Battling Sex Trafficking

When you hear the term sex trafficking, it typically brings to mind images of young girls in Asia, or some other faraway place. But it happens right here in our area as well.

A 19-year-old woman we’ll call Alana is trying to string her life back together.

“I was in the honors program,” she said, “3.5 (GPA) and above.”

But it all fell apart. Alana, from a very broken family, met her first pimp in Illinois.

“He told me, ‘I could really appreciate you,” she recalled, “and I felt like this was the way for me to escape.”

When that went sour, she found a new pimp on Craigslist. He was in College Park.

“Like, he cared about me,” Alana said. “I’m like, ‘Oh, he bought me something to eat and he got me somewhere safe. He sent me money.'”

The pimp paid for her bus ticket to D.C. and she started working for him out of hotels in Anne Arundel County, meeting customers through Craigslist.

“Guys were coming to the room and I was working for him,” Alana said, who said the johns paid $100 to $150 for 30 minutes and $200 for a whole hour.

It could be dangerous, like one john who threatened her.

“I said, ‘I really want you to leave,'” Alana recalled. “He snatched the phone back, and told me he had guns and knives in his backpack.”

Alana says she could not see a way out “because (she) was all the way out here, with no family, no money.”

Experts say traffickers use that financial and psychological dependence to control the girls — along with drugs and alcohol.

“And next thing they know, it’s like brick after brick and suddenly they’re stuck behind this wall of exploitation,” said Andrea Powell, the director of Fair Fund, a non-profit group that works with girls like Alana.

On the Web

» Fair Fund

» Polaris Project

» Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force

Powell says D.C. found 35 teen victims of commercial sexual exploitation last year, which is just the tip of the iceberg.

“Most of the young people we’ve gotten to know, this isn’t something they just up and decided to do,” said U.S. Attorney for Maryland Rod Rosenstein. “It’s an absolute act of desperation.”

Rosenstein says the Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force was formed to combat the problem.

Accused traffickers are prosecuted under federal laws, which are tougher than state laws. And law enforcement says it’s important to recognize young girls as victims, instead of criminals.

“We don’t want to take these 14-, 15-, 16-year-old girls and lock them up in jail,” Rosenstein said. “It’s not going to create the relationship that we want to develop with them so they’ll work with us in prosecuting perpetrators of the trafficking violations.”

Alana eventually broke free from prostitution. She has a job now and is considering going back to school.

But she wants the world to know: “If you see girls outside late at night and you’re wondering why are they outside and why are they dressed like that, sometimes it’s not they’re own choice, it’s not their own fault,” she said.

And to others like herself, she says: “Girls looking for love — guys are not the way to find love,” Alana said. “Love yourself before somebody else can love you.”

There’s a move to outlaw both sex and labor trafficking in the District. Council member Phil Mendelson has introduced a law that would prosecute both traffickers and people who buy sex. It would also provide victim assistance. The D.C. Council is expected to take up the bill in February.



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