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A Glimpse into Modern Day Slavery in Montana

It is an all too familiar story: A young girl with hopes for a better life and a brighter future; a girl desperately trying to escape the poverty she has experienced her whole life, the violence and abuse that surrounds her day in and day out; The girl is introduced to a man who promises her that he can turn her dreams into reality. A man who appears to truly care for her, who tells her he loves her, and that all she needs to do is trust him and everything will be alright… and so she does…she obeys when he takes half-naked pictures of her and posts them online. She continues to believe that this is something he is doing for her, for them-- when he convinces her to have sex in exchange for money—just once, and then twice-- when she says no he violently beats and threatens her. Throughout it all, she tells herself that this is all her fault, and all she needs to do is listen to him to make him happy…because he loves her, even if it means sleeping with up to five different men a day.

This is not the story of a South-East Asian girl being sold in the streets of Thailand or the brothels of Vietnam. This is the story of a 16-year old girl who lived here, in this beautiful state – Montana – Big Sky Country. It is the story of human trafficking; a human rights issue that knows no geographic location, ethnicity, race, or gender.

Last year, the Global Slavery Index estimated that nearly 30 million people around the world are being trafficked. Human Trafficking is modern day slavery and although it is not legal anywhere in the world, it is thriving everywhere. In fact, more people are living in slavery right now than during any other point of human history. They work in the global sex industry, in pornography and prostitution; they offer their services at truck stops and in strip clubs, at hotels and through online escort services, in brothels and massage parlors ranging from small towns on the Montana Hi-Line and the Bakken oil fields to bustling metro centers around the globe. They are being held as domestic servants, as fishermen and boys, as workers in manufacturing and agricultural settings, and they are being hidden from public sight in kitchens, construction sites, and sweat shops.

Traffickers and pimps prey on the most marginalized and oppressed members of our society.  The vast majority of young girls and women working in the sex industry were victims of child sexual abuse, neglect or other forms of trauma prior to recruitment. One of the greatest vulnerability factors however is age! The average age of entry into the commercial sex industry for young girls and boys in the United States is 12-14.

Since it is an illegal industry finding out just how many victims there are can be difficult. Conservative estimates say that 15,000 foreign nationals are trafficked into the US annually, while others guess the number is as high as 60,000.

It is also hard to pinpoint the profit being made each year, but it is safe to say that human trafficking is a booming business. According to the Department of Justice, sex trafficking is the fastest growing business of organized crime in the U.S., with an estimated revenue of $32 billion annually. It is also the world’s second-largest criminal enterprise, second only to drugs. Contrary to drugs however, selling humans comes with one major advantage: Drugs are sold once whereas a person can be sold over and over again over long periods of time. Humans are reusable goods and that is what makes the business of trafficking so lucrative.

Pimps go where the money is and thus, the oil fields in the Bakken formation of northeastern Montana and North Dakota are fertile ground for exploitation. With increased numbers of male workers in the boomtowns of Sydney, Williston, and Minot the ads on the website backpage.com advertising female escorts rise as well. On any given day anywhere from 50-150 girls and women can be found when clicking on the postings for Missoula, Billings, or Butte. They are posing scarcely dressed stating that they are only in the area for a few days and are hoping to “show you a good time”; most of them look like they are barely 18, painted smiles on their young faces trying to hide the fear of the next customer.

When explaining the billion dollar business of human trafficking one major party must not be forgotten – the demand! We know that as long as people are willing to pay for commercial sex thereby fueling the demand there will be a supply. Consequently, buyers of commercial sex enable the exploitation of children, youth, and vulnerable adults. However, trafficking also has a weak spot: it is a service industry that must intersect with the public.  If customers can be held at bay it will drive down the demand.

The good news is that it is actually possible to combat this crime successfully and restore victims, bring perpetrators of slavery to justice, and protect communities by deterring trafficking, but we have to work together. One of the first steps is outreach and education about trafficking indicators: We only see what our eyes are trained to see, thus teaching people what to look for is key to addressing this epidemic. Educating law enforcement, social service professionals, and the public about trafficking will also ensure that girls and women forced into prostitution are treated as victims and not as criminals. And you can help by picking up the phone to call the national human trafficking hotline, the YWCA Missoula crisis line, or simply 911 to report that you saw a young unaccompanied minor female at the truck stop on I-90 in the middle of the night and something just didn’t seem right to you.

This is Katharina Werner, Domestic and Sexual Violence Program Manager with YWCA Missoula. Thank you for listening.

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