Sara was a teenage runaway from a western Maine town looking to earn some money. Since she was a child, the 15 year old had been raped by her older brother and molested by her mother’s boyfriend. She no longer trusted her mother and was becoming reliant on pills and alcohol.
A friend from Lewiston introduced her to a madame, also called a female pimp. The madame sold 15 to 20 girls who regularly worked for her and a few other part-timers whom she advertised as massage therapists. In reality she was selling sexual favors to men — or johns.
Broke and with nobody to turn to, Sara joined the operation, placing her among the estimated 200 to 300 cases of sex trafficking in Maine per year. The BDN is not releasing her last name or other identifying information to protect her safety.
Someone unfamiliar with Sara or the realities of sex trafficking victims might wonder why she turned to the madame. What are the reasons why some people find themselves in this world? It’s a complicated question, often laced with unwarranted blame. The answers are not simple, but often they center on vulnerability.
No one chooses to be trafficked, which by definition requires coercion. People may come to it through desperation, or are manipulated into it, perhaps psychologically or through threats, rape or starvation. They may have grown up in the child welfare system, developed substance use and mental health histories, or experienced homelessness, according to a 2015 human trafficking needs assessment conducted by Hornby Zeller Associates for the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault. Painful pasts may have shattered their sense of trust and self worth.
Often, like Sara, they were abused as children.
Most people who were physically or sexually abused as children don’t become trafficking victims. But studies estimate 65 to 95 percent of people who have engaged in sex work were sexually assaulted as children, according to the California-based organization Prostitution Research and Education.
Sexual assault survivors have a 35 percent greater chance of being victimized again than non-victims, according to a 2006 report by the Vera Institute of Justice and the victim assistance organization Safe Horizon.
Research suggests that traumatic experiences in childhood may initiate psychological changes that can make victims more likely to encounter potential offenders in the future and make them more vulnerable to continued abuse. They may yearn to trust others, which non-trustworthy people may take advantage of; they may feel powerless and therefore not have the assertiveness or confidence to end an encounter safely; and a lasting negative self image may prompt them to pursue dangerous activities, such as abusing drugs, which may make them more vulnerable to harm, researchers stated.
To be considered sex trafficking, prosecutors must prove that someone used force, fraud or coercion as part of a commercial sex operation. Federal and state law also consider it to be sex trafficking if the person performing the sex act is under age 18.
Sometimes traffickers are able to coerce victims into entering the sex trade because they offer them promises of a better life. Sometimes traffickers offer them drugs, if they’re looking for a different kind of escape. For many young victims, traffickers offer them something they’ve never had: love and affection.
“In some cases it didn’t feel like there was someone there for them. They didn’t feel loved,” said Dr. Elizabeth Hopper, director of a program that provides mental health services to sex trafficking survivors at the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute in Boston. “[Traffickers] are offering some stability and structure. Someone is concerned about them, interested in them.”
But that interest and those promises are lies designed to fuel a trafficking operation.
Drawn into ‘the Life’
In some cases traffickers kidnap or physically harm victims to get them in their sex trafficking ring. They may inject them with drugs, so they don’t know what’s happening, said Dr. Elizabeth Goatley, an assistant professor at the Diana G. Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
But most often traffickers find ways to prey on and exploit the vulnerabilities of their victims, using manipulation tactics. Victims, who are often reliving past traumas when they are being exploited, are not weighing the potential outcomes.
“They don’t have a sense of power,” Goatley said.
For many, especially vulnerable teens who often are homeless or have run away from home, they may consider their body as the one tool they have to get what they need, she said.
Sara resorted to this tactic during the decade after leaving the madame, often having sex with or providing sexual favors to drug dealers for shelter and drugs.
“You understand that when you have nothing else to barter with, you have your body to barter with,” Goatley said.
“It becomes normal to not be valued. It becomes normal — the idea of using your body as a commodity,” Hopper added.
Smooth-tongued pimps may lavish affection on victims, at first. They may tell them they’ve got their back, ask them who else would want them, build a rapport. They are experts at knowing what their victims want and need. Is it stability? They can give them that. Did someone hurt them? Traffickers can convince their victims that they’re concerned about their well-being, that everyone else is against them.
With younger victims, traffickers may pay for them to do their hair or their nails, and tell them they’re beautiful or that they could be a model, Goatley said. For older victims, traffickers may tell them they can open up new doors and opportunities for them. If they want to be in the entertainment industry, they say they can help them out, she said.
“What the trafficker does is they feed on that vulnerability, and they tell you what you want to hear,” Goatley said.
Living ‘the Life’
Sara was trafficked by the Lewiston madame for six months before she escaped. She spent the next decade living with further abuse, addiction, violence and exploitation.
During those six months, Sara slept on a toddler-size mattress at her friend’s house and did what the madame told her to, even when, deep down, she wanted to object, she said.
It’s not possible to confirm details, as the madame was not charged, and there was no court case. But Sara’s experiences reflect those of many other sex trafficking victims.
She performed sex acts on men at their homes six or seven times per day, day after day, she said. Some of those jobs lasted a half hour, sometimes an hour. Other times she spent the night. Many of the johns were middle-aged working men — family men. Some were nice. Others weren’t.
The madame’s operation was based out of a small first-floor, two-bedroom apartment in a drug-ridden section of Lewiston, Sara said. The madame slept on a large bed in the living room. The other girls who worked for her hung idly in another room between sex calls. It was filled with the clothes they wore: mini skirts, lingerie and stiletto high-heeled shoes.
Some of the other girls looked to be in their teens as well, Sara said. Some were older. But Sara didn’t spend much time with them. She spent most of her time at the homes of various johns.
The madame told Sara to charge the john more if she had sex during a visit. If a john wanted two girls at once, he could get the second girl at a discount.
It didn’t take long for Sara to realize the madame was keeping most of the money she was earning.
“This is stupid. I’ve got to get out of here,” Sara recalled thinking to herself at the time.
But she didn’t have anywhere to go. She had no resources, no one whom she felt cared for her. She knew of no services or programs that could have helped.
“I felt like I had to fend for myself. I had little to no options,” Sara said. “If my mom didn’t believe that I was being molested by her boyfriend, is she going to believe anything else that I had to say? I felt like I had no place to turn. I didn’t feel like I had a place to turn because I felt dirty.”
The trouble with leaving
Even if victims are being beaten or raped, and have acknowledged the perilousness of their circumstances, it’s not easy for them to just walk out the door. They understand leaving could actually make their life more difficult — especially if they don’t know how they’ll survive.
What makes the greatest difference in whether a girl will leave a life of exploitation, is if she believes she has “options, resources, somewhere to go, and the support she’ll need once she’s out,” wrote survivor Rachel Lloyd, who founded the organization Girls Educational Mentoring Services in New York.
“Without that glimmer of hope … it’s unlikely that she’ll leave. And then the door will close just as quickly as it opened, leaving her feeling trapped once more, and this time even more convinced that this is the life she is destined to lead.”
One common statement by Maine survivors, as part of the human trafficking needs assessment, was that they did not know any services available to them. “You don’t know where to go until you end up in jail and meet [the Family Crisis Services Incarcerated Women’s Advocate],” one survivor said as part of a focus group, while other attendees nodded in agreement.
Victims who are able to escape may have no family, no skills for a job, and struggle to create an entirely new life.
“If somebody gets out, and they don’t have a lot of structures or support, I think it can be very overwhelming,” Goatley said. “When people are overwhelmed, they might fall back on what’s familiar to them and get back into unhealthy or dangerous situations.”
Some are dependent on drugs or alcohol. Even if they’re able to find treatment, they still face dealing with their traumatic history, which may contribute to relapse.
In addition, Goatley has worked with some victims who stayed with their traffickers because they realized leaving wouldn’t stop the operation. Other girls would only take their place. To survive, they had become so desensitized to what was happening to them. Drugs and alcohol aided the numbness.
“They really feel like, ‘As long as I’m here, nobody else has to steal my spot,’” Goatley said. “And that just speaks to the manipulation that traffickers use and perpetrators use to kind of normalize the exploitation that is taking place.”
Back into ‘the Life’
Sara also struggled after escaping the madam in Lewiston. Sex became a survival tool, allowing her to gain access to shelter, drugs and other necessities. She was manipulated by men who pretended they cared for her. One man sold her to a drug dealer in exchange for his drugs, she said. She lost her son to the state, and was raped and beaten by boyfriends.
She was also held captive in Portland-area hotels. When she was 19, she said a pair of drug dealers convinced her to allow them to sell prescription pills and later crack out of her home. She developed a relationship with one of the men.
At one point, however, they made her drive a rental car full of guns and drugs to a Fireside Inn in Portland, she said. When she got there, a group of four men told her she was not allowed to leave.
Over the next three months they brought her from Portland-area hotel to Portland-area hotel, where they were living, never allowing her to leave their side. They got drunk and took turns raping her.
“I was just a thing to them. I wasn’t a person,” she said. “I was a thing and something they had control over as property.”
Her captors eventually let her go after learning she didn’t talk to police, but it took her another six years to receive the help she needed. This year, she spent two months in Cumberland County jail after violating the terms of her release on a previous charge of selling marijuana to minors.
Facing nine months in prison, Sara reached out to a prison counselor for help.
Today, Sara is finally receiving that help. She’s enrolled in a long-term sex trafficking victim recovery program called Hope Rising. The program is at an undisclosed location in Penobscot County that provides 24-7 care to sex trafficking victims like herself. So far, the program has been helping her get off drugs, trust others again, learn to become a mother and finally focus on her future.
That type of support is essential to a victim’s recovery, according to Hopper. After escaping what many call “the Life,” victims often benefit from structure, addiction treatment, therapy, and help with basic life skills. They may need to learn how to form healthy relationships, create boundaries, build a support system and develop a vision for the future.
“I think everybody has a chance of a future,” Hopper said. “I think some people will need more supports than others.”
If you or someone you know might be a victim of sex trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. To reach a sexual assault advocate, call the Statewide Sexual Assault Crisis and Support Line at 800-871-7741, TTY 888-458-5599. This free and confidential 24-hour service is accessible from anywhere in Maine.