Words | Renata S. Geraldo
Art | Maddy Wignall
Sex trafficking takes on many different forms. Women from poor families fall victim and are kidnapped or sold into prostitution. In the United States, prostitution and trafficking take a different form. Trafficking happens through coercion and manipulation; a much subtler form that often gets overlooked. In Portland, many victims of sex trafficking are members of a community, according to Senior Deputy District Attorney for Multnomah County and part of the Human Trafficking Team in Portland, Glen JR Ujifusa.
This was the case for Andrea Benson, who was trafficked at 22-years old. Her life was steady, she grew up in a good home and was raised, Christian. She went to the California Baptist University, graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and with a minor in Global Studies. After she graduated and moved back home, her life felt incomplete. Almost everyone from her class was getting married or having kids. While trying to find what was missing, Benson signed up for a dating site in the hopes of meeting someone. She eventually found a promising match. He was nine years older, divorced, had three kids and was a web designer who worked from home.
This is where Benson met her trafficker “That’s how he recruits women to this day, [on] online dating websites,” Benson says. He created a false identity and was “able to do this because he had a lot of money.” But instead of being a web designer, he was a trafficker; and instead of three kids, he had six.
Her parents disapproved of her boyfriend, but within two weeks of dating, he told Benson everything she wanted to hear. “It just escalated quickly. He told me that he loved me, that he wanted to get married.” Yet, her parents started cutting her “boyfriend” off from family events and eventually cutting Benson off too. They took her car and changed the locks of the house. Benson began to feel lonely and controlled by her parents. That was enough for her trafficker to start the grooming phase.
According to Joel Shapiro, a Portland attorney who handles cases such as Benson’s, sex trafficking involves three phases: the grooming phase, where the trafficker builds trust with the victim, followed by engaging the victim in sex with strangers and collecting the money, and, finally, buying victims goods to make them feel like they’re still loved by their trafficker or pimp. The grooming phase is perhaps the most important. The trafficker explores the victim’s vulnerabilities, which builds a falsified bond between trafficker and the victim, similar to a trauma bond, according to Ujifusa. “Traffickers sell you a dream, that’s what they do. Every single time they’re selling you a dream, and so he sold me one too,” Benson said. Not yet aware of what would happen to her, she ignored her parents’ advice and the red flags.
Still believing her trafficker loved her and wanted to marry her, she continued her relationship. “I was desperate for a boyfriend,” she confesses. “I just laid my cards on the table, he picked them up and read them back to me. Promised me everything.”
Traffickers are “pathological liars and narcissists,” according to Benson. According to Ujifusa, a prosecutor for sex trafficking cases who have to deal with pimps in the courtroom, “traffickers in my experience, the ones who have been evaluated psychologically, many of them show high tendencies for personality disorders and high psychopathy.” Traffickers are also charismatic, and that often blinds the victims of their ongoing manipulation, making pimps seem trustworthy and highly reliable. Once the grooming phase is over, the trust slowly develops into a case of dependence. The manipulation intensified when Benson’s trafficker would bring women to their house, take them to the bedroom, and then claim he was their “manager.” Later, he would tell her he would be out of town with the same girls and she wouldn’t be able to contact him. Benson was jealous, after all, he was her boyfriend.
Her frustration worsened with the lousy excuse that her trafficker needed money. He would ask her for help to pay the bills knowing she did not have the money. Benson became increasingly frustrated with her predicament and the jealousy.
He started suggesting coy ideas and Benson would push back. “But after a couple of months of that, I was tired of him going out of town with these girls all the time and not telling me where he was going and what he was doing,” she says. “I finally decided, I love him, he wants to marry me, he wants to have kids with me, so whatever he wants me to do, it can’t be that bad.” She gave him her definite yes, still not knowing exactly what she would do. Benson was then taken to their bedroom, where he took provocative pictures of her and put it online. He also gave information on what her limits were with the buyers; her “menu,” as Benson explained.
For her first john (buyers are also known commonly as “johns”), she only gave a massage. However, in a room full of condoms and other tools, she knew something more serious would eventually happen. After her first john, Benson started crying. Her trafficker entered the hotel room, collected the money and started crying with her, claiming it was hard for him, too. She would no longer be giving massages when the next johns came to her hotel room.
Benson’s trafficker was a “Romeo pimp,” the kind of trafficker who is sensitive and cries with the victim. Not long after, he became more violent and blackmailed her if she ever tried to leave him. He could ruin her life, while also claiming he loved her. Benson was often told she didn’t fit in the real world and did not need a normal job, but he wanted to marry her and have kids with her. In times when Benson felt at her lowest point, her trafficker would buy her gifts and tell her she would only have to keep doing this for a few months; that day never came.
