In Our Backyard: Sex Trafficking and Exploitation

Today’s post comes from Criminal Justice professor Erin Heil. She began studying domestic human trafficking in 2008 and has since published numerous articles on the subject, as well as the book, Sex Slaves and Serfs: The Dynamics of Human Trafficking in a Small Florida Town.  She shares this post with us in anticipation of the upcoming panel, “Sex Trafficking and Exploitation,” co-sponsored by the SIUE Women’s Studies and Peace Studies Programs on Oct. 21 at 12:30 in the Morris University Center.  At this event Prof. Heil will be joined by Congressman John Shimkus, FBI Intelligence Analyst Derek Velazco, Rescue and Restore Coordinator Kristen Eng, and Covering House representatives Deidre Lhamon and Lindsay Ellis.  The event is free and open to the community.

“I was taken from my doorstep…I was sold for sex with men in exchange for money and drugs. I was forced to work out of motels, brothels, prostitution houses, and massage parlors. I tried to run so many times but I never seemed to be able to escape without getting caught and beat up. I have had chains wrapped around my ankles, wrists, and neck like a dog. I got beat up with baseball bats, crow bars, basically anything that they [could] get their hands on.” These words were spoken by a brave survivor in front of hundreds of listeners attending an anti-human trafficking event. Although her voice shook and she read from her hand written script, she stood strong in the face of her victimization. She wanted her story to be heard, and more importantly, she wanted to be seen. She looked up from her small piece of paper, looked the audience in the eyes, and proudly stated, “I refuse to believe what the world labels me as. I refuse to believe that I am trash. I refuse to believe I’m good for one thing only. I refuse to believe that nobody loves me. I refuse to believe that I’m not beautiful. I refuse to believe that I am nothing.” Although these were the words of emotional torture she was told while she was being sold for sex, she had survived, and she was able to victoriously tell her story.[i]

Trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation is one of the many forms of human trafficking evident in the United States. Legally defined as the act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud, or coercion, human trafficking can entail a number of forced activities including, but not limited to: agricultural labor, domestic servitude, servile marriage, begging and panhandling, prostitution, construction work, sweatshops, and restaurant work. However, many of these activities remain hidden behind concrete or landscaped walls, thereby limiting the potential of identifying victims. Sex trafficking, however, requires some amount of visibility in that the traffickers must advertise the victims in order to recruit potential buyers. Given that, social service providers and law enforcement officials have been more able to identify victims of sex trafficking versus victims of labor trafficking.


Researching sex trafficking is an extremely complex process with each layer revealing another layer that needs to be examined. Therefore, I am only going to scratch the surface by providing some general information that has been identified in my own research. First of all, I have found that the victim demographics associated with sex trafficking vary greatly with geography. When I first began researching human trafficking, I was led to Immokalee, Florida; “ground zero” for human trafficking. The victims that had been identified were generally foreign nationals, most of whom had been smuggled into the United States from Mexico or Guatemala. In contrast to other areas of the United States, the majority of the research conducted in Immokalee discussed the slavery evident in the tomato fields. However, as with most cases of human trafficking, labor trafficking in Immokalee was occurring in conjunction with sex trafficking. In other words, where labor trafficking is evident, there is generally sex trafficking occurring in the same area. This symbiotic relationship occurs partly due to similar demands; the demand for underground cheap (or unpaid) labor coincides with a demand for prostitution.

The identified victims of sex trafficking in Immokalee shared a similar story as to how they became a victim of sex trafficking. Many came to the United States under the false pretense of being hired as a nanny or housekeeper. Others believed that they were coming to meet a loved one. Once in the United States, many of the young women were suddenly forced into prostitution, either through a handler who held the victim’s papers and demanded a debt repayment or through family members who used the victim as a payment to get out of their own debt bondage. Police and social service providers generally identified the victims in centralized brothels working day and night shifts. Other times, anonymous tips led the police to victims that had been chained in basements or to the walls of broom closets.

My research has since taken me away from Immokalee and closer to my own backyard as I began to investigate cases of human trafficking in St. Louis and the bi-state area. St. Louis has been identified by the federal government as “one of the top 20 human trafficking jurisdictions.”[ii] One main reason that St. Louis has been identified as a hub for human trafficking is because of its “middle-America location on interstate highways and its constant hosting of big sporting and entertainment events…” both of which provide for a “destination and layover in the sex trafficking trade.”[iii] On the east side of the Mississippi River are various adult entertainment venues that thrive on sexual imagery and fantasy, allowing for traffickers to tap into an already existing pool of potential clients. Additionally, in St. Louis and the bi-state area, there is a large number of runaway youth whom traffickers prey on in order to maintain a profitable group of victims.

What I have found in St. Louis and the bi-state area is that the majority of the sex trafficking victims that have been identified are US citizens. Many of the victims are runaways, homeless, or have been recruited by friends or family members. There is an intense desire for acceptance and love for many of the identified victims, and the traffickers can easily fill whatever piece is missing in the victim’s life; from father figure, to boyfriend, to “sugar daddy.” Traffickers use the major cross country interstates to keep the victims moving, thereby making identification more difficult for social service providers and local law enforcement. Those victims who have been identified have been found in hotels, truck stops, homes, brothels, and clubs. Thus, wherein Immokalee, the victims could generally be found in a centralized location, in St. Louis and the bi-state area, victims are constantly moving and can be located anywhere.

