Pleasure Purchasers: A Dive Into Sex Trafficking in the United States

On a clear morning, the Faith Tabernacle Church’s two trailer homes in Conyers, Georgia casted a shadow on our cars as they pulled into the gravel parking lot. Our group of students had driven from Denison University, a private liberal arts college in Granville, Ohio to the Atlanta, Georgia area that past Sunday afternoon.

    We were greeted by Kasey McClure from 4Sarah Call Center. 4Sarah is a nonprofit faith-based organization that supports life changes within women and girls working in the sex industry who need the assistance. They could be working as  trippers, prostitutes, escorts, porn stars, or as victims of human trafficking.

While volunteering with 4Sarah, I would think to myself about what the difference between human trafficking and sex work is. Human trafficking is defined in various ways; generally, the term ‘human trafficking’ (or ‘trafficking in persons’, or sometimes just ‘trafficking’) refers to the wide variety of processes by which individuals become physically enslaved (Zimmerman, 567). Human trafficking is different from sex work for this reason: women who are working in the sex industry are consensually doing it to pay bills or for education. Trafficking is not consensual, but slave work.

    Kasey and other volunteers at 4Sarah call women whose ads are displayed online, for example, on websites like Backpage.com. They do this in order to distinguish whether the girls in the ads are minors who are being sold by their “pimps” which are men or women who are exploiting others, or “running people,” or if they are girls who are in a crisis. Backpage.com is a popular website where johns – female or male sex purchasers – browse the internet so they can purchase physical sex from them.

I went outside the car at Faith Tabernacle Church to greet Kasey, the founder of 4Sarah, and Tammy, a regular local volunteer. Kasey was a white, blonde and petite woman, dressed modestly in a sweater and jeans despite the warm Georgian air. We were guided into one of the trailer homes, the door held open by Tammy. Tammy was an older woman who wore an oversized floral shirt, a long modest skirt and had round glasses and graying hair tied up into a bun. You could tell that both worked for a church, in other words.

There are three aspects of the nonprofit organization, Kasey explained during our orientation. 4Sarah has regular female volunteers go into strip clubs to hang out with the workers, giving them a consistent friend and companion. This is due to the high level of mistrust in victims; everything is to an extreme. One day, they can completely trust a reliable person and the next they don’t (Zimmerman, 119). 4Sarah has a call center where volunteers can go on the websites and sort through the ads and write down the names and numbers of the women. This is so 4Sarah can contact them for academic scholarships and to see if they need any other assistance. The organization also makes bags with personal care items that volunteers hand out on the streets to women who are homeless or potentially experiencing trafficking. Our group was participating in the call center to put together bags during our time volunteering at 4Sarah.

    I scrolled on several different websites looking at photographs of girls. Some photos would be of them almost completely naked, wearing lingerie or sex clothes; we were told to look and distinguish between what are probably scams or fake ads, versus what to look for in a real ad. A fake ad generally will be of a girl who looks completely perfect. However, if she is being trafficked, they usually have tattoos or piercings in odd places, such as on her hands, necks, arms and feet. This means she is branded by her pimp with a name, or roses so other pimps know not to mess with “their girl.”

    After scrolling for a time, I filled out three sheets that had a total of 15 girl’s postings on them. I wrote down their phone numbers, their posted name, what website I found them on and if they looked younger than the posted age. Minors can be exploited online by their pimps.

    After a time, I started to administer phone calls. I would call them and say something along the lines of “Hi my name is Liz and I’m from 4Sarah. Just so you know we aren’t with law enforcement, but we wanted to reach out and see if you needed any assistance, we know how hard things can get and want to support you. We offer a scholarship for educational purposes if you would be interested in applying.”

    The women would sometimes talk with you for a few short seconds before they hung up. Others were interested in the program and wanted more information, which we would send them in a text message. One woman, though, yelled at me and told me that it wasn’t any of my business to call her. She said that she wasn’t in any crisis, so thank you very much for your information but, she was okay and snapped the phone off. Kasey shrugged when this happened, as if to say it is what it is.

The longer I sat alongside and looked to her after each phone call, I realized that I had placed my own perceptions on Kasey from first glance. I saw her as a mother, Baptist Christian, businesswoman, intellectual, caucasian, maybe oblivious and ignorant to the world around her. What I didn’t notice was that she walked to Faith Tabernacle Church with the scars that I couldn’t see from the trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder she has developed.

    Almost suddenly, Kasey passionately began to tell her story to the group. I think she wanted to prove to us somehow that she was genuine in her work. Kasey was molested by her father from the age of three and later found that her two siblings were also molested. When she turned nineteen, she moved to Atlanta and started performing at strip clubs nightly and eventually got pulled into the sex industry by circumstance. As a stripper, Kasey made $1,000 a night and found her salvation through God; for her, it was her ticket out of her own personal hell.

“I would lock myself in the closet and cry; I think I was detoxing from the lifestyle that I was living and the trauma I endured. When I found out that I was pregnant with Sarah, it shifted me and gave me the confidence to keep moving forward and not to move backward. I’ve always wanted to be a mother,” said Kasey.

She said this all naturally, but painfully. Looking into her eyes, I could see how this has burdened her.

People who have been in the industry often suffer from side effects of sexual abuse. They have anything from feelings of unworthiness to severe depression. Child survivors generally suffer from headaches, depression, listlessness, recurring nightmares, panic attacks, a relentless fear for their own safety and for the safety of their family and thoughts that they deserved the abuse (Shigekane, 119).

    “I try and forgive my father in my head every day. The Lord requires that I practice forgiveness. So, a few years back, I found him. Now, I have a relationship with him, and call him once a month. Not for him, but for me. For my own peace. Honestly, my mom and I are just waiting for him to die,” said Kasey, sniffed and gripped onto her cell phone so hard that I saw her fingers turn white.

    “He’s only met my daughter once. I never want her to be alone with him. Ever. He’s not a good man in any sense.” She put the phone on the table and went outside to greet the pizza man for her lunch.

During this trip I also went to another faith-based organization that practices Christian ethics with human trafficking activism. The organization was called “Street Grace,” and I talked with Kayti Batya, a survivor leader who oriented us to volunteer at a year-long program called “Gigi’s House.” The program takes girls aged thirteen to nineteen who have experienced sexual and domestic abuse to live in a house for a year-long program. During the entirety of the program, the girls are taught how to rehabilitate back into society through therapy sessions, homeschooling, and community activities in the house.

I kept comparing the program to the type of outreach that 4Sarah does; they both aim to pull the girls out of the lifestyle rather than dehumanize them.

I began to realize more and more through meeting survivors that trafficking is an infection that spreads regardless of socioeconomic classes, races, genders, nationalities and sexualities. Like the flu, it infects victims, plants the seeds of trauma in survivor brains, if they make it out, racing through their veins, flowing through them daily, inescapably. Some come back to the industry, not used to the feeling of being comparatively safe. These girls reminded me of my friends, which was the most unnerving part.

I left the trip with a glimmer of hope that despite the tragedy and restlessness, I wanted to create change by pushing on a wall of impending progress. As we drove away and passed the border of the Ohio River into Cincinnati, the sun reflecting off the water, glittering through the bars of the bridge, I imagined the dreams and driving passions in survivor leaders bravely breaking free. The trip’s purpose was to educate young students and allow them to gain perspective on problems in communities that surround us. We didn’t have to travel to make a difference. It was a choice. And while I remembered the people I met and friendships I made, I could see how I could make a change in my own community. I could volunteer with children and make them feel less vulnerable. I can give advice and be there for them, so maybe one day, prevention doesn’t need to be done by anyone.