After four months, her trafficker was arrested. And since Benson’s relationship with her parents was damaged because of her “Romeo pimp,” it was hard for her to tell them that she had been a victim of sex trafficking. So, she got help from one of the sergeants who worked on her case. They set up a meeting with Benson’s parents, and before she went into the room, parameters were set on what they could or could not say to her. She told her story and was met with love and support from her parents. Her mother even helped her get a job.
While it’s hard for the family to take victims back, especially if they come from vulnerable areas, the hardest part about rescuing a victim is breaking the trauma bond between the trafficker and themselves. “The biggest challenge in these cases is helping a victim to understand that they’re a victim, and need to be willing to leave their trafficker, or change what they’re doing because many of them have been manipulated and brainwashed to think it was their idea,” Ujifusa says. “That’s how trafficking is set up.” But it is by working closely with support groups, non-profit organizations and networks of mentorship that this bond is broken. Yet the path to get there is often very challenging.
Benson had moved back home, got a job and her life seemed to be moving along. But after a year and a half, she was fired and found herself back in the sex industry. 95.2% of girls return to this life for individual reasons after being released, according to a Multnomah County report. Benson felt she was not fit for the real world. So, she found a new boyfriend who was a “sponge pimp,” or “someone who doesn’t care whether you do it or not, they’re ripping the benefits,” she explained. This time, however, her parents treated her differently. They supported her decision to be with her boyfriend although they did not approve of him.
She turned back to this lifestyle, and it was getting harder to do what she had been doing. She described it to be “disgusting and terrifying” when she opened the door to a different man, but she was addicted to the fast money and still believed she wasn’t normal. Besides, if she stopped, she wouldn’t be able to see her boyfriend as much. “I made up every excuse in the world for why I should keep doing it,” she confesses.
The fear of getting murdered began to haunt her. According to a 2010 study, prostitutes have a mortality rate 17 times higher at any given age. Benson had a false sense of security every time she was with a client. johns have stolen money from Benson and there was no recovering it. “Somebody could’ve murdered me easily and there’s nothing [my trafficker] would have been able to do, he didn’t even carry weapons on him.” She also did not want her family to go through this, especially after a wake-up call when another girl who was being trafficked, named Ashley Benson, was murdered by a john in a hotel room. Her family initially thought it was her, and the case changed her, and the case changed something in Benson. Besides her fear of getting killed, she was also suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts. Benson decided it was time to stop, even if it meant having a difficult time mentally and financially. “There’s not enough money in the world that could make those things go away.” She eventually stopped, “but it’s what kept me in it, it was just that adrenaline.”
Although it was hard for her at first to get out of that life, it was harder because her boyfriend was still involved in trafficking and other illegal activities. Her relationship lasted another eight months. “The further I got away from that lifestyle, the more I wasn’t comfortable with what he was doing,” Benson said. “It wasn’t exciting anymore having a gun in the house, having strangers come over and all the different danger scenes that he was involved in, or being worried about him going to jail.” She broke it off and moved out even though all the bills were in her name, but she did not care about the financial consequences.
All that mattered was that she was done. So Benson got herself a single apartment and a job. Her prostitution life officially ended on March 31st, 2015, the day before she started the new job and her healing phase, which is still ongoing. For many people who decide to get out of the life, like Benson, the road is winding. Safe houses for victims in Portland are usually full, and there are no emergency shelters. The lack of resources is due to a lack of funding rather than lack of intent. “We are in need of emergency shelter and quick drop-in centers, but it takes a lot of money, and it has to be done right, and it has to focus on just trafficking victims because the dynamic of trafficking victims is so different than any other victim,” Ujifusa says. Similarly, the Cupcake Girls is a non-profit dedicated to providing resources for sex workers with no judgement or coercion. Amy-Marie Merrell, the city manager for the non-profit in Portland, says there were several occasions when they have had to transport victims of sex trafficking to safe houses as far as Kansas or Bend, Ore. because safe houses in Portland are usually full, and there are no emergency shelters.
According to Shapiro, there has to be “trauma-informed care” for victims, basic resources and security. Shelters are also more expensive to fund, so the state of Oregon has a bigger focus on homelessness and drug addiction. But the ideal scenario for Shapiro involves emergency shelters and multiple safe houses throughout the state instead of just Portland. According to Ujifusa, the internet is also spreading the occurrences of purchasing women rather than having one “high-vice area,” a term used to describe places where prostitution happens in plain sight. Now it is easier to purchase sex anywhere.
The recruitment often happens online, and the pattern continues with the sex purchasing phase. Before, johns would find women at NE 82nd Avenue, a “high-vice area” in Portland, which is still a well-known spot for sex trafficking and prostitution.
