Authorities: Superbowl Draws Pimps, Child Prostitutes

The hype and hoopla of the Super Bowl is never just about the game, but includes the half-time show and of course, the commercials. One media campaign looking to draw attention this year is called "It's Not My Fault" and it is aimed at women and girls and boys who have been, or are being, trafficked for sex. Host Michel Martin speaks with Jessica Richardson, who was trafficked as a teenager and now works to reach other victims, and Maria Trujillo, executive director of the Houston Rescue and Restore Coalition. PLEASE BE ADVISED: This conversation has sensitive, graphic language that may not be appropriate for some listeners.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

The Super Bowl, as we said, is just a couple of days away. Now the hype and the hoopla are focused on the game, of course, but also the halftime show and of course the commercials. Well, there's a media campaign trying to draw attention in Dallas right now - the site of the big game. And it's something that you might have had heard about. It's called Not My Fault. It's a campaign aimed at women and girls and boys who have been or are being trafficked for sex.

One of those participating in the campaign is Jessica Richardson. She says she was trafficked for sex as a teenager. Now at age 31, she's working to reach other young people like her for a group called Love 146. That's an anti-trafficking group working across international borders.

Also with us for additional perspective, we've called Maria Trujillo. She's the executive director of the Houston Rescue and Restore Coalition which also tries to educate about trafficking.

And I want to suggest now to listeners that if you have concerns about young people on a topic that might not be appropriate for everyone, this is a good time to turn away from the program for the next 11 minutes or so.

Jessica Richardson and Maria Trujillo, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. MARIA TRUJILLO (Executive Director, Houston Rescue and Restore Coalition): Thank you.

Ms. JESSICA RICHARDSON: Thank you.

MARTIN: Maria Trujillo, I'm going to ask you to tell us what you mean by sex trafficking because that's a term that I think many people might associate with something in a developing country, but not the United States. So, what are we talking about?

Ms. TRUJILLO: Sex trafficking, I always talk about it as two different arms. We have international sex trafficking that does happen in developing countries and, really, all over the world. And we also have domestic sex trafficking, which happens within our U.S. borders. And we have both foreign nationals being brought into the United States for the purposes of sex trafficking.

But what is often misconstrued or forgotten is that we also have our own U.S. citizens, usually kids, being lured into prostitution - boys and girls.

MARTIN: The image we often have of trafficking overseas is that people are, say, told that they're going to be working as a seamstress. Or they're going to be working as a nanny. Or they're going to be, you know, working in a factory. And in fact they are taken away from their homes and put into circumstances that they can't escape from. What defies that in the United States?

And the reason I'm asking is that I think a lot of people might have trouble with the concept of, well, if you speak the national language, if you can figure out where you are, how is this trafficking?

Ms. TRUJILLO: What you've described just now is correct. But in the United States under federal law, sex trafficking has to have the elements of force, fraud or coercion, but there is an additional clause that if you are under the age of 18, there is no need to actually prove force, fraud or coercion. So by the sheer fact of your age being a minor in the United States, and if you are participating or involved in the commercial sex industry, under federal law you should be seen as a sex trafficking victim.

MARTIN: Jessica, let's turn to you now, because this is in fact your story. You were trafficked when? Starting when you were a teenager, is that right?

Ms. RICHARDSON: Correct. I was 17 when I was first trafficked. I was groomed for this starting at age four, like so many other survivors like myself. I was a victim of childhood sexual abuse from ages four and five. I was raped repeatedly. And so when I was 17 years old and a very, very charming man who was a regular customer of mine in a restaurant just kept telling me how beautiful I was - that I was special. And I grew to trust him.

And then he asked me one day if I was already having sex, why wouldn't I want to get paid for it. He started me here in Portland, Oregon and he took me from city to city, everywhere from Vancouver, BC - so I did actually cross international lines - all the way to San Diego. And I spent some time in Hawaii also.

One of the most horrific experiences of those 14 months that I was trafficked was when I was in Hawaii, I had gone with a trick or a buyer back to his hotel room and he had an ambush waiting for me. There were other men there also. And they attacked me. They raped me. And I'm honestly not sure how many days I was there. I know that it was more than just one or two. And I woke up and I was tied up in the bottom of a closet with the black stretchy bungee cords around my wrists and ankles. And I was able to get free.

And then I ran back to the apartment that I was living with my pimp. And what amazes me, that I ran about a mile and a half through downtown, you know, Waikiki in broad daylight, bloody, beaten and naked and no one stopped me.

MARTIN: Nobody stopped you. Nobody said anything?

Ms. RICHARDSON: No. I just - I didn't exactly want to be stopped because I was scared to death.

MARTIN: Do you have any sense of why nobody stopped? And Maria, I'm going to ask you that question too. Why do you think that is?

Ms. RICHARDSON: People are scared to get involved. They see something so horrifying and they don't know what to do and they don't know how to handle it so they do nothing.

MARTIN: Maria, what do you think about this? I'm interested in your take on this. Because one of the points that you were making to us before we started this part of our conversation is that people just have a hard time accepting that this goes on in the United States. That our view of it is - this must be voluntary, something that a girl, a woman, a child, you know, wants to do. You know, they're full participants of it, you know. What is your take on why nobody stopped?

