AUSTIN, Texas—The foyer of this brothel in Austin, Texas, smells of cigarette smoke and sweet incense. On the carpet sits a Buddha and an altar decorated with money, two cups of old coffee, and a dozen mangoes.
Calli Doris, an outreach volunteer with Redeemed Ministries, rings the doorbell and waits silently, holding little blue and yellow gift bags in her hands. Just when it seems time to leave, a sliding window cranks open and out peers a middle-aged Asian lady with harshly penciled red lips and jet black hair. She begins to shake her head and mumble in broken English about the owner, glancing nervously toward the back.
Doris smiles and shakes her head, offering the bags. “We just want to bless you,” she says. The woman’s initial confusion shows through wide eyes, but when she finally takes the bags and peers inside, her face splits into a smile. The bags are full of coconut-scented body lotion, toothbrushes, and toothpaste. Doris hands her three more for the other woman working here, refusing offers of money as she leaves.
Back in the car, Doris, 27, prays quickly as she speeds down the highway toward more brothels. She’s a spirited blonde with a silver nose ring and colorful friendship bracelets stacked on her wrist. She first learned about sex trafficking from an episode of Law and Order SVU six years ago: “I was shocked that this was happening.”
Human trafficking is a shock to many. Many see it as an international problem, but the Christian nonprofit Redeemed Ministries estimates that traffickers currently entrap several hundred thousand Americans. Many are runaways, fleeing abusive homes. Pimps earn their trust through money and lavish gifts. But the sweet talk soon stops and these women find themselves trapped in a dangerous and sexually exploitative situation in their home country.
Doris works for Redeemed, which has been fighting trafficking in Texas since 2005 by focusing on outreach, aftercare, and advocacy. She works alongside local business owner Nicole Marett, 25, and focuses on outreach: Their goal is to find brothels and gain access to the women—“sparrows,” they call them—working inside.
So far they’ve found 16 Austin brothels. Many of them are shockingly obvious, located in parking lots close to the highway, convenient for men going to or leaving work. Some buildings are small and sterile, with blacked-out and barred windows, and signs offering suggestively vague names like “Rose,” with the word OPEN lit up in neon lights. Other brothels front as massage parlors, lingerie stores, or gentlemen’s clubs. Some women work out of homes or hotels, and many pimps advertise online.
Redeemed’s outreach model relies heavily on volunteers from local churches. But Marett said finding volunteers is difficult. Youth groups want to get involved, but parents are hesitant. The volunteers who do come are assigned to a brothel, which they visit in teams of three—two women and one man. The man drives and prays while the women go inside, bringing the sparrows gift bags and prayer. “Our goal is not to rescue,” Marett explained over coffee at a local café, “but to show the love of Christ and pray.”
When Doris stops at a second brothel, a young Hispanic woman answers the door. She eyes Doris warily but lets her inside, facing her timidly with arms folded over her body. Doris, unfazed by the woman’s lingerie or the pictures of pinup girls on the wall, introduces herself and offers the gifts. The woman accepts them, smiling shyly. When Doris ask if she would like prayer, she nods.
Later, Doris explains that rescue, if defined as Hollywood’s door-punching and gun-slinging reclaiming of trafficked women in movies like Taken, is ineffective. Given the psychological nature of their captivity, the women would likely return to their pimps and the volunteers’ credibility would wither. Real rescue is only possible once a sparrow realizes she’s a victim and decides to leave voluntarily.
Until then, she and Marett focus on forging trustful relationships with the prostitutes, essentially becoming women to whom they can turn if they decide they want to get out. They also build relationships with law enforcement, local churches, and legal experts so they can fully help a woman if she chooses to flee.
The life of Vee—not her real name, for her own protection—began to unravel when she got a boyfriend in high school and bought birth control, “just in case.” One day while she was out, her parents found it hidden in her dresser. Angered, they threw her belongings out to the street. Vee fled to live with her boyfriend and took up exotic dancing, earning up to $3,000 on weekends. During one night of work, she met a man who offered her more money if she would help him start a new business in Las Vegas.
She agreed, ignoring friends’ warnings that he sounded like a pimp. She went with him and gave him all her money from dancing. She trusted him even when he suggested she start sleeping with men to raise more money for the “startup,” and she didn’t ask questions when he moved her around often.
When she eventually realized that she’d never “raise” enough money for her pimp, she started secretly saving a few dollars of her own. One day, she stole her pimp’s car and fled. He threatened her into returning by reminding her of his network of contacts sprawled over the entire state, few of whom would look kindly on a runaway prostitute.
She returned. The moment the car pulled up, her pimp charged out the door. He grabbed her by her hair, pulled her in the house, then beat and raped her. Undeterred, Vee started saving again and ran away a second time. This time she made it to California, working under the radar as a strip dancer, but not as a prostitute. An undercover cop eventually found her when she returned to Texas and successfully convinced her to leave the industry entirely. She’s now 22 and enrolled in culinary school.
Escape stories like Vee’s are possible largely because of undercover detectives who consider trafficked women victims, not criminals. Deek Moore, 40, is one of seven detectives who fight trafficking and vice in Central Texas. He focuses on surveillance and stings and also works to build low-profile relationships with victims, hoping to convince them eventually to flee.
