Jill LeVasseur remembers everything. The way she got into sex-trafficking, her arrest, the King County police officer who stayed with her and guided her to Engedi Refuge Ministries in Lynden. The programs there included addiction recovery and therapy, and they changed LeVasseur’s life. It became a no-brainer for her to stay involved. LeVasseur is now client support coordinator at Engedi, helping other women find jobs.
“Seeing the women’s accomplishments and successes, that’s what drives me,” she said. “It’s incredible watching them and supporting them and being able to say I’ve been there, and that they can make it.”
LeVasseur is one of the lucky ones. Only about 3 percent of those trafficked ever get out of the sex trade, she said.
Engedi Refuge Ministries — a name taken from the Bible — was started by Aaron and Lea Newcomb, who realized that human trafficking was an issue in 2007 when they witnessed the Robert Pickton serial killings in British Columbia. By 2011, they had started a non profit, and by 2013 had accepted their first residents who had been sexually exploited.
“When women come here, they’re suffering from PTSD. It’s equivalent to POWs coming back from war,” Aaron Newcomb said.
It’s becoming clear that human trafficking is not only alive and flourishing in Whatcom and Skagit counties, it’s growing thanks to the advent of online trafficking. It isn’t just foreign women being transported over the Canadian border for sex purposes, although that does occur.
“You can order a young girl like a pizza, and they will deliver, that’s how they do business,” said Gayle Kersten, chairwoman of Skagit County Coalition Against Trafficking. “It’s the fastest growing illegal business.
“One of the things we face is that we live in an area that is beautiful and nice and where people don’t think anything is happening,” Kersten said. “When we talk about human trafficking, you think of big cities like Las Vegas or Seattle.”
Jennifer Teigrob, who runs the horse therapy program at Engedi, said the problem is a lot bigger than anyone realizes. “The I-5 corridor is one of the largest sex-trafficking areas in the world, Vancouver to Los Angeles,” she said. “It will blow your mind there’s so much activity.”
Human sex trafficking is an exploding growth industry all across the United States. According to a U.S. State Department report, the United States has become the second most-trafficked country in the world, and sex trafficking has become a $32 billion-dollar-a-year industry. Kelsey Bishop, a researcher at Middle Tennessee State University, cites studies indicating that human sex trafficking is the most common form of modern slavery, amounting to the fastest-growing business of organized crime and the third-largest criminal enterprise in the world.
The Internet has been a game changer, Newcomb said. Brothels used to be outside the city limits, and streetwalkers were basically relegated to the underground where the trade couldn’t be seen. Now a customer can make a phone call directly to a pimp and have the girl delivered. On average, a girl turns 10 tricks a day, almost always with strangers. In order to survive, they decompensate and go into another world, which causes severe psychological damage, said Melissa Farley, a psychologist and sex-trade researcher.
Another staggering number: Out of the total male population of the country, 22 percent have engaged in paid sex at one time or another, Newcomb said. That’s a lot of people. The Freedom Alliance at Kansas State University did the numbers: 3,500,000 johns buy sex in the United States every single day of the year.
Some of the trafficked women may have helped their pimp to retain prostitutes, a position in the system called the “bottom bitch” as opposed to the “top dog.” As a result, they’ve committed felonies. Try getting a job with that on your record in addition to prostitution, Newcomb said. When they want to get out, they are not only labeled prostitutes but violent felons. It’s often hopeless.
“Here at Engedi, we help them work through such issues, and they develop a resume over time,” he said.
The life expectancy after being trafficked? Kersten of the Skagit County Coalition Against Trafficking said it’s a mere seven years. The statistic startles and amazes many, especially the “johns” who buy women’s services.
People are like trees, Teigrob said, they’re a renewable resource. “Dealers are leaving drugs, which can be sold once a day, for sex, since a woman can be sold 30 times a night.”
It gets worse. The average age of a woman being trafficked is 12 years old, Kersten said. “This just doesn’t happen to runaways or kids of a poor background, it happens to kids who are wealthy.”
Sites like backpage.com, a free classified advertising website, are used to sell girls and women. The girls are recruited at a young age because the traffickers can control them, Kersten said. “It’s much easier to frighten them … they (the pimps) know about their families and will threaten them.”
