Sex trafficking is not just an international problem, or even a national one. It is also a problem here in St. Louis. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, St. Louis is a hot spot of sex trafficking activity, one of the top 20 in the country.
“The thing about St. Louis that is a little bit different is that we’ve got Highway 44, Highway 70, Highway 40 – all these main highways coming through to get to other places,” Detective Sergeant Adam Kavanaugh of the St. Louis County Police Department said, explaining that pimps tend to move their victims around frequently and so to them St. Louis is seen as a “good stopping point for them to make some money and continue to move on to the rest of the country.”
Kavanaugh is in charge of the Special Investigations Unit for the St. Louis County Police Department, which is tasked with handling sex trafficking issues.
Nationwide, the DOJ estimates that as many as 300,000 children may become victims of sexual exploitation each year. Most prostitutes enter the sex trade before they are eighteen.
Not only are pimps responding to demand by recruiting minors, they also like younger girls because they are easier to manipulate, said victim advocate, consultant and sex trafficking survivor Katie Rhodes.
“Pimps are master manipulators. It starts in the recruiting; it starts in the identifying of a girl that might be exhibiting certain behaviors, maybe not a part of the pack but following a little behind the pack of their friends. And then it starts with a grooming process, or we call it, they called it breaking. And so you would groom the girl, find out what it is that they’re lacking in their life and then filling that hole,” Rhodes said.
So while sex trafficking victims may not be locked up in a room somewhere, they are still controlled by their pimps, often through fear and violence, she said.
She herself only found the strength to leave when “the fear of staying became greater than the fear of running.”
In recent years, a lot of sex trafficking in the United States has moved from the streets to the Internet. Websites like Backpage.com have made millions of dollars by advertising prostitution, including child prostitution.
As Nix Conference & Meeting Management principal Molly Hackett said, “It is a billion dollar industry and it follows an economic principal no different than any other business of supply and demand and distribution.”
Hackett is one of the leaders of the St. Louis company’s Exchange Initiative, which works to end sex trafficking.
Nix Conference & Meeting Management is trying to limit access to one resource the sex trafficking industry continues to need, even after moving from the streets to the Web: hotels.
“We’ve asked that [hoteliers] sign a code of conduct where they do training for their frontline staff,” Hackett said of the initiative. “We did a training session here in St. Louis, and it was amazing what they had seen for many years … but didn’t know what to do with the information.”
Missouri’s 2nd District Representative in the U.S. Congress, Ann Wagner (R-Ballwin), is co-sponsoring a bill slated to be introduced in early March that would make it illegal for websites like Backpage.com to sell advertisements for child prostitution. The legislation is called the Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation (SAVE) Act.
“As a mother, this is just reprehensible and something that I feel that if I have the power and ability to move something forward after 12 to 13 years of nothing happening on the federal level in Congress, I’m going to do it,” Wagner said.
Wagner will be speaking at a conference in St. Louis this Sunday organized by the Exchange Initiative called Ignite: Sparking Action Against Sex Trafficking.
Community awareness. Education. Funding.
One of the most important things people can do to prevent sex trafficking is to talk about it. “It’s been undercover for so long and whispered about but as shocking as it is, it needs to be discussed,” Hackett said. “Education is clearly the first step in where we’re going with this.”
For those wanting to take action when they see signs of sex trafficking, Katie Rhodes encourages them to consider safety as their first priority. “I think it’s really important that if you see something happening in the community to not intervene on your own,” Rhodes said. “I think it’s very important that you have the property authorities involved, whether that’s going up to the hotel saying, ‘What do you have, I’m seeing this in the hotel,’ or notifying law enforcement. You can’t really tell what kind of situation you’re walking into.”
While there are a variety of social service organizations that provide resources to victims of sex trafficking, Sergeant Adam Kavanaugh suggests contacting the organizations and asking about their needs. “When we get these girls they have nothing. They have no clothes. They have their teddy bear that they brought with them. He suggested contacting social service agencies and asking them what they need,” he said.
The following social service organizations provide resources to victims of sex trafficking and were mentioned during the program: YWCA St. Louis Regional Sexual Assault Center, The Covering House, Crisis Aid International and Magdalene St. Louis.
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that 300,000 children may become victims of sex trafficking every year. That number actually refers to sexual exploitation, not sex trafficking.
Ignite: Sparking Action Against Sex Trafficking
Ignite Meet & Greet with Rep. Ann Wagner
Sunday, March 2, 2014; 6:30 p.m.; St. Louis Union Station a DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel
For more information, visit the Ignite Meet & Greet registration website.
St. Louis Women's Foundation Presents "Tricked," a Documentary About Sex Trafficking
Thursday, March 20, 2014
Tivoli Theatre, 6350 Delmar Blvd.
St. Louis Women's Foundation Website