“You just have to dance, we can make a little money like that.”
That’s what Shandel, then 13, said her boyfriend told her at a party he had taken her to some 12 years ago.
And that’s how it all began, Shandel, now 25, recalled.
Gradually, the man she thought of as the only person who loved her or even cared for her, demanded more. Much more.
And she said he would physically abuse her if she refused.
Even now, it is difficult for Shandel, who would only use her first name for privacy reasons, to talk to strangers about what she was forced to do with men.
She had left an abusive situation at home – her dad was on drugs, and her mother had “her own issues,” Shandel said.
The man she left home for “was the first person that felt like who loved me.”
‘It wasn’t love’
“In hindsight, it wasn’t love, but it felt like love,” she said.
“It was like, if I didn’t do these things, then he wouldn’t love me.”
Shandel is among the many victims of sex trafficking, the commercial sexual exploitation of children.
While the term trafficking evokes for many images of children kidnapped off the street, smuggled across borders and moved from place to place, that’s rarely the case, social workers and researchers say.
Many who work with the children or who study the problem prefer the term commercial sexual exploitation of children to trafficking, as it offers a much clearer picture of what’s happening.
Most victims know their exploiters
The children most vulnerable are those living in poverty, often known to child protection services, in foster care, in generally unstable conditions, social workers and researchers say.
Many have been sexually abused as children before they become victims.
“As much as stories might come out about conspiracies to target people who are relatively safe, relatively less vulnerable, the truth is on the hotline,” said Robert Beiser, the strategic initiatives director for sex trafficking at Polaris, which runs the US National Human Trafficking Hotline.
“Our data shows that people are exploited because traffickers know that there are certain groups of people that don’t have the support, that don’t have the ability to get accountability, or justice for themselves,” Beiser said.
“And those people who, if you exploit them, it’s much less likely that any problems will come your way as a trafficker or as a sex buyer.”
And the children are far more likely to know, and even be related to their exploiters, than to be grabbed by a stranger, the experts say.
“Hollywood loves a very dramatic abduction and similar stories, but that is not what typically happens in trafficking cases,” said Jonathan Todres, a law professor at Georgia State University who focuses on child trafficking.
“It is usually someone they know or someone that an acquaintance knows.
“So it may be that a peer introduces them to someone who ends up recruiting for a trafficking ring.”
‘Not stranger danger’
Focusing on kids being nabbed by strangers or a child trafficking cabal leads people to miss the point, said Rachel Lloyd, who was trafficked as a teenager and later founded GEMS, a non-profit in New York that helps survivors get their life back on track.
“There are girls who are kidnapped and forced into the life, it’s just not the most common,” Lloyd, whose organisation helps hundreds of girls and young women survivors every year, said.
“It’s not stranger danger in the way that we like to think about it.
‘There are girls who are kidnapped and forced into the life, it’s just not the most common.’
“It’s about vulnerability and risk meeting the billion-dollar industry, filled with exploitative predators who are, whether they are johns or pimps, looking to continually fill the need to supply.”
The exploiters are almost always men, the experts say, and the victims are usually female, although boys are trafficked, too.
Hoping for a better life
In the beginning, some girls think the man is going to help them into a better life.
“Maybe they’ve been dating them a couple of weeks. Maybe they think he’s a manager who’s going to set up their dance careers,” Lloyd said.
“I’ve seen girls who were thinking they were going to have a career in the entertainment industry.”
Others have thought the man was a landlord who was offering them an apartment, she said, a strong lure for a homeless girl or one looking to escape an abusive situation at home.
‘I’ve seen girls who were thinking they were going to have a career in the entertainment industry.’
Most kids “do not go out into the street, they’re running away from some harm,” Todres, the law professor, said.
“And they feel in that moment that the street is a better option.
“And that’s a really profound statement.”
One observation that staff members at The WellHouse in Odenville, Alabama, a recovery facility for survivors, have made is that many of the girls and women were sexually abused as children.
Trafficked by her father
An adult woman living there now was trafficked as a child by her father, according to The WellHouse director, Carolyn Potter.
“She has described just the horror of all of it,” Potter said.
“And then, when she was able to leave the family home and felt like her siblings were safe … she ended up being trafficked as an adult and fell right back into it.”
The WellHouse houses adult survivors of commercial sex exploitation on its peaceful, 63-acre campus, and many are young women who were trafficked for years, starting in their teens, Potter said.
The organization also has children as clients, and is working on opening a housing facility for children in the spring of 2021.
The average age of children they are seeing right now is 14, according to Potter.
Exploitation is ‘everywhere’
The commercial sexual exploitation of children is “really everywhere,” Beiser said.
“People ask us a lot for what hot spots might be, and I think that implies that there are a set of people doing bad things in one location.
“(But) it’s a system that is really set up for people with money to exploit people who are vulnerable.”
While it’s more prevalent in urban areas, rural areas aren’t spared, and the internet has widened the net for exploiters, experts say.
It’s also driven a lot of the activity out of sight, Lloyd said, making it harder to identify victims.
The COVID effect
While it’s difficult to know the effect right now that the COVID-19 pandemic is having on the commercial sexual exploitation of children, what’s clear is that it is putting more children at risk, Beiser said.
People who might be escaping trafficking situations by finding a place to work or shelter are finding that shelters have reduced capacity or are closed because of the pandemic, according to Beiser, and many nonprofits have had to close because they’re not getting the resources that they need.
“Since the COVID pandemic, we’ve seen a significant increase in calls for emergency shelter,” he said.
“We’re going to see the echoes of what COVID has done to make people more economically vulnerable, unfortunately for years to come, if we don’t put the right policies in place to help people.”