In June 2015, Bellingham police conducted a sting in which six men were arrested. Undercover officers posted an ad on backpage.com with a phone number, a photo of a woman’s backside and a short blurb from a 34-year-old woman “looking to please,” according to the Bellingham Police Department.
Within about 30 seconds, a female undercover officer’s phone started ringing, Lt. Mike Johnston told The Bellingham Herald. “She had so many people calling that she couldn’t even field them all,” Johnston said. “She forgot to turn the phone off, and it kept ringing through the night.”
The Skagit Multi-Agency Response Team is a coordinated effort to combat online human trafficking. Its first operation in 2014 had SMART investigators posing as minors similar to those they had come into contact with in previous cases. One posed as a 13-year-old girl, and the other as a 9-year-old girl.
Lt. Chris Cammock of the Mount Vernon Police Department said the minors were based on girls the police had rescued previously. In the case of the 13-year-old, she was disinterested in school, looking for an older man and willing. But for the 9-year-old, she was a victim of human trafficking and, surprisingly, was the most sought after of the two. Nothing like the operation had been tried before in the county, Cammock said. It affirmed that there are no geographical restrictions for prostitution with the Internet.
Whatcom County Undersheriff Jeff Parks said the county does have a problem to a certain degree, although the incidence of prosecutions in Whatcom County is fairly low. The Border Patrol has an occasional problem with Asian and East Indian women. There are more than 400 sex offenders registered in Whatcom County, but most are Level 1, status offenders or those engaged in familial molestations, he said.
“Folks do transit through here since we’re on I-5 and the border,” Parks said.
A human-trafficking offense occurred every 16 days in Washington state in 2015, according to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs’ 2015 Crime in Washington report. In addition, of the 23 reported cases of human trafficking, only nine were solved.
The problem is that human trafficking is a covert crime, making prosecution difficult, said Kelsey Bishop, who wrote “Human Sex Trafficking: A Thematic Analysis of New York Times Coverage” in Middle Tennessee State University’s spring issue of Scientia et Humanitas (http://libjournals.mtsu.edu/index.php/scientia/article/view/652/595).
The majority of American sex-trafficking victims are either runaways or “throw-away youths” who live on the streets and come from abusive homes or families, she said. The average age of women trafficked in the United States is 20, but many of them have been forced into slavery at a far younger age, sometimes as young as 4, Bishop said.
People are just starting to realize that these women don’t wake up one morning and say they want to be prostitutes, Kersten said. Most are coming from an abusive background and were trafficked as minors.
“They were already victims before they got into this. They were traumatized before this even began, and then they get into this and they are traumatized over and over again,” she said. “They are really just hurting people.”
Of women in prostitution, 93 percent were sexually abused prior to prostitution, researchers say; 95 percent of prostituted women want out of prostitution but can’t because they don’t have a job or are under the control of a pimp; 100 percent said they wouldn’t want anyone they loved to ever have to prostitute their bodies for survival, according to the Freedom Alliance (http://www.ksufreedomalliance.org/sex-trafficking.html).
The Seattle Police Department has gotten ahead of the game when it comes to how they handle human trafficking and is adapting methods like the Nordic Model, which decriminalizes women involved in sex trafficking and aims instead at the men who pay for their services. However, many people still look at jail as the answer for trafficked women, even though jail is not going to save them, LeVasseur said. “Our best chance at changing the stigmatizing is educating police officers so they will be able to reach these victims and rescue them.”
A collage in the Learning Center at Engedi Refuge Ministries
in Lynden depicts a client’s feelings about the past, present and
future. From the past are “pills” and “whooping tricks”; from
the present are “breakthroughs” and “It’s time to give in”; and
for the future “family” and “travel.”
Women who come to Engedi come from very difficult circumstances, said Carma Roectcisoender, executive assistant. “When women first come to us, often they are right off the street,” Roectcisoender said. “Very often there is also addiction involved: drugs, alcohol.”
Some women at Engedi attend a 45-day detox before starting the program. “In some cases coming off the street, they were doing heroin and meth,” Roectcisoender said. “They were surviving, and the way they were surviving was to medicate, and sometimes they were forced to do drugs.”
The success rate at Engedi is 90 percent, Newcomb said. The safe house and the learning center are separate. You aren’t required, like many other places, to participate in both. At present, there are 32 graduates of the program.