Ms. TRUJILLO: Well, I think Jessica hit on the nail that a lot of people are paralyzed with fear and don't know how to react or what to do. And we try as an organization is to really raise people's awareness about the issue so they have a stronger understanding and do know how to act. Every time I do a presentation or training, I ask everyone to take out their cell phones right then and there and put the national human trafficking hotline number in it and we give them indicators and red flags to look for.

And let them know that they can be the difference between someone like Jessica getting out of an enslaved situation or not being out of that situation. So, each individual, we all play such a vital, important role.

MARTIN: Maria Trujillo is executive director of the Houston Rescue and Restore Coalition. We're speaking with her about sex trafficking both in the United States and around the world. We're also speaking with Jessica Richardson. She's a woman who was herself trafficked for sex as a teenager. Jessica, can I ask you, how did you finally get out?

Ms. RICHARDSON: That incident in Hawaii was key for me simply becoming unbrainwashed. When I arrived back at my hotel room and my pimp answered the door, his reaction shocked me. He started sobbing. And he picked me up and he held me on his lap and he cried and he cried and he cried simply because he thought I was dead. And so I realized for the first time that the lies that he had been feeding me weren't true. That he really couldn't protect me. That he really couldn't watch over me.

And it was then that I started to make my decision that this wasn't what he told me it was. And I really understood slavery at that very moment because there is no option of walking away.

MARTIN: Well, can I just ask you about this for a minute? Because there are those who get very annoyed at people who try to crack down on prostitution because they say that this is a matter of personal choice. And there are also those who take the position that this is, you know, empowering in some ways, that if women want to - particularly women, but, you know, also men, if they want to earn a living with their bodies, then that should be their choice, and so I'm interested, based on your perspective on that.

Ms. RICHARDSON: In this country, the average age of entry is estimated at 13 years old as entering into prostitution. I don't think that there is a 13 year old in this country that says, today I think I want to sleep with 15 or 20 men. These are not adult women looking to be empowered. And even of those women, most of the time there is a history of childhood sexual abuse or reasons why they feel the need to do this to themselves and their bodies.

Because even those who seem to be empowered, they understand that this comes with great risk. There are daily beatings. You're putting yourself in harm's way. Also, look at diseases and what this does to both the mind and the body.

MARTIN: Can I ask you, though, about the language piece of it, because, again, the part of it that a lot of people don't understand is people, I think, have become acquainted with the idea that women are trafficked across national borders to disorient them, to get them away from their home so they don't have any resource, they don't have any network. They can't maybe speak the language of the country that they're in.

But in your case you do speak English and you're obviously smart. Can you talk about that? Why is it that you don't walk away? You don't leave and say, well, hell with this.

Ms. RICHARDSON: Well, the pimps and the traffickers, they make you believe that they're the only one on your side. And then when you're arrested a time or two you discover that, well, really your pimp is the only one on your side. It's really hard to go to the police as safe people when you're being arrested by them.

MARTIN: Maria, what about that? Can I have your thoughts on that?

Ms. TRUJILLO: It's a lot in the same vein as domestic violence. A lot of these kids, because they are recruited at such young ages, they have what, you know, psychologists say is a Stockholm syndrome, this very love/hate relationship. They feel because of the relationship with their pimp, who they also see as their caregiver, their lover, their father figure, all of these things - it is really difficult to walk away.

And they are manipulated and lied to, like Jessica said, about all these things that you're a criminal, you're dirty, no one wants you. After all the lies, you start believing that you can't leave - that you don't have a choice but to follow what your trafficker says. And so even though you know English, you feel like you cannot leave.

MARTIN: Jessica, how are you doing now?

Ms. RICHARDSON: Every day is a new day. And it's always hard to overcome trauma and such pain, but I have a very understanding husband who has stood by me and walked through the trauma, reliving all the different forms of abuse, all the way through my life. And in walking through it and processing it and dealing with my problems and addressing them head on, it has given me strength. And then strength to go back in and share with other people what I've been through to empower others like myself.

MARTIN: What do you think would make the biggest difference in keeping what happened to you from happening to someone else?

Ms. RICHARDSON: I don't think that we as parents - and I'm a parent now - that we listen to our children close enough, that we are nonjudgmental. And I wish more parents were open to listening and understanding where their preteens and teenagers are coming from because just having open, good relationships with our children is key in prevention.

MARTIN: Jessica Richardson is a sex trafficking survivor. And she's working now to help other people who might be vulnerable as she was. She works for a group called Love 146, an international anti-trafficking nonprofit group that's making a strong outreach effort during Super Bowl weekend. And Jessica Richardson joined us from Portland, Oregon.

Maria Trujillo is the executive director of the Houston Rescue and Restore Coalition. That's also a nonprofit aiming to spread education about trafficking and she joined us from NPR member station KUHF in Houston, Texas. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Ms. RICHARDSON: Thank you.

Ms. TRUJILLO: Thank you.

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