Sunday, December 7, 2014

Being Aware & Keeping Our Kids Safe: Modern Slavery, Human Trafficking, and the U.S. Sex Trade
Photo from The Long Night

A few years ago, I read a disturbing nonfiction book that really brought home to me the fact that slavery is still a flourishing and prevalent worldwide trade. The title of this eye-opening book evades me, but the message stayed with me. What most of us naive Americans think of as something that became virtually extinct in the days of Abraham Lincoln, except maybe (but we don't like to think about it) in some far off dirty and uncivilized corners of the globe that we never plan on visiting, is actually still going on, to this day, in this very country.

Slavery happens everywhere, in many different forms. There are the lower caste people of India, who will be working off the debts of their ancestors for the rest of their lives, while living in extreme poverty and never benefiting from their hard labor. There are Eastern European girls dreaming of a better life, who are promised well-paying nanny positions in another country, only to be forced into a vicious cycle of forced prostitution as soon as they cross the border. And there are the suburban American runaways who crave the excitement of big city life, wind up crossing paths with the wrong person, and the next thing they know their picture is on a child porn site advertising the sale of their bodies.

Of course these are only a few examples. The face of slavery can look like anyone, and can therefore be difficult to recognize. Maybe on your insulated trip downtown for a game or concert you've had the displeasure of driving through a questionable area, and noticed some young people suspiciously walking the streets, and wondered to yourself if they were prostitutes. Maybe you shuddered, thanked God that could never happen to your kids, and muttered under your breath about stupid junkies selling their bodies for drug money. You could be right, but have you ever really stopped to think about how they got to that point?

Some of those kids might have come from backgrounds I can't begin to imagine, filled with real life nightmares of abuse, neglect, abandonment, and substance abuse. They might have been forced out onto the streets by their own parents, whether as a means of escaping unimaginable abuse or even sold in exchange for a fix, or coerced by their drug-addled parents to walk the streets to support their illicit habits. Others might have come from more "normal" homes; just your typical teens, making a few impulsive decisions that turned their lives inside out. They might feel they can never go home because of the choices they've made and the things they've done, or there might be a pimp-puppeteer calling every shot, with no chance of escape.

Most of us pretty much think we can breathe easy at this point, because our kids might be a little sassy or disrespectful now and then, but NO WAY would anything like this ever happen to them! We're good parents! We know what's up! Our kids are SMART, too! They would never be duped by some slick pimp, selling them a line about living the "good" life of prostitution. They would never let anyone boss them around like that, they won't even listen to us when we tell them to pick their dirty towels up off the bathroom floor.

Unfortunately, it's so much more complicated than that. The truth is, young people - girls and boys - are sold into prostitution rings. In the United States. Some are immigrants, but some are Americans. Many are runaways, but some are kidnap victims. Some are walking the streets, relatively obvious in their pursuits, but others are kept locked away somewhere, stuck in a continual haze of johns, pimps, and fellow victims of the sex trafficking industry.

Obviously not all of these unfortunate young men and women are literally sold and physically forced to sell their bodies. It might be easy to think they are simply making a bad choice and can stop anytime they want. However, many have no one to turn to, no one to help them. Some traded abusive parents for brutal pimps, who are standing on the sidelines, ready to break their noses and threaten their lives any time they step out of line. Countless numbers of them have succumbed to drug abuse, and their bodies literally need them to continually provide them with heroin, crack, or other horrors, and they have no other means than selling themselves to make that happen.

I don't want to freak you out, and trust me - as the mother of three beautiful girls, this is the last thing I want to think about. But the painful, terrifying truth is that this can happen to anyone. Anyone's little girl can end up living a sex trafficking nightmare. But I do think the first step in prevention is awareness. Let's talk about this issue and stop pretending it doesn't exist or that this kind of tragedy only happens to "bad" kids from substandard homes.

A couple months ago, I read and reviewed a novel, Dark Hope by Monica McGurk, which delves into the issue of human trafficking, specifically in the U.S., and in particular, Atlanta. I was glad to see this often overlooked issue get some attention, and I highly recommend the book, both as an intriguing YA work of fiction and as a glimpse into an important issue.

Just today I watched a documentary, The Long Night, directed by Tim Matsui, that takes a long, hard look at sex trafficking in the Seattle area. You can watch it online at I can't promise you it's fun to watch, but it is compelling and well worth seeing. At just over an hour in length, it won't take up much of your time, but you definitely will not forget it anytime soon.

Warning: the film contains some profanity, real drug use, prostitution, and very disturbing real life situations. I would not recommend pressing play while any young children are around, but I do think it would be a good idea to show your teen or older tween. It's difficult subject matter, but sometimes we have to have the hard conversations. We as parents owe it to our kids to make them aware that these kinds of things are happening in the world, and not just in far off places that they don't need to worry about. We need to help educate them so they can learn to protect themselves.

Cops are getting a bad rap these days, but a group of Seattle police officers featured in The Long Night has taken it upon themselves to help some of these kids instead of simply perpetuating their desperate lifestyles with one arrest after another. Fathers of daughters of their own, these honorable men began to really notice and pay attention to the young prostitutes they were picking up night after night. They started asking questions and learning the heartbreaking stories behind the atrocious acts of self loathing they were witnessing. Furthermore, they decided to take action; to create a place where these girls could go for a chance to be safe, cared for, and clean.

When the officer discusses his epiphany, that these girls he was constantly arresting did not actually want to be living a life of prostitution, it is a very poignant moment in the film. One man waking up and stepping out of a well-worn rut worn by habit can make a change.

Because I'm reading The Teenage Brain, by Frances E. Jensen, M.D. and Amy Ellis Nutt, I'm beginning to learn the importance of repetition when it comes to life or death issues our teens need to know about. They simply don't have the frontal lobe brain development of an adult yet, which helps with things like impulse control and resisting risky behaviors. For this reason they need frequent reminders and lots of real world examples to convince them and to help them really understand and appreciate the dangers associated with risky behaviors (such as drug and alcohol use or running away from home). The Long Night is a perfect tool that is up to the task.

I encourage you to watch The Long Night and share it with your friends and family, then come back to share your thoughts. If you'd like more information or to learn how you can get involved, go the Leaving the Life website. Furthermore, if you're active in social media, please consider the following:
  • Like The Long Night on Facebook
  • Like Leaving the Life on Facebook
  • Follow @TLNmovie on Twitter
  • Follow director Tim Matsui on Pinterest for a lot of related articles 
  • Share posts, retweet and engage in conversations - in other words, get the conversation going

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