Yet, sadly, since 2007 the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline has received only 14,544 calls (1-888-373-7888). Why is this? Having knowledge that such a resource even exists is unknown to sex trafficked victims. To get help, to make a phone call is not possible for most victims as communication is strictly controlled and monitored by the pimp who has all the power. Perhaps, we nurses should have this phone number posted in areas where women in your care can see it. Perhaps, when we suspect our patient/client may be such a victim, we should hand them a phone!
News Flash! The F.B.I. data shows that in the United States BOYS make up 33% of all sex trafficked victims! While the average age for girls first being trafficked is 12-14, for boys that first trafficking experience starts between 7-8 years old! Commercially exploited children in our country have almost universally been sexually abused as children and enter prostitution with a history of complex trauma. Their families have been absent or dysfunctional. Several young women with whom I work were identified by teachers as abused (i.e., a 7 year old who wouldn’t change gym clothes because of bruises all over her body). There was a mixed reaction from teachers. Some did follow up with local child protective services. Some called parents. One young woman told me “My teacher was concerned but my mother denied any sexual abuse but then said ‘well, she is so suggestive around my husband’; I was 6 years old!” Many girls tried to tell an adult but many were afraid. Some shared that “I have told people and nobody believed me”. Some were placed in foster homes, and believe it or not, they were molested and recruited by their pimps from the foster care system.
What can we nurses do? This seems so much bigger than we can handle as individuals. We can develop a much more acute awareness about the realities of human sex trafficking right in our own environment. When you hear or suspect human sex trafficking may be occurring to the patient sitting before you, believe them! They very frequently display a fearful, distrusting affect because many times they have tried to tell and NOT been believed. Offer them your belief. Former President Jimmy Carter wrote an editorial in the Washington Post (May 31, 2016) entitled: “Curb prostitution, punish those who buy sex rather than those who sell it”. I recommend reading this. Carter describes the “Nordic Model” which is a system that treats purchasing and profiting from sex as major serious crimes. That might be something for which nurses in small or large groups, such as AWHONN in a Chapter or Section, can advocate at their own local or state level.
Just imagine the impact it could have if the men in your community who are purchasing sex were prosecuted and exposed in public as the criminals they actually are. We have heard “but he is a pastor” and “but he is on city council” and their reputations would be destroyed. Women and children who are sold for sex face more than ruined reputations, they face ruined lives! As health care providers and patient advocates we must begin to work vigorously with our own elected officials to change the unacceptable and shocking status quo. Did you know that trafficked children are treated as criminals in many jurisdictions even though under Federal law those under 18 years old are classified as victims?
My state, the Commonwealth of Virginia, was the last state in the country to pass a stand-alone human sex trafficking law (2015). Now, anyone assisting, or working to traffic, sell or purchase prostitution can be arrested and charged. This law became law because of the incredible tenacity and diligent work of a very few advocates working with their local legislators. They provided both Representatives and their constituents with education on this issue.
Healthcare teaching has always been a strong focus for nurses. The public looks to us to educate them and the public trusts nurses to provide solid, honest information. My “own public” sat in disbelief when we first started talking about sex trafficking right here where we live and work. I heard comments like “No way, this is a lovely community. Not here!” As they learned the realities they were initially horrified… but now are very energized to help in any number of ways. Do not forget to educate parents. They need to know that when young teens, girls and boys, meet other “youth” on the internet they are often opening themselves to traffickers. When middle and high school kids sext and post photos they can and do become easy prey to predators.
If your community doubts the very idea of sex trafficking in your town, send them to a website called “Backpage”. It is a trafficking website that lists ads for prostitution. In my small size city there are more than 20 ads a day! “Plenty of Fish” is another site that purports to be a dating site. We have had some of our trafficked victims “hooked up” on this site with “clients” purchasing sex. If a nearly naked woman is advertising to come to a hotel room to provide a “massage”, read between the lines. If the face is blurred, it most likely means the girl is a young minor. If you look…unfortunately you will find human sex trafficking right in your own backyard.
Overwhelmingly the young women with whom I work had dreams of growing up to be moms or lawyers or teachers or doctors or nurses. One girl had seriously and sincerely wanted to be an astronaut. No one ever dreamed of growing up to be a prostitute! They were brought into the “life style” as young minors. They did not choose the life and do NOT benefit financially (a common misconception). Once used, these victims are humiliated, shamed, embarrassed and trapped in a system they despise but have no idea how to escape. (They each seem to know of a girl who tried to escape who either “disappeared” or who was re-captured with their photo posted on line with her head shaved and tattooed by their pimp.)
NURSES CAN MAKE A HUGE DIFFERENCE if we just start working together to:
- Learn the facts about Human Sex Trafficking in our own communities
- Work more closely with local and state law enforcement
- Provide vitally needed education to our peers, friends, organizations and parent groups
- Advocate with legislators to enforce the law and explore alternatives such as the “Nordic Model” which is now used in Canada, France and Sweden
- Believe a patient who trusts you enough to share their situation
- Be hyper-alert to telltale signs such as :
- a numbered tattoo (pimp’s property)
- very unclear past history and no stable address
- STD’s, especially repeated episodes
- wearing scanty clothes – often 2 sizes too small
There are 3 million nurses in our country. I believe that together we have the power to change hearts and minds so that our local communities and our nation understand the realities of Human Sex Trafficking. I serve on the Foundation Board of a home for victims. Our motto is: “Changing one life at a time and changing the world for future generations”. I have experienced the first goal actually succeed with individual young women. Won’t you join me in meeting both goals?
Leith Merrow Mullaly, RN, MSN is an experienced maternity - newborn nurse, having worked at the bedside, in administration and education. She was clinical faculty at the University of Virginia. She is a published author, nationally ranked speaker and former national President of AWHONN (Association of Womens Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses). She serves on the Latisha's House Foundation Board.