Only 9% of sex traffickers who target youth (individuals who exploit youth by forcing them to engage in sexual acts in exchange for money, housing or other compensation) are strangers to those being trafficked. Over 90% of the time, the youth are being exploited by someone they know, and over 60% of the time, it is a family member or romantic partner. This sad statistic comes from Looking Glass’s dedicated Survivor Advocate (SA) staff member in a recent discussion about the challenges youth in Lane County face in the realm of sex trafficking. We won’t be using her name or photo in this article since her anonymity is important for a variety of reasons.
Sometimes leaving takes a few tries
On average, it takes 5 to 7 times for a trafficking survivor to get out of the trafficking situation. In this way, sex trafficking is not unlike many domestic violence situations.
“Our main role in supporting survivors at Looking Glass is to be here for what the survivor needs and be helpful when they are ready to get out of their situations,” the Survivor Advocate explains. “We let the survivor take the lead in identifying their priorities, whatever they need we are here to help - if they need help applying for food stamps or OHP, if they need clothing or self-care supplies, someone to talk with - whatever they need, we are here to help.”
If the survivor wants to press charges against the trafficker, Looking Glass staff assists with that and is supportive, but if they don’t want to do that, we don’t push them to. Our staff is also careful about not using shaming language or even suggesting that what is happening to the survivor is “trafficking” as most survivors don’t identify with those labels. It is important when building rapport to use the language that the survivors use.
“Being sexually assaulted or trafficked is all about loss of power,” The SA explains. “Any chance we have to let them make choices and reclaim their power, we do it. We want to help them build on the strength they already have. We are all about helping the survivors realize their own capabilities and resilience.” Empowering the survivors who meet with our SA includes even little things like allowing them to decide which room they meet in or which chair they sit in or if they meet us in our offices or at a coffee shop.
The SA does everything she can to make the youth comfortable and build trust so that over time, when they are ready, we are able to help them get out of their situations and away from their traffickers. Sometimes that includes helping them to move to an undisclosed, out of area location so they can safely and privately re-start their lives.
If a youth has no stable home, few clothing items or food they are more at risk of being exploited by traffickers. Survival sex - trading sex acts for basic needs like food or shelter - is a challenge that LGBTQ+ and minority youth face more than other demographic groups. As is the case with much of the population that Looking Glass serves in Runaway & Homeless Youth programs, a large portion of the youth we support in trafficking situations are among these demographic categories. Every runaway and homeless youth is at risk for trafficking and youth who have experienced previous sexual abuse, have been in the foster care or juvenile justice system, are dealing with substance use or abuse, or who are experiencing mental health complications are the greatest risk for exploitation.
Education & Community Outreach
A major effort for our SA is providing education and trainings to the public, in part to make people more aware of the red flags that can alert them that a youth is being trafficked. Among other things, these red flags include: physical and emotional signs of distress; a youth who seems to “go out of town” often; dates or is often seen with a much older person; has multiple hotel room keys on them; is not dressed appropriately for the weather.
The Looking Glass SA provides group trainings to churches, business groups, other youth focused organizations and anyone else who wants to be part of the solution. Looking Glass works regularly with SASS (Sexual Assault Support Services) as well as the Eugene and Springfield Police Departments and FBI. Our SA is a part of the CSEC group (Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children) and on the ECASEY subcommittee (Eugene Coalition Against Sexual Exploitation of Youth).
The focus for our SA at Looking Glass is to support survivors, even if that means helping them while they are still being trafficked. Frustratingly, if we attempt to simply tell them to get away from their traffickers and that they are bad people doing bad things to them, often times that can backfire. By providing consistent, trusted support and resources, over time we can help these youth find a better life and we have seen success with our youth completing education degrees, acquiring jobs and finding their own self-confidence again.
“The more we can support the marginalized groups in our communities and address the deeper, underlying issues that many of our youth and families are facing (poverty, drug & alcohol addiction, affordable housing, education, mental health, etc…), the more success we will see in reducing and eliminating youth sex trafficking,” the Looking Glass SA said.
For more information on our Survivor Advocate role and Youth Sex Trafficking Prevention, contact New Roads at 541-686-4310. Or if you or a loved one is experiencing trafficking or any other crisis, call or text our 24-hour crisis helpline at 541-689-3111.