For many of us, the words "sex trafficking" conjure up images of distant lands and unfamiliar cultures. Corrupt government officials, porous borders and a lack of rule of law must leave the most vulnerable exposed to this abhorrent and heartbreaking dynamic overseas, we think. But, at least American children are safe!
I shared these same misinformed assumptions several years ago until organizations like the Polaris Project and Shared Hope, two domestically-focused anti-human trafficking nonprofits, informed me of the extent that human trafficking takes place within the United States -- and to the fact that a majority of victims are minors. Holly Smith, author of newly released Walking Prey, was one of them.
Holly is indisputably courageous for sharing her personal story, which helps to illuminate that children (and adults) from all walks of life, can be the target of traffickers. Her book is far more than a memoir alone, however, as Holly manages effectively to integrate comprehensive and informative recommendations for parents, educators, law enforcement and government officials on how to combat trafficking and sexual exploitation. I had the honor of asking Holly about her story, her book and her advocacy work as a survivor.
Jane: Would you be willing to share some of the experiences that you discuss in your new book, Walking Prey?
Holly: In the summer of 1992, between 8th and 9th grade, I became a victim of sex trafficking. I had been walking through the mall with friends when I noticed a man watching me. He called me over to him, and at first I shook my head no in response to him. But then, I became curious, and I also felt special that he pointed me out of the crowd instead of one of my other friends. I exchanged numbers with him and we talked on the phone. In 1992, cell phones and computers were not yet popular or affordable.
He said things that made me feel pretty, special and mature; he said I was pretty enough to be a model, and that I was too mature for high school. He also said that he could introduce me to famous people and get me into dance clubs if I ran away with him. It sounded glamorous, and I was unhappy at home. I was struggling with the transition from middle to high school: I was afraid of getting beat up, and afraid of losing my friends and social status. I also didn't get along with my parents. So this man's invitation sounded more and more tempting; and after about two weeks, I ran away from home to be with him. Within hours of running away, however, I was forced into prostitution in Atlantic City, New Jersey. I was 14-years-old.
Jane: Your transition to being an anti-human trafficking advocate is extraordinary, and I know inspires so many, including myself. Would you be willing to share what that transition was like when you began telling your story?
Holly: It was actually really difficult, at first. The first time I ever shared my story was in 2009 for Tina Frundt's Washington, D.C.-based organization, Courtney's House. I stood on a stage and read from a small piece of paper, shaking and unable to look up. The women who worked at Courtney's House were incredibly supportive and Tina, who is also a survivor, inspired me to stay involved in the anti-trafficking movement. I shared my story a few times anonymously in 2010 and 2011, and then I started to consider writing my story in a book.
Questions from audience members really helped to shape the parts of my story that I share in Walking Prey. I recommend to other survivors that they share their stories and accept questions from audiences if they are also considering the idea of writing their stories of survival.
Jane: Is there a person in your life that has been particularly supportive to you throughout the recovery and healing process?
Holly: Because I didn't receive the aftercare that I really needed following my victimization in 1992, it took many years to overcome what had happened. My schoolteachers and school counselors were especially supportive during high school, and even college. My family was also very supportive in high school and in my early adult life. I was successful in my academic career and in my work, but I still struggled as a young adult because of this dark secret from my past. I felt ashamed by it and kept it a secret; as a result, I failed to make many healthy friends and I struggled with bad relationships and substance abuse. Things really turned around for me in my late 20s: I moved to Virginia, met my husband, and met other survivors of human trafficking.
Until I met Tina Frundt in 2009, I truly believed that I was the only girl in the world to whom this had happened. It was through meeting survivors that I finally began to understand that I was a victim when I was 14-years-old -- I had been manipulated and exploited by adults. I truly began to flourish after that and survivors across the country have helped me so much: Rachel Loyd, Carissa Phelps, Shandra Woworuntu, Evelyn Chumbow, Ima Matul, Sheila White, Ming Dang and so many others.
Jane: What prompted you to decide to write Walking Prey?
Holly: I knew that I was going to write my story, but Walking Prey is so much more than a memoir. It's an academic book on the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) in America. I include predisposing factors (i.e. what makes one youth more vulnerable than another), community risk factors and resources for law enforcement, medical and mental health professionals, anti-trafficking advocates, community members, teachers, and parents. I also discuss societal influences in popular culture that can and do cause many children to become greater targets for exploitation, including designer-brand advertising to teens and the sexual objectification of women and girls in the media (e.g. music videos, movies, fashion magazines).
Jane: What do you want every American to know about human trafficking?
Holly: I want every American to know that each has the ability to prevent sex trafficking of children in their communities. In the last chapter of Walking Prey, I offer several ways in which community members can prevent trafficking and advocate for victims. My favorite tip is to encourage community members to volunteer for local organizations that offer mentoring services to children and teenagers. Traffickers target youth who lack supervision and guidance; anyone can mentor a child and make a difference in the future of that child's life.
Jane: Do you have specific policy recommendations for law enforcement to help prevent and respond to human trafficking?
Holly: Appendix B is dedicated to providing resources and policy recommendations to law enforcement and other first responders. It's important for law enforcement to create not only trauma-informed and victim-centered protocols to respond to victims of human trafficking, but also to create trauma-informed, victim-centered initiatives to proactively identify and recover victims from exploitation. For example, law enforcement can partner with NGOs in the interest of educating schoolteachers, school counselors and parents on the warning signs of child sex trafficking and other forms of CSEC.
Jane: Similarly, what advice do you have to policy makers and legislators?
Holly: There are efforts across the country to identify and respond to human trafficking, but I don't think there is enough of a focus on efforts to prevent trafficking. In 2013, I spoke to the middle school from which I graduated in 1992, the last school I had attended before meeting my trafficker. After my presentation, a young girl asked me why this was the first time she was hearing about sex trafficking. Good question, I thought. Young teenagers are often the prime targets of sex traffickers, and they have a right to know this. My top recommendation for policy makers and legislators is to mandate the education of young teenagers on the presence of child sex trafficking in the United States and the common tactics of traffickers.
Jane: Is there a call to action you have for the general public?
Holly: Walking Prey serves as my wake-up call to the general public: child sex trafficking is happening in the United States and we must take responsibility for those societal influences fueling the exploitation of children. In Walking Prey, I discuss how negative messages in the media, especially popular culture, can influence young girls to see themselves as commercial and sexual objects, thereby becoming greater potential targets for sex traffickers. Such negative messages include the sexual objectification of women in the media, from advertisements to music videos. These messages can also influence boys to see their female peers the same way, thereby perpetuating the culture to view women as sexual objects meant for consumption and exploitation. Any efforts toward the prevention of child sex trafficking must include media literacy (e.g. deconstruction of advertising and other media messages) in elementary, middle, and high schools.
Photo courtesy of Nathaniel Hamilton of NewsWorks.org.