Sex Trafficking: Modern Slavery in America
When people think of sex trafficking, they often imagine dirty underground dungeons where girls are strung up and tortured. They imagine their children being abducted in the streets, at the mall, or on their way home from school, and then sold across the country. They imagine trafficking overseas in third world countries, where women are forced into unpaid labor and sexual acts. The most common form of sex trafficking in America is forced prostitution, and it occurs in almost every city in the country.
The most widespread myth about human trafficking is that it involves kidnapping or physical force. In fact, most traffickers use psychological means such as tricking, defrauding, manipulating, or threatening victims into providing commercial sex. The second most widespread myth is that traffickers target strangers. This myth is particularly dangerous, as most of the women involved have been coerced and forced into prostitution for their whole lives.
In fact, women are typically first sold into trafficking by their own family members or guardians. Some victims are drugged in order to make them perform sexual acts for money at such a young age, leading to the development of lifelong addictions. The Polaris Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting sex trafficking, found that the top five coercive and forceful tactics used to keep victims in sex trafficking are:
What is THREE Women’s Center?
The THREE Women’s Respite Center is located in a house on Sullivant Street in downtown Columbus, which is in the epicenter of forced prostitution, widespread poverty, and drug rings in Ohio. THREE is sponsored by the Compassion Outreach Ministries of Ohio (501c3) in order to fight against human trafficking. COMO saw a need to help the women in the Franklin County area who are victims of exploitation, coercion, and violence.
The center is open on Tuesdays, Thursday, and Saturdays for about 4 hours each day, and women are welcome to come to the facility to eat, shower, do laundry, relax, and get new clothes. As a volunteer at THREE before the pandemic, I spent most of my time assisting in cooking, serving, and cleaning in the kitchen. Other volunteer opportunities include checking women in as they enter the center, retrieving clothing items from upstairs, and sorting through clothes donations. In late November, I was able to meet with Taylor Prusinski via Zoom, who runs the center, to discuss human trafficking myths and misconceptions, as well as the purpose of THREE and her experience with the center.
What is the goal for women who enter THREE?
“There are three main goals for every woman that walks through our doors,” Taylor says. “First and foremost, our goal is to keep these women alive. They receive practically no care on the streets, with nowhere to shower, go to the bathroom, do laundry, or receive proper medical care. These women are slowly dying because they cannot get the proper care they need on a daily basis. A small cut or wound can turn into a life threatening infection because they have no access to clean water or medications. I know so many girls who don’t have fingers because of frostbite, or who have lost a leg from an infection.” Taylor notes that if we can’t keep these women alive, then there will be no chance of them participating in rehabilitation and escaping the streets.
“The second goal is to give these women love,” Taylor emphasizes. “Sadly, more women that we see will die on the street than get rescued and rehabilitated.” These women have faced unimaginable trauma in their lives, and many of them have been in forced prostitution since childhood. Many of them have been homeless since they were children, turning to prostitution to make ends meet or to support their drug addiction. “To them, they don’t know any other life than the life on the streets, and it must be scary to think about leaving the only life you’ve ever known. We try to build relationships and friendships with each woman who enters the center, so that one day they feel they can trust us enough to let us help them.”
The final goal for each woman is getting them into the THREE rescue program. “If a woman comes to the center and has decided they want to leave then and there, we are able to put her in a car and get her to an undisclosed location in order to begin the detox process and offer them solutions.” Taylor explains that they can either 1.) move in with family, 2.) return to the street, 3.) enter the THREE rehabilitation program, or 4.) enter another rehabilitation program. The THREE program is a minimum of 18 months, and is fully funded by donations through COMO, so there are no strings attached to their journey to recovery.
Apart from THREE, there is a new center for men called TWO that opened in 2019, run by Jeffrey Tabor. “As we were helping these women, we noticed that there were lots of men hanging around outside the center doors, whether they were a boyfriend, pimp, or some sort of escort to make sure the women were where they were supposed to be,” Taylor says. “We ended up forming relationships with these men, and realized that there isn’t a place like THREE for the men in Columbus who are struggling. There are a lot of men that are trafficked on the streets of Columbus, and many of these men tend to be older. By having a center for both men and women, we are able to create a dynamic of equality and acceptance among this community, and it opens more resources to the community for change.”
Do you stay in touch with the women who are in or have finished their recovery process?