One day this spring, Moore, dressed in a black hoodie and cargo shorts and sipping coffee, told about the rescue of a trafficked woman who cried out for help: He waited until her husband was at work then sped to her house, helped her pack, and whisked her away to hiding. He spent the next three months gathering evidence against the man who forced her into prostitution and pornography for four years.
Very few cases lead to a trial, Moore said, because it’s extremely difficult to prove a woman has been trafficked against her will. Besides, many prosecutors and judges don’t know much about trafficking and many jurists don’t see these women as victims, so they rarely indict the pimps.
Building cases is also difficult given that many of the women are psychologically frail and often run away after 60 days of rescue. They become afraid to testify or simply begin to miss the familiarity of their old life. Sometimes Moore can find them and get them help. Other times, either because they’re unwilling or unable to admit their captivity, they refuse help.
But here’s the good news: Moore’s most recent witness did not run away. She patiently endured more than 20 hours of detailed interviews recounting how a male friend exploited her as a young college student in need of money. He offered marriage as a way out, which she accepted, desperate to finish school. But after the wedding vows, violence. Moore’s eyes watered as he recounted the story, but he could report that the grand jury indicted the pimp and put him away under a $250,000 bond. That’s rare: Many judges set low bails or none at all.
Moore says he hopes victims emerge from the legal process “with a chance at success [and] full restoration.” Redeemed’s aftercare division pushes for restoration—but it comes slowly and, in the words of executive director Dennis Martin: “It’s a process without a finish line.”
Martin and his wife, Bobbie, have labored at Redeemed since 2006 alongside 35 staff members and 250 volunteers. No one receives a paycheck for the work, so Martin works as an IT auditor on the side. All of the money Redeemed raises (this year: $240,000) goes to fund its safe house, aftercare programs, and administrative needs. Since 2009, 20 women have successfully completed Redeemed’s program; 10 more are currently enrolled.
When a woman enters the door at Redeemed, she’s introduced to a veteran trauma therapist who determines if Redeemed is adequately equipped to help her. If not, the therapist refers her to a better-fitting organization. But if Redeemed can help her, the therapist proceeds to prepare a customized “healing” plan that involves four stages of psychological, spiritual, and practical help.
Stage one is detox. With the help of counselors, the sparrow becomes able to grasp both the depth of her traumatic experiences and the reality of her freedom. During stage two, she begins to work through questions of identity and the concept of God-given value. “We want to reset their value system and help them see that they get their identity from God,” Martin explained.
At stage three, she learns about God as “healer and cleaner.” One measure of success at Redeemed is that the sparrows eventually meet and profess faith in Christ, but that isn’t a condition for receiving help. Stage four: Redeemed staff help her prepare for a transition into independent living. They coach her on how to establish work and housing, find a church and join a small group, and build a healthy group of friends.
The entire process can take from six months to one year, depending on the woman and her personal story. It is neither neat nor easy. Sometimes the women relapse and return to their former life. Sometimes, they stay physically, yet have a harder time moving past substance addictions. But Martin and the volunteers at Redeemed are neither rushed nor intimidated: “We’ll work with these women for life … until they tell us they’re ready to go on independently, without fear of relapse.”
Many Christians, Martin said, emphasize ending trafficking by rescuing its victims, incarcerating its pimps, and trying to convince men to stop buying sex. But in reality, Martin explained that trafficked women rarely see themselves as victims, the legal system is ill-equipped to prosecute the pimps and johns, and it’s too late to change the minds of men who treat women as commodities.
He hopes to galvanize local churches into starting outreach and awareness ministries of their own. He urges churches to combat the vulnerabilities that make some women more likely to be trafficked, such as illiteracy, homelessness, and poverty. Actively pursue one-to-one contact with prostitutes, he said. Guide them into healing programs that help turn back the negative perception they have of the church, and consequently, of Christ.
“We’re not the solution,” Martin said. “The church is the solution. We’re just the avenue.”
Read more about the connection between sex trafficking and pornography.
While child sex trafficking is an issue in our country, nobody knows for certain how many victims under age 18 there are in the United States. Hard data from the FBI show officers make between 1,100 to 1,200 arrests for child prostitution each year. But anti-trafficking organizations talk about 100,000 to 300,000 victims based on a 2001 study by Richard Estes and Neil Weiner that said 326,000 were “at risk for commercial sexual exploitation.”
Estes and Weiner included 14 broad categories of youth who could become involved in sexual exploitation, including runaways, female gang members, and youths living 50 miles from the Canadian or Mexican borders. The report fails to cite evidence showing how many of these “at risk” youth are actually involved in commercial sex.
The researchers admit the numbers “are not representative, in the statistic-sampling sense of the term”—yet news organizations, anti-trafficking groups, and the Department of Justice routinely cite their estimates. (Estes and Weiner focused on child sex trafficking, which sidesteps the question of how many adult women involved in prostitution and pornography chose that path freely.)
In addition to questions about scope, some activists question whether the millions of dollars spent on raising awareness of sex trafficking is effective. Lisa Thompson of the Salvation Army says young people choose ways to oppose the practice that “are technologically driven—linking to a movie or starting a website, and I’m not sure how much more of that we need.” She adds, “The responses aren’t necessarily as thought through as they should be. … I wish it would be more creative than just ‘let’s make a movie.’”
Thompson believes young people could instead mentor at-risk children, volunteer at a juvenile detention center, or help with homeless ministries to prevent sex trafficking from becoming an issue in the first place. —Angela Lu