Although the victim demographics and locations of identification differ, victims of sex trafficking share a number of experiences. They are tortured, raped, threatened, drugged, blackmailed, and intimidated. There is self-blame and fear of what will happen if they do escape. From the survivors I have spoken with, there is a sense of guilt and shame as if they had chosen their life of entrapment. For those survivors who do escape, there are years of pain the follow them through their everyday existence. Many are faced with physical reminders that can range from scars to tattoos that are brandings and symbolic of belonging to the trafficker. With limited resources for victim support, many survivors find themselves navigating through the healing process alone. Others are unable to escape their own demons and traffickers use the pain and guilt to pull them back into the trafficking ring as the victim is once again given false promises of love and support.

For many, it is difficult to imagine such atrocities occurring in our own backyard, but I can say without hesitation that sex trafficking is happening here in the Midwest, as well as in almost every other corner of the United States. Boyfriends are selling their girlfriends at parties. Parents are selling their children for drugs. Runaways are drugged and forced into prostitution to maintain the addiction. Undocumented immigrants are found in decrepit brothels or chained to a basement wall. However, there is hope in the torture and pain these victims encounter. As we continue to discuss and accept sex trafficking as a reality in our community, we are also one step closer to understanding the circumstances that drive this underground industry. It is only through education and training that we will be better prepared to identify and protect victims while at the same time punishing offenders for the crimes that they have committed.

[i] Excerpt from Heil, E.C. and A. Nichols (2015) Human Trafficking in the Midwest: A Case Study of St. Louis and the Bi-State Area Carolina Academic Press. Forthcoming

[ii] Raasch, C. (2014) “In offensive against sex trafficking, Ann Wagner steps into controversial realm” St. Louis Post Dispatch May 3

[iii] Ibid.

52 thoughts on “In Our Backyard: Sex Trafficking and Exploitation

  1. Thank you for explaining sex trafficking in the US. A part of me feels apathetic towards sex trafficking, not because I don’t care or that I don’t value and mourn the lives of all those involved, but because it feels like one of a host of other crimes which are just as deplorable. I wonder if it is possible for me to care for something outside of my own reality. I wonder in this world that is saturated with problems printed on newspapers and popping up in news feeds how I can be engaged in it all. I wonder if we are becoming a population who “knows” what is going on but does not have the capacity to “change” what is going on. In my own blog PermaCycle, I talk about the danger I will face as I am cycling the country as a black woman: Violence against black women is a quiet hush-hush reality. I’m obligated to care and to fight back because it is my reality, in essence I want to care but the burden of my own challenges (which if I address wholeheartedly and authentically will change the world) really prevents me from extending the energy to do more than just read this post. Thank you for bringing awareness. – Jasmine

    1. What your describing is a problem with becoming emotionally attached to a statistic. Until we view this, as well as other horrible social issues, as a problem of a child with a name and a story, we will never take action. Here are a couple simple ways to at least ‘do less harm’.

  2. Tale as old as time and timelessly lacking in solutions. I’m glad whenever the spotlight is shone upon these crimes and sad that we will likely always have them with us.

  3. Reblogged this on While In Chanel and commented:
    I am a die hard fighter of human trafficking. I hate it. Currently building a Non-Profit dedicated to the healing of those effected.

  4. I wrote about the same subject after being in Asia and buying the book “sex slaves”. I was shocked and saddened by how widespread this problem is. I hope for a better world, but sometimes its hard to believe in it. Thank you for posting this.

  5. Thanks so much for making this available for all to read. The more exposure on human trafficking the better.

  6. Reblogged this on HINDUISM AND SANATAN DHARMA and commented:
    Many countries including developing and developed countries are more or less close when it comes to use women just for property, lust and less often than not it is a women that let her body misused for easy money, which can be seen in streets of Las Vegas, New Orleans, New York in USA. Women are divided when it comes to vote even on their personal matters like abortion right and contraception just because of so called stupid catholism that is similar to Islamic Sheria law where men wrote piece of papers , put an actor, called them prophet and put a so called godstamp, to terrify and loot what they could from women in name of dubious religion which is a bullshit. Women needs to wake up and create their own religion for truth, karma, dharma and just kick men to be bigger. Will that happen, I do not think so because women are as stupid as they could be in past. Get rid of all attachments , you are better piece of God than barbaric men.

  7. Shamefully, sexual slavery happens everywhere and it is such a important subject we should all have information about. Excelent article.

  8. I have been very interested in human trafficking in the past couple of years. It is unbelievable that it is happening around us. Good article.

  9. Thanks for sharing this! We need to continue to shed light on this issue.
    This issue is all too silent in our media 😦

  10. Great article. I am not from your area, but more to the East in Pennsylvania. .. Some similar things have taken place here as well. It is an eye opener for sure, but we need to continue to shine as much light on this stuff as possible.. even when the big authorities don’t want us to

  11. Thank you for sharing this. I was sold for many years by my father out of our home to make ends meet so he didn’t have to work. Preventing others from having to endure the same horror is very important to me. This is a very real problem that happens every day in regular neiborhoods. You would be suprised the kinds of people who “hire” children for sex, its discusting.

  12. Oh gosh. I’m so thankful for posts like these! Human trafficking needs to be exposed for the filth that it is. It sickens and angers me for what occurs to the helpless. I feel so deeply for those that have hope taken away from them…that have a decent life taken from their fingers. I’m deeply touched by things like this.

  13. thank you for writing about this and respectfully educating those who have been in the dark. People still think of this issue as outdated and foreign when in reality even cities like Eugene, Oregon and Portland Oregon have terrible stories of women being taken from their families and sold into trafficking. There can never be too much awareness. Thank you!

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