When we hear about the problem of sex trafficking, for many of us, it's hard to understand. Billboards appear across the nation saying it happens in our towns, and placards appear in rest-stop bathrooms telling people the number to call if they need help. But we see and hear little else. According to Jan Edwards of the trafficking awareness group Paving the Way, it's because we're not looking hard enough.
Last month, an Uber driver in California noticed something suspicious happening in his car. A young looking girl dressed in provocative clothing in the middle of a school day was directed by two adult females to a hotel. When he alerted police, the 16-year-old girl was identified as a victim of sex trafficking and received help.
In the United States, sex trafficking occurs when a person is involved in a commercial sex act by force, fraud, or coercion, or is a minor. While in the past girls like the one freed in California might have been tried in juvenile court for committing the crime of prostitution, officials are now growing in understanding that the minors involved in prostitution are not criminals—they're victims of abuse and manipulation by skilled traffickers.
According to reports by the Department of Justice and the Center for Missing and Exploited children, as many as 300,000 American children are at risk each year to be trafficked and sold in prostitution. A popular time for sex trafficking is actually at America's most beloved sporting event—the Super Bowl.
We spoke with Jan Edwards, whose group in Orlando educates and empowers students, teachers, counselors and parents to see the signs of trafficking and act to prevent its spread. Coming from a background of extensive leadership, marketing, and sales training expertise with Fortune 100 companies, Edwards has dedicated her talents to preventing trafficking after seeing its harms abroad. As a mother, Edwards’ goal of protecting children from trafficking is a personal one. In anticipation of the Super Bowl this weekend, we asked Edwards to shed light on an issue that defies comprehension.
Verily Magazine: How did you get into advocacy on this topic?
Jan Edwards: I was invited to go on medical mission to Ethiopia a few years ago when I first learned about trafficking. Ethiopia has 7.5 million orphans and is the largest source of human trafficking into the Middle East. At that time I didn’t even know what trafficking was. I live in Orlando, land of sunshine and Mickey Mouse and beaches. This wasn't OK with me, and I wanted to do something about it. Then I came back home and realized the United States has trafficking as well. Florida had the third highest number of calls on the national human-trafficking hotline.
Since I first learned about it, I’ve had conversations with the FBI, Homeland Security, undercover police officers, and victims and asked what’s the one thing that’s missing that would have the biggest impact? They’ve all said awareness.
So I wrote and produced the short film, Trapped in the Trade to show people what's happening in our backyards. I also started my organization, Paving the Way. Many trafficking organizations are about rescue; what makes ours different is its focus on prevention. I’m funding this all by myself; I’m taking my savings and trying to make a difference today.
For an issue I previously knew nothing about, it quickly became a calling. I wrote the film in a weekend. I produced it in 4 months. And I have been showing since May 2016, and it’s won several awards including best short at the Women’s Only Entertainment Film Festival and an award from Docs Without Borders Film Fest, a festival focusing on documentaries and docu-dramas.
Verily: How prevalent is sex-trafficking in America today?
Edwards: There are an estimated 100,000-300,000 children in the United States lured into this life each year. The average age of victims is 12 to 14. But there are children as young as 6 years old. It’s incomprehensible. Traffickers are not always strangers; often they are close family friends; nannies, uncles, aunts, fathers, brothers that are trafficking their siblings for drug money.
When the trafficker is a stranger, they often trick or pressure their victims—"if you don’t come with me I’m going to hurt your family"—we’re talking about 12-year-olds, 13-year-olds making major life decisions. They might be thinking: You just roofied me, you just raped me; I screwed up, so I’ll pay the penance to keep my family safe.
What makes it hard for law enforcement to identify trafficking is that many trafficked women do not self-identify as a victim while they're in the trade. They think they chose it; I guess this is my punishment; I guess I deserve this. Other times they’re lured away; these predators make these promises of a better life; all it takes is a teenager to share on Facebook venting about their parents—my dad missed this event, my mom picked me up late from school. Predators look for the lost, the lonely, and the rebellious. Parents are the front line of defense.
Verily: How likely is it for a prostitute to have experienced trafficking or coercion?