“We are able to handle six in the Engedi house and three in transitional housing for a total of nine. We’re thinking of an addition to make it 15. That would make us one of the biggest in the nation,” Newcomb said.
Bishop recounts one victim whose father would rape her starting when she was 4 years old. After she turned 18, he would invite other men to join in the abuse. She was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, which affected her developmentally, leading to difficulty in paying attention, speaking and possessing a poor memory. The youngest girl interviewed for Bishop’s article was 9 when she started being sold for sex. Along with her, girls as young as 10 and 12 testified as having been approached by a pimp. Incredibly, half of these sex-slaved minors still lived with their parents.
Impoverished women and children with a lack of options constitute the largest portion of victims. The correlation between poverty and sex slavery is strong because low-income girls find it much harder to escape the life of a prostitute. Girls who were sexually abused in the past tend to prove easy prey for sex traffickers. A sample of 106 adult women incarcerated for prostitution-related offenses found that 68 percent reported that they had been sexually abused before the age of 10. The studies showed a distinct correlation between prostituted girls and family disruption. Girls who come from families where addiction is present and if their mothers were physically abused by an intimate partner are more likely to be involved in the sex trade.
Making the problem even more prevalent and worrisome, the British newspaper The Guardian noted in a recent article that teenagers in America are increasingly resorting to sex work because they can’t afford food. Focus groups in 10 communities in Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and rural North Carolina and eastern Oregon were analyzed by the Urban Institute, a Washington-based think tank. It described girls selling their bodies for money as a simple strategy to make ends meet. Evidence of teenage girls turning to “transactional dating” with older men caused particular alarm.
“Even for me, who has been paying attention to this and has heard women tell their stories for a long time, the extent to which we were hearing about food being related to this vulnerability was new and shocking to me,” said Susan Popkin, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and lead author of the report. “The level of desperation that it implies was really shocking to me. It’s a situation I think is just getting worse over time.”
Pimps generally enforce “house rules” requiring victims to earn a certain amount of money every night. Quotas typically range from $500 to $1,000, according to the Polaris Project, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. It made an informal estimate of a pimp’s annual income from prostituting four women (the average number of girls a pimp controls). The pimp would make $632,000 a year if each woman made that amount of money every night. In one study cited by Bishop, a pimp who managed a brothel told researchers that repeat customers wanted new faces, and therefore he had to “clean house” every six weeks or so and get new women.
That meant throwing into the streets to fend for themselves women who had been talked into sex and often were being held there through use of drugs supplied by the pimp.
About the Johns
It’s often assumed that the clients of sex trafficking are low-income men, but the reality is that the customers are average, respected Americans who tend to view women as commodities — stockbrokers, musicians, politicians, lawyers, writers, hotel bellmen, cab drivers and bartenders, studies cited by Bishop indicate. A study in Boston showed that the average age of sex buyers was 41, with a range of ages between 20 and 70. Fifty-six percent were Caucasian, 23 percent African American, and 89 percent identified as heterosexual. The average age when most of these men bought sex for the first time was 21, and these men paid for sexual services an average of 54 times in their lifetime.
Johns repeatedly viewed prostitution as a consensual act or an economic choice for the women. They preferred to view prostitutes as enjoying sex, when victims of sex slavery in reality suffered from psychological illnesses that caused them to shut down mentally in preparation for having sex with 10 strangers or more a day. Additionally, most women told researchers their “enjoyment” of sex was an act for the client’s benefit.
For the girls that find themselves enslaved in the sex industry, most were coerced by an “idealistic” man. This system involves an older man approaching the victim and telling her that she is attractive or beautiful and then asking her to be his girlfriend. For girls who lack self-esteem and alternatives, they’re flattered and agree because of promises for a better life, Bishop said. Pimps promise to feed, clothe and take care of the girl when she is sick. That is, until they have to “clean house.”
For other victims, kidnapping is the gateway into the trade. “You can be kidnapped just walking down the street,” said one victim. “It’s, ‘Hey girl,’ and the next thing you know you’re kicking him, or some other girl will talk to you and then snatch you up,” one researcher quoted a victim.
The girls are often locked in a room, tied up, drugged, raped and threatened. Beatings, rape and drugging are typical tactics for pimps to inflict on victims in the beginning of their relationship. Then pimps use threats, intimidation and beatings to force girls to have sex for money. Forms of this violence are inflicted on them for not meeting the pimp’s quota for the night or for being caught by police.
