What is human trafficking? According to Homeland Security, “Human trafficking is a modern-day form of slavery involving the illegal trade of people for exploitation or commercial gain….Traffickers use force, fraud, or coercion to lure their victims and force them into labor or commercial sexual exploitation. They look for people who are susceptible for a variety of reasons, including psychological or emotional vulnerability, economic hardship, lack of a social safety net, natural disasters, or political instability.”
I don’t know exactly when I became aware that human trafficking was occurring, but I do know that there was a point in time where I believed that it was something that was just happening overseas. It wasn’t something that happened in the U.S. And then I was invited to a women’s group meeting at my friend’s church, and there was a guest speaker presenting on human trafficking. Now, I should point out that I was living in Pennsylvania at the time (I didn’t move to California until after), so I had never seen anything to suspect this was happening, but my heart went out to the survivors. As a domestic abuse survivor, I know what it feels like to be a victim at the hands of those who are stronger than me.
I moved to California in the Fall of 2013 intending to go to school. I had no job and no place to live. I stayed in a hotel for the first ten days that I was here, found a low paying job and then rented a room in South LA, in a rough part of town near USC. As a part of the aftermath of the domestic abuse situation, I did not have a car, so I relied on public transportation, primarily the train. I have never been so appalled at the way women are treated than when I lived there. (East LA was bad too, but I actually ran into a lot worse that close to USC).
On almost a nightly basis I was subjected to catcalls. You’re cute. Give me your number. A guy on a bicycle even came up behind me and slapped my ass. I didn’t report it, because I didn’t think anything would be done about it (I’m still not sure it would have), but that was assault. And one night, I’m pretty sure I came face to face with a trafficker.
I was already involved in trying to raise awareness on human trafficking–I had gotten in contact with an activist for other reasons and was trying to get involved. Although I am not entirely sure of the timeline, during my active period in 2014, I participated in the LA Freedom Walk where I connected with CAST and Sisters Against Trafficking, attended a conference in Long Beach where I connected with the Long Beach Task Force, attended a symposium at Mount St. Mary’s College, and attended part of CAST’s hotline training. I also wrote a few articles on human trafficking for USC’s Social Justice newsletter.
Now, back to the trafficker. I don’t remember his face clearly, but I remember he was older, skinny, and sort of scraggly. I was walking home late at night after taking the train back from USC–I had been out there to watch a movie about Mother Teresa. I don’t recall the specific time, but it was some time between 11 PM and 1 AM, although I am leaning closer to 11, because if I recall, I left the event early due to being tired. We were watching the movie, and then there was a panel discussion afterwards that I did not stay for.
Now in order to get home from the train station, I had to walk up Vermont Ave (it was going south, but it’s a little bit of a hill, so I always thought up) to King Blvd. I always made sure to walk fast, especially when I got to a certain point in the route, because I was typically harassed.
As I neared King Blvd, this man approached me and asked me if I wanted a job. I don’t know if I consciously realized that he was likely a trafficker, but rather than making me want someone to take care of me or be there, my experiences have made me suspicious and very untrusting, so I told him no and kept walking. He didn’t follow.
As a domestic violence survivor and a young woman alone in the big city, I have risk factors for being trafficked. I am also typically the only white woman in my neighborhood, so I tend to stand out. The only thing that doesn’t particularly add up is that I was 31 at the time I was approached. Granted, it was extremely likely that the trafficker did not know that, because not only was I so close to USC, I’ve also always looked much younger than I am.
There’s a game on facebook where it will analyze your profile picture and tell you what your visual age is, among other things, meaning, how old they think you are based on your picture. I’m 33 years old, and I was analyzed as being 24. And few years before this, a woman who is actually now my friend asked me which high school I went to–I was 29 at the time. She could not believe it, even after showing her my driver’s license, she was still shocked.
I may be older than the age of typical targets, but I look young enough that it is not outside the realm of possibility. But then why did he let me go? I have a few theories about that. First, I read a story once about a couple approaching 30 different girls and offering them a job, but they only took one of them–the one who said yes. It could be as simple as them looking for someone who could be more easily manipulated. A lot of pimps start out by seducing a girl with a better life, and I just wasn’t buying. Add to that, remember how I said how this guy was thin and scraggly? I’m not. I’m a relatively physically fit young woman who makes a point out of focusing on my fitness level whenever I can. Health issues prevent me from giving this as much attention as I would prefer, but if he had attacked me, odds were good that I could have gotten away unless he had a weapon. My guess is that he decided to wait around for an easier target.
I was lucky, but not everyone is. I was returning from the conference in Long Beach on the Blue Line when a young woman came on. If you haven’t ridden the train before, let me tell you, it is common for people to come on the train and ask for money or food. I didn’t have money–I rarely do, but I had a tuna sandwich that I hadn’t eaten, so I went over to her and offered it. She declined, but what really struck me was how terrified she seemed to be. She continually during our brief conversation (I did all the talking) looked down and away and seemed to be trying to get as far away from me as possible.
I did not report it–mostly because I didn’t know who to report it to, and that is something that needs to change.