Not everyone is enjoying the good life
For the average person, its name invokes a picture that is regrettably similar to the common picture of sex trafficking. It is seen as a problem that happens “over there,” or, more to the point, not here. That could not be further from the truth. Slavery is alive and well in the United States.
Nikki Seigel, the Director of Outreach at I’ve Got a Name, sees things differently. I’ve Got a Name is a Lincoln based non-profit whose aim is to aid “at risk” adolescents. Most are homeless, but trafficked girls are a common sight. According to Seigel, many girls in the foster care system are coerced into sexual exploitation by men impersonating boyfriends willing to help.
“They feel like it’s a way out … getting out of the system and going off with this guy and it’s going to be awesome … and it doesn’t turn out that way … [They’re] being manipulated into thinking that this is a way out of whatever they’re in.”
Dosomething.org reports that sex trafficking is the third largest criminal industry behind drug and gun smuggling, generating billions of dollars, but the term “industry” conjures thoughts of a shadowy organization somehow working under governments’ radar. Although organized gangs play their part, a majority of cases are perpetrated on a personal level. Girls’ innocence is being sold by “boyfriends,” and occasionally parents. “Slavery” paints images of shackles and physical imprisonment. Though this does happen, the bulk of sex slaves are held in place by more invisible chains: manipulation through threats of violence, severance of finances, or exploited drug addiction. This makes it all the more difficult to see and believe, when looking around Lincoln.
The anonymity provided by the internet has certainly helped in criminals’ deliberate purchasing of people, but not everyone who pays for services is aware of what they are doing.
“Traffickers make a lot of money taking the girls to events,” Seigel says. “Girls from here get taken up to South Dakota during hunting seasons and forced to strip in clubs, which would seem totally legal to the employers and customers there.”
The same thing happens during large sporting events or other mass gatherings. The main hurdle that needs to be overcome in order to move forward is awareness. Seigel knows this first hand.
“I tell people what I do, what I see, and they deny it. They can’t, or won’t, believe that this is happening here.”
Even police have only truly been treating trafficking as an issue within the last few years. Four years ago, after being forced to sell herself on the street, one girl took the money she earned and ran. “The cops then arrested her for taking the money … she got arrested for theft and [the police] didn’t want to hear the story, didn’t want to help,” Seigel recalls. More recently though, police have been contacting Seigel with potential victims, and it is starting to make a difference.
No one has ever said that America is problem-free. There are plenty to go around for everyone. However, it is dangerous to be in a mindset where we “know” that something could never happen here. Once something is labeled as impossible, people stop looking for it, and for something that is already so invisible, with an estimated less than 1% of victims identified, that could spell disaster.
Kevin is a sophomore pursuing general studies.