Pimps are known to brand their victims. Several victims in Bishop’s study said pimps would tattoo their names or a bar code on the girls to illustrate that she was property and for sale. One pimp branded his victim with a tattoo of a dollar sign on her pubic area. Another victim had her pimp’s name carved into her back with a safety pin.
Stockholm syndrome, or identifying with captors, is a prevalent effect for the girls. Many victims felt a romantic bond with their pimp even if he beat them. One victim said that even though he beat her maliciously, he would then beg for forgiveness. “Somebody finally beats the crap out of you and then comes back and kisses it and says, ‘I want to make it better,’” one victim said. For her, regret meant love.
Advocates against human sex trafficking blame such psychological and emotional difficulties for why many victims refuse or retract accusations against pimps. For girls who have never felt valued, it’s even harder to speak out against perhaps the only person ever to profess love to them, Bishop found.
Moreover, for victims subjected to violence and prostitution at a young age, slave life seems normal. Norma Ramos, executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, said that one “thing we’ve learned from women who have been prostituted is that it is very easy to get into, but very difficult to get out of.”
The largest forum for online sex trade is backpage.com, a website that accounts for 70 percent of America’s prostitution ads. A 16-year-old former victim testified that three-quarters of her “dates” came from that site. Representatives of the website said they’ve spent millions of dollars working with law enforcement to monitor advertisements to screen ads featuring minors, with little luck.
Another site, itspimpin101.net, offers a forum for community sharing for johns, prostitutes and pimps. The site provides visitors with instructions for pimps and would-be pimps, and there are tips and advice about “the game,” and users share police sightings in real-time. (This is according to Bishop’s report — Whatcom Watch tried to access it and was hacked.)
In 2010, when Craigslist removed its “erotic services” category, it took away the “fish pond” that Detective Jeremy Martinez of the San Jose Police Human Trafficking Task Force called a “great tool” for law enforcement to gather intelligence. On the opposite side, opponents of online communities argue that when Craigslist stopped advertisements in 2010, online prostitution plummeted more than 50 percent. If backpage.com exited the sex trade completely, the lack of advertisements would be a setback for pimps but it still wouldn’t not solve the problem, and in fact might make things harder for law enforcement, officials said.
Girls aren’t the only victims in sex trafficking. It includes boys, too. Boys tend to sell their bodies to survive financially, to explore their sexuality, or to make contact with other gay men, Bishop said. One study found that two-thirds of prostituted males had run away from home before being involved in the sex industry, and up to 50 percent were thrown out of their homes. No matter what their self-identification, gay or straight, 95 percent of the clientele for prostituted boys were reported to be adult men.
Victor Malarek, author of “The Johns: Sex for Sale and the Men Who Buy It,” wrote that these men are often overlooked in the media because of an underlying belief that prostitution is an acceptable outlet for men’s urges. The combination of cultural acceptance that “boys will be boys” and the myth that prostitutes enjoy the lifestyle has created a social injustice that is impersonal to the public, he said. Bishop in her study cites the media’s role in perpetuating such human trafficking memes.
That attitude could come with a much higher price in Washington state. Bills are currently pending in the state Legislature that would increase the penalty for buying sex from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor, which translates into a fine of up to $5,000 and up to a year of jail (SB 5277), and allow law enforcement to seize the cars and money of johns (SB 5041 and HB 1558).
“The ladies we work with at Engedi mostly come from cities so they can be in a safer place,” Teigrob said. “Sex trafficking is taking place in smalls towns as well as larger towns. One statistic shows that a runaway girl going to Seattle will encounter a sex trafficker within 45 minutes of her arrival.
“This is like the girl next door. She meets an older, handsome man and feels like it’s an exclusive relationship, then he begs her to do it just once. Then he gets her hooked on drugs so she’s doing it for that, and she’s trapped. She can’t go home, maybe it’s a bad home or her family doesn’t want her back, and she can’t leave.”
Teigrob finds that her horse therapy sessions are one way for women to get out of the human trafficking business. “God does amazing things through horses,” she said. “These women are so scared when they first come here. They get on a horse — maybe for the first time — and it’s a new experience. They’re around people who are loving and supportive, perhaps for the first time. In a couple of minutes, they’re riding a horse, and they’re thinking, ‘Maybe I can do this with other things in my life as well.’”
As for the men, Newcomb runs Men With Dignity out of various churches, a program that alerts men to their role in the sex-trafficking system. It isn’t likely that most of the men who attend his sessions will ever hire a prostitute, but it does help them to realize that the “normal” macho male talk about women and sexual conquests contributes to the culture of female enslavement and child molestation. If guys sitting around in a bar having a beer don’t put up with that kind of talk, Newcomb said, the would-be johns get the message.
“It’s only through such encounters that the process of ending the vicious cycle of poverty and enslavement of women will truly begin to be resolved,” Newcomb said.
Washington a Leader in Child Sex Downloads
In 2013, Shared Hope’s Project Innocence Challenge graded states according to their efforts to combat sex trafficking. On the West Coast, California came in with a solid “F.” Oregon followed with a more laudible “B.” Washington state’s rating was an “A.”
Much of that grade was thanks to the tireless efforts of state Rep. Tina Orwall, whose 33rd Legislative District includes SeaTac, where prostitutes sometimes line up for business along Highway 99 near the airport. Orwall spreads out the credit for sex-trafficking legislation, however, saying it’s a bipartisan issue. “There are a number of us who are passionate about this in the Legislature, both Democrats and Republicans,” she said.
Upcoming bills include another attempt to decriminalize sex trafficking crimes for victims, since a previous law was passed but has failed to work; raising the fines against johns for buying sex from $150 to $1,500; and helping law enforcement agencies keep up with training so they can do their work, Orwall said.
Even so, police are swamped with sex-trafficking crime. Internet Crimes Against Children, a national organization, keeps a map of the United States which displays a red dot whenever someone downloads sexually pertinent data about children. The red dots are concentrated mostly on the East and West coasts, with very little activity in such places as Nevada. However, the one state in the nation that leads all the others with the greatest number of dots is Washington.
Orwall can’t even tell from which counties most of those red dots emanate because the entire state is filled with them. “The whole state looks red to me,” she said.
Police simply don’t have the means to react to such activity, Orwall said. New laws can help, but greater consciousness of the problem lies in society as a whole, including a new awareness among people who buy sex for recreation like it was any other commodity. People are getting hurt, Orwall said, and citizens need to realize that and stigmatize both pimps who make a living off human trafficking and the johns who believe that it is a victimless crime and therefore unimportant.
10 Things About Men Who Buy Sex
Melissa Farley, Ph.D., founder of Prostitution Research and Education, offers 10 things you might not know about men who buy sex:
1. On average, the men were 21 years old when they first bought sex.
2. 25 percent of sex buyers traveled to another state, and while there used trafficked women.
3. 41 percent of sex buyers knowingly used a woman who was controlled by a pimp.
4. 66 percent of buyers knew that a majority of the women were lured, tricked or trafficked into sex.
5. 74 percent of sex buyers reported that they learned about sex from pornography.
6. Sex buyers were more than seven times more likely than non-sex buyers to acknowledge that they would rape a woman if they felt they could get away with it.
7. Sex buyers are far more likely than non-sex buyers to commit felonies, especially crimes of violence against women.
8. 89 percent of sex buyers said they would be deterred from buying sex if their names were added to a sex offender registry.
9. 90 percent of sex buyers said they would be deterred from buying sex if a $1,000-$2,000 penalty was imposed.
10. 100 percent of sex buyers said they would be deterred from buying sex if a one-month jail term was imposed.
Warning Signs That an Individual
Is Being Trafficked
• Signs of physical abuse such as burn marks, bruises or cuts.
• Unexplained absences from class.
• Less appropriately dressed than before.
• Sexualized behavior.
• Overly tired in class.
• Withdrawn, depressed or distracted.
• Brags about making or having lots of money.
• Displays expensive clothes, accessories or shoes.
• New tattoo (tattoos are often used by pimps as a way to brand victims).
• Older boyfriend or new friends with a different lifestyle.
• Talks about wild parties or invites other students to parties.
• Shows signs of gang affiliation (specific colors or gang symbols).
Shared Hope International www.SharedHope.org
Assistant Editor Jim Kjeldsen and researcher Marilyn Napier contributed to this report. Napier graduated in June from the Journalism Department at WWU.