after moving into the Valiant Hearts house, she was afraid to leave, only going to church or with others to the grocery store. She also had to unravel a financial and legal mess. Sex traffickers bind and exploit victims by using their identities to open businesses and bank accounts for laundering money. Ava learned about a house in California deeded in her name.
“It’s very strategically planned out,” Chavez said, “so that nothing ties back to [the trafficker]. And when the ladies come out … they have debt, tax evasion, criminal histories, bad credit, and bad relationships with banks.” Ava’s credit score was “about as low as it could get.” Banks turned her down five times for a checking account before she got one through a connection to someone who owned a bank.
WHEN THE PANDEMIC HIT and Ava withdrew, Chavez was worried. She demanded that Ava “just start talking.”
It started with tears, and what Ava later described as “word vomiting.” She began to see how in the absence of healthy routines and regular worship, she had fallen into old patterns of thought dictated by her trafficker: She’d never amount to anything, never be anything but a prostitute. Ava began to realize the extent to which the pandemic had become a trigger, but one she could counter with skills she had already learned in counseling.
Since then Ava has made progress. She’s completed the Valiant Hearts program. With her legal troubles mostly behind her, she is moving into her own apartment. She has a job with Savhera, a company that provides employment to victims of sexual exploitation. She is also starting college and has a 10-year plan to get a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, so she can “help more survivors like myself get deeper healing and understanding.”
“This will be the first time I’ve lived on my own literally my entire life. Woo-hooo! The Lord has shown off in this season, really showing miracles. But it’s also been a really tough season.”
—Paul McDonnold is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute mid-career course