“You can order her faster than a pizza.”
“I slept with your politicians, fathers and financial titans against my will.”
“You think boys don’t get sold for sex?”
Back in January, during Human Trafficking Awareness month, Lacey’s Hope Project launched a campaign in Milwaukee called “Your suburbs are not safe.”
The goal of the project, according to CBS 58, is to show that sex trafficking can happen anywhere.
The billboards showcased the ease and prominence of trafficking outside of a big city. While the white picket fences and friendly neighbors of suburbia seem to evoke a sense of comfort, that’s not always the case.
Noelle Viard, director of communications at Restoration 61, a non-profit organization that works to raise awareness and support for victims of sex trafficking, said that the rise in awareness is starting to match the increase in crime and situations in which trafficking is occurring.
A lot of this awareness can start with younger people.
“There’s a current culture among young people that promotes the idea of sugar daddies that is saying it is totally okay to date someone and exchange intimacy for financial provision or gifts or safety or housing,” said Viard. “This is a mild form of commercial sexual exploitation.”
Viard said that within the Chicagoland area, it is estimated that 16,000 to 20,000 women and girls are trafficked each year. This is on a rotating door, where when people exit the life, others are being recruited.
The problem permeates both the suburbs and the city limits, anywhere from Wheaton to Naperville.
“You can’t find a zip code where this situation is not occurring,” said Viard.
But why are we suddenly talking about it more, especially in the area?
Social media continues to generate a larger conversation about human trafficking. It warns people about anything from making sure to be cautious of items on the windshield to avoiding people approaching in parking lots or malls.
“We had a volunteer come into work with us, as I got to know her she shared with me the reason she’d been motivated to connect was because she had been in a local mall in the Naperville area and her daughter was approached with the initial contact of her being recruited into the life of trafficking and sexual exploitation,” said Viard.
Earlier this year, there was also social buzz surrounding two women walking around downtown Naperville and asking questions that are considered red flags for human trafficking.
According to Naperville Patch, in February 2018, a self-proclaimed Naperville pimp was convicted of 14 felony counts of sex trafficking.
He was found guilty of “using violence and manipulation to force women into sex work for nearly a decade, according to the United State’s Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois.”
This is a continuing occurrence in the Chicagoland area.
A lot of local businesses have begun working to ease the stress human trafficking has on communities.
My Half of the Sky is a coffee shop in downtown Wheaton that focuses on using its proceeds to make a difference. The idea is that money and charity isn’t enough, but new opportunities can make all the difference.
“My Half provides development through employment and support in order to help women live a healthy life after their trauma,” said Renee Pollino, founder of My Half of the Sky. “Job opportunities give people hope for a new life and it changes generations of families who often don’t think that they have a future.”
Compared to big cities where trafficking can happen on the street less noticeably, suburban trafficking often uses tactics that are less noticeable and in some ways, even more dangerous.
“Rather than using street prostitution, in which 85% of adult women prostitutes are trafficked, pimps and traffickers are using legitimate businesses, such as a massage and nail salon, photography studios and other means to traffick women in local suburban neighborhoods,” said Pollino.
The Polaris Project estimates that there are 4.8 million people trapped in forced sexual exploitation globally.
This concept