The biggest way to conquer addiction is changing your environment, and that includes changing the people you surround yourself with. To start the process of recovery, the girls cannot interact with people or places they did drugs at. This can cause a relapse, and tight monitoring at the facility is typically required in the beginning of recovery. “Leslie, who came from Sullivant Avenue, has graduated from the recovery program and has been three years sober. She has decided to volunteer at the center, since so many of the girls are familiar with her. Those who are able to come back to the center have the amazing opportunity to give back to the community they came from. They have a chance to show the girls ‘Look, this is possible. I did it, and so can you.’”
“In our recovery program, we typically don’t allow the girls to come back to the center unless we are sure that they can handle it,” Taylor adds. “A lot of other recovery programs try to use recovered addicts as ‘advertisements’ for their recovery programs. What these programs are not considering is how triggering it can be to have newly recovered addicts exposed to an environment that can cause a relapse. This economic play is not what we stand for at THREE.”
The center has recently been able to partner with Mount Carmel Health System to provide free medical care to women on Tuesday and Thursday nights. This is a huge step for the women that the center serves, since many of them do not have good relationships with the doctors and nurses at local hospitals. To these doctors and nurses, their efforts to help the women who enter the center feel fruitless, as victims return frequently to get treatment for the same issues. This results in a distrust between the women on the street and free clinics, which are the only medical resources that are accessible for them.
Taylor says that Mount Carmel’s volunteering has made a huge difference “Since the women no longer feel the pressure to go to an uninviting place to receive treatment, many of them are getting the medical help they need for the first time in years. The same nurses come to the center every week, so the women are able to build a relationship with their caretakers, and are far more likely to accept treatment.” Recently, the center has also partnered with Southeast Hospital to offer PREP treatment to prevent HIV. This means that girls who are sexually active can get PREP for free, supporting the center’s goal of keeping those who enter the center alive. Making these resources accessible to the people who actually need them is a monumental change, and soon this treatment will be offered to men at TWO.
The Effects of COVID-19
THREE is attempting to do their best amidst the pandemic, but things aren’t getting any easier as time goes on. Since the center values the safety of its volunteers, volunteers were limited to dropping off/serving meals through the front door. On top of that, Mount Carmel is no longer allowed to serve the center based on COVID restrictions from the board of directors, but luckily Southeast is still able to serve and administer PREP. “The women understand why we had to be so strict about our policies, since we could be shut down permanently by the city if we break COVID-19 protocols,” Taylor explains. “But it is heartbreaking to know that some of these women will not make it through the winter, and some have already passed away since the start of winter. For these women, COVID is just another obstacle blocking them from reaching recovery.” Luckily, as of early January, women and volunteers are now permitted to enter the center, boosting morale and positivity among the women. Once again, THREE can provide a safe space for these women to eat, shower, relax, and build trusting relationships with each other and the volunteers.
How to fight sex trafficking locally, nationally, and globally
Taylor urges everyone to first educate themselves and even take a training class on trafficking in America. “Learn, read a book, watch a documentary, because there is no clear answer to this problem. Everyone needs to understand that trafficking is real and it’s everywhere. We also have to debunk widespread myths and false beliefs about the realities of sex trafficking. Things like PizzaGate and Wayfair are negatively impacting the mission of the Polaris Project and other organizations pushing for reform.”
Taylor also urges everyone to find a resource in your local community that is helping victims. “While large nonprofits and organizations are a great way to give back, it is perhaps more rewarding and directly helpful to find local organizations in your communities. Spreading factual information, donating money and/or physical items, and volunteering when safe and possible are all great ways to help.”
Call To Action
- VOTE! Judges are the people that decide the fate of sex trafficking victims, and electing individuals who understand the realities of sex trafficking is crucial.
- Visit the Central Ohio Restored Citizens Collaborative (CORCC) and Trafficking Matters to learn more about sex trafficking and how you can get involved with advocacy for improved legislation.
- Watch documentaries about sex trafficking victims to understand how common sex trafficking is in America and the injustices that victims tend to face, especially those of color. Here are a few to start: Murder to Mercy: Cyntoia Brown Story (2020), Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich (2020), Sex Trafficking in America (2019), I am Jane Doe (2017), In Plain Sight: Stories of Hope and Freedom (2014)
- Pledge to fight human trafficking and post about your pledge on social media to spread the word about this crime against humanity.
- Here are 31 ways to take action
–Hannah Lichtenstein, Content Creator