Edwards: High. If their start in the sex industry occurred before they turned 18, then in the United States it was by definition sex trafficking. There are women who say they chose this lifestyle, and I would say it wasn’t really a choice. Often something coercive occurred in their childhood or preteens that left the feeling this was their only shot. Studies have revealed some 70 percent of prostituted women say that childhood sexual abuse had played a direct role in their entry to being used in prostitution.
Verily: I understand you have survivors of trafficking involved in your organization. What have you learned from working with them?
Edwards: It really is preventable. Every survivor who I’ve spoken with says, I should have told my parents; I should have told my mom. There was no foundation of trust. There’s a lot of shame and embarrassment on the victim’s side and threats and coercion on the perpetrator’s side, so it’s the perfect storm for secrets to stay hidden. Survivors of trafficking sit on my advisory board and serve as mission ambassadors.
Verily: Why do you think sex trafficking spikes around the Super Bowl?
Edwards: I’m going to be straight with you: You have a lot of men in one place. They’re in vacation mindset, and it’s very much like—have you ever been to Bike Week or Biketoberfest? It’s like a week of “I’m not who I am out in the world.” You have doctors and CEOs and attorneys and lobbyists and people of walks of life for a week, who dress in leather, don’t shave, and drink a lot of alcohol. I’m not saying all men have a propensity toward this, but when you gather a lot of people in one place where it’s “party party party” and “I don't have to be responsible,” this stuff happens.
You also have perpetrators who go there intentionally to pick up girls.
But as for the group of men in one place without responsibilities—it’s likely they seek prostitutes while partying because they’re away from someone holding them accountable. This is just my deductive guess.
Verily: What can people do to help?
Edwards: Being aware, knowing what trafficking looks like, and taking action to report it. Do you see several younger girls clearly not dressed for a football game, around older men? Get your head out of your phone and look around. If a situation looks unusual and gives you that funny feeling in your stomach, that’s when you call the national trafficking hotline number.
The number to call is 1-888-373-7888 and it’s open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. It’s all anonymous. You tell them what you’ve seen, and they’ll walk you through reporting it.
If you see something—DO something. I can educate you all day long, but if you don’t take action, it won’t make a difference. We’re out to make a difference.
Verily: Have you ever witnessed trafficking yourself in the United States?
Edwards: Yes. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The first time, I was at a hotel in Atlanta, and I watched these two girls and a pimp walk five feet in front of me, and I froze. The weekend I was in town this hotel was filled with girls for a dance competition.
Verily: How do girls and women get into this?
Edwards: The plot of Trapped in the Trade tells how many young women get lured into prostitution today. A young girl is romanced by a peer recruiter, who invites her to a party after a basketball game. She builds a relationship and rapport with this person, doesn't have many other friends, and has no reason not to trust these people; they’re her friends.
Today we see the intentional recruitment of our children by other children. Two girls in Sarasota were recently caught assisting in trafficking of other girls. Most of these victims don’t self-identify as victims; they’re promised love and affection and feel connected to their pimps. Next thing they know, he says, “I’m a little short on rent money, and I need you to do a favor for me.” This person professes love so what are you going to do? You’re 14 or 15, and you’re making life decisions that are over your head. It’s very secretive—”don’t tell your friends about our relationship; don't tell your parents, it’s a secret, they won't’ approve.” Pimps work very hard to drive that wedge between a girl and her family and friends—to become a girl’s one and only.
Verily: How can people watch your film?
Edwards: The foundation of the film is for training. I want people to be connected to how this is happening. So for those who want to know what we can do and have a conversation as to actions they can take, they can make a request at our website, stoptraffickingtoday.com to screen the film. They can also request be trained to be a mission ambassador or request someone from my team to come speak.
Two things happen every time I speak to a middle- or high-school audience. Somebody always either comes up and says I was trafficked or I know someone who was. And every two to three weeks, I get a Facebook post or a text or an email saying, “Thanks Jan for giving me that 800 number; I called it today.” People are so thankful to have an action to take.
Trapped in the Trade is a story with no ending. It was created as a training tool to help people identify red flags and have greater awareness of the problem. It’s designed to leave you in a space where you want to take action.
People who want to help more can visit stoptraffickingtoday.com for more resources.
Photo Credit: Evgenia Kohan