But with the internet playing a major role since 2010, “[it] has been the primary way in which trafficking is done.” Ujifusa says. “The internet is the most prolific [platform]. Anyone who has a smartphone or a computer can find someone to purchase in a matter of minutes.” Still, because of its proximity to Interstate 5 and the number of strip clubs, Portland is still a hub for sex trafficking.
And while it’s easier for johns and traffickers to make deals online, it is harder for law enforcement to intercept these cases, especially when the number of people who handle sex trafficking in the city of Portland is low. “In the city of Portland there are seven people that are in charge of sex trafficking for almost the entire state,” Merrell says. Areas like Springfield and Eugene seriously lack an equipped team designated for sex trafficking.
There have been online cases such as Backpage, a website where johns could easily purchase sex and the adult section on Craigslist that have been successfully intercepted.
While it was important to take down Backpage, johns will find other ways, either through social media or smaller websites, Shapiro says.
Whenever johns are caught buying sex from adults, they are charged with misdemeanors. To avoid recidivism, the John’s School, a government project, was created with the intent to educate first-time buyers. According to Ujifusa, who was one of the creators of the project, the John’s School, whose official title is Sex Buyers Accountability and Diversion Class, is an eight-hour class where different people related to sex trafficking tell the attendees of their experience. Subjects vary from reproductive health, how trafficking affects the lives of victims, and how victims observe the issue. The goal is to educate men who often do not know the consequences of buying trafficked persons on a personal level.
For Benson, who speaks openly as a survivor at places like the John’s School, being able to tell her story played a big part in her healing. Another important factor that led to this process was having strong relationships with the people who helped her get out of that life completely.
“I’ve got a lot of people who would make sure that would not happen [again] even though there are times that I want to go back because maybe I’m stressed about finances or I’m stressed about my job, or I just feel really uncomfortable and like I’m not normal,” Benson says.
Along with telling her story for empowerment, Benson’s mission is also to build awareness. The goal is that the numbers of sex trafficking decrease, since girls who are aware of the problem are at less risk to be recruited. That’s the Youth Ending Slavery (YES) mission, according to Gwen Kaliszewski, the non-profit’s president. Instead of working with survivors, like the Cupcake Girls, they target kids around the age of 13 who are more vulnerable to be trafficked.
YES often organizes documentary screenings, guest speakers and walks in Downtown Portland. “Awareness is the first step to change,” Kaliszewski says. “High school students have a lot of passion and drive and can actually make a change, [they] are very passionate.”
Benson’s positivity and strength are vibrating in her personality, but a few lapses prove to be difficult at times. She developed a complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). “When you have complex PTSD is when you’ve been raped over and over and over again,” she says.
One of her triggers is seeing her first trafficker, who was released from prison on probation. “My trafficker lives really close-by and he’s tried to stay in contact. He’s joined my gym four different times, at one point he moved two blocks away from me. He only has to be 1000 feet away, so he moved 1200 feet away.”
Besides the stalking and psychological trigger, her trafficker also represents a setback that happens to her on many occasions and in different relationships, which is when someone doesn’t believe her story. If that happens, Benson likes to look back on her case to remind herself it happened to her. But her trafficker de-legitimizes her at every opportunity. His side of the story is that it was her idea to sell sex, and he only helped her because he loved her. His goal was to keep her safe. But his story is a lie. “Unfortunately, there were six other victims, and he’d been doing this for three years before he even met me,” Benson said.
In order to keep herself safe, Benson has different types of security devices, such as pepper sprays and assault alarms. She also has nailed wood to all of her windows. She is in close contact with her trafficker’s parole officer. Her employers, family and friends understand and are aware of her case, and security at the building her work have his picture and know his face.
Although Benson is now empowered and continues her healing process, she is prepared for the worse. “Every little thing helps.”
Sex trafficking is not about a woman being tied to a bed. It is about a woman being mentally tied to a promise and to her trafficker, or having “chains to the brain,” Ujifusa says. Sex trafficking is not always about a smuggled undocumented immigrant. Girls who are in a community might be recruited from a high school party, a football game, a bus stop, or the internet. Shapiro describes trafficking as a brutal way of living, led by “interplay of force, fraud and coercion used by traffickers to isolate victims,” as stated by the Multnomah County.
“There is no silver bullet to end this problem,” Shapiro says, just like the problem of drug addiction or homelessness. Some think that demand plays a big role, intensified by the internet as a safe way for pimps to reach johns. Others, like Kaliszewski, believe that building awareness to a younger audience that has passion is key for change. For Merrell, the lack of resources is where the problem lies since the trafficker can explore that by creating a debt bond. So, tackling that with services that are pro-bono prevents the trafficker to offer something that they cannot refuse. The problem is still unsolved, and like Benson says “it could happen to anyone.”