At this very moment, factions of ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) are physically stealing young girls and women, forcing them to travel great distances, and selling them off as sexual servants. While clearly this actual scenario fits a global definition of sexual trafficking, like many instances of sexual trafficking, this horrific practice gets little to no media attention.
For many of us, the crimes perpetrated by ISIS or other groups like Boko Haram are far away; too far away, perhaps, to wrap our heads around sometimes. In our age of instant information and global news, the list of atrocities and human rights violations like these is a perpetually unraveling one and the tangible and accessible ways of helping to fight each addition to that list can seem so starkly limited. The burden, it seems, of living in at least modest financial security in a first world country is that we have the ability to know all of the world’s ills and yet know few clear, swift, and effective ways to help eradicate these ills.
But, what if I told you that the sexual trafficking is a Lehigh Valley problem, too–would you be surprised? Would you be surprised if I told you that this type of trafficking happens with women and girls who are born right here in the Valley?
Take a moment and ask yourself something. Would you identify a 40 year old mother of two who frequents local truck stops along Route 78 and trades sexual services for cash or drugs as a victim of sexual trafficking?
How about a young person who runs away from a highly dysfunctional home, becomes hooked on drugs, and ends up working as a prostitute for men and women who see the potential to profit from and control them—would you see this individual as the victim of trafficking?
Heather Evans is a clinical social worker out of Coopersburg, PA and she has spent a large part of her professional career helping victims of sexual trauma. When she began to pay attention to the international problem of sexual trafficking she started to realize that she had missed the crucial fact that victims of this crime exist domestically. “If I’m missing [that point] as a social worker experienced in sexual trauma,” Evans explains, “then this area is missing it as well.”
That’s the crux of this crisis on a domestic level: we’re all missing it. We’re all seeing it as something completely different than what it truly is. Because of that, it sexual trafficking persists and pervades.
Evans is now president of a Lehigh Valley based coalition called The VAST (The Valley Against Sexual Trafficking). Formed in 2011, The VAST is made up of community members, business owners and leaders, churches and other organizations across the Lehigh Valley who are all working to change the landscape of sexual trafficking, in large part by changing the perception of it.
“People assume [sexual trafficking] is international or ‘over there,’” she says. “It’s possible to be trafficked and not be moved from place to place. Trafficking is always seen as this violent kidnapping and kind of happening international. Most of the time what it looks like domestically is controlled prostitution.”
The VAST is a community response to what truly is a community crisis. The myriad issues that a victim of sexual trafficking experiences, often times even before the trafficking occurs, makes it seemingly impossible for them to escape their life. The women, men, and children who become the target of a trafficker are often courted in a way; given shelter, affection, and drugs as a way of gaining control. They are easy prey for a trafficker because they are often seeking a way out of an already abusive or troubled life. Eventually, these victims are forced or coerced into trading sexual acts for drugs or money and the dependency on the trafficker for drugs, shelter, and even affection become the invisible bars that keep them locked in this highly dangerous and highly abusive scenario.
Getting out is no easy feat and it is only one piece of the puzzle for the victims.
Scenarios like the one just described have historically been very hard for police, social workers, and the courts to label as sexual trafficking. But, when it comes to properly identifying and defining an act of sexual trafficking, the one person who depends on this label the most is the victim. The victims are often prosecuted when caught by police. They receive criminal records, jail time, and then are sent back into the world even more vulnerable than before. According to Evans, who also serves as Chair of the Aftercare arm of The VAST, having endured layers of trauma and jail time, it is virtually impossible for a victim to go back into the world and successfully gain employment, find a place to live, and lead a sober, productive lifestyle. Clearly, as Evans and other coalition members of The VAST have come to realize, the odds are stacked against the victims.
Working with different members of the community to help raise awareness that sexual trafficking exists here in the Valley is one major part of The VAST’s goal. “[Police] have become partners and champions of this issue,” Evans states. Police officers, she explains, are on the front lines of this issue and they have been instrumental in starting the shift towards a new perception of sexual trafficking. Through The VAST’s partnership with a key contact in Homeland Security, local forces have been receiving education and training in how to identify a trafficking scenario and handle a victim. The success of their partnership with local police forces in the Valley is in part because members of The VAST have reached out and said, “when you encounter a trafficking victim, we want to be a resource for you,” Evans says. Because of that training, officers are looking beyond the “prostitute” in related stings; they are seeking out the trafficker. The VAST has supplied local departments with “Self Care” bags, too, that officers can provide victims in a sting or raid. These bags include resources provided by The VAST, including their phone number and information on what trafficking is and how The VAST can help them immediately. Often a trafficking victim will not even realize that they are a victim, Evans explains, so connecting them with the information is critical. Officers know The VAST is a resource, too, and call them to come in for help connecting victims with shelter, mental health and drug rehabilitation services, and, as the victim spends more time outside of the bonds of their trafficker, the tools to help begin a new life.
As The VAST works to increase its reach when raising awareness around the Valley, it also wants to provide the tools for community members to become involved in the other aspects of supporting a trafficking victim and helping them make their way to a new life. Things like transporting a victim to shelters and services and having local businesses and business leaders reach out to The VAST when employment opportunities arise are some of the ways Evans notes that the odds can improve for a victim to make it out of the trafficked life and on the road to a new one. Sexual Trafficking is not just an “over there” crisis, it is right here on the streets where we live, love, and play. And while eradicating the problem comes with a heads pining number of factors, there are tangible and effective ways to help. More than that, there is a great need for your help right now and a clear path to getting involved. Visit The VAST.org to get started.