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My awakening to the horror of sex trafficking in the US

Less than two years ago I thought sex trafficking was an exclusively foreign horror. A terrible but remote thing like Ebola that would never affect me, so long as I didn’t make any unfortunate travel plans. 

I wasn’t quite as naïve as those who say they believe sex trafficking is a hyperbolic urban legend. But my ignorance did no service to the truth, either.

My eyes were opened when I started research for my novel, which was supposed to involve an Asian sex-trafficking ring infiltrated by a heroic American. (Go ahead, please cringe with me.)

I wasn’t quite as naïve as those who say they believe sex trafficking is a hyperbolic urban legend. But my ignorance did no service to the truth, either.

Sex trafficking, I learned, is the world’s fastest growing illegal trade behind drugs and weapons. Today some report that it’s second only to drugs. 

In financially ravished countries, some fathers still sell their children into slavery; a practice I thought was the stuff of history.

More commonly, traffickers approach desperate families with promises of well-paying jobs for their children; then they pay for transport, food, and clothing, putting the “employee” in an indentured hell, often in a distant country.

Not a scenario from these United States, right? So imagine my incredulity when I learned an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 people are enslaved in the sex trade within our own borders. 

No one knows the actual number, but this United States map of suspected trafficking incidents reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center is sobering. (If this unpleasant state of our union is new to you, I recommend The Polaris Project website for a 101 education.)

How can this be? While the vulnerable abroad are often lured into the trade by financial need, young Americans are hooked by users’ promises to meet their emotional needs. 

Marginalized, abused, neglected, or simply lonely people from just about any walk of life are groomed with attention, affection, and security before sex ever becomes part of the equation. These emotional bonds are as hard to break as the financial ones.

My research brought me all the way back from Asia to my hometown, where I discovered people who have been sounding the alarm for some time. I just hadn’t heard it. 

Since then I’ve been told stories of local parents searching for their trafficked children, of nearby victims who are learning for the first time how to release the past and live again.

These people need our help, our open eyes. I live in Colorado; if you live in a coastal or border state, they need you even more.

It was painful to learn how blind I was. But I’m hopeful too. In spite of ignorance like mine people are already taking action, making headway. All of you at Sara’s Home, Restore Innocence, The Mercy Project, Not for Sale, Free for Life and so many others, thank you for the rousing elbow jab.

Your work empowers those of us who wouldn’t know where to start if you weren’t already pointing the way. Count me among your number. May it snowball until the work is done.

Erin Healy is a novelist and book editor. Her latest novel, "Stranger Things," is about a group of young people trying to bring down a trafficking ring in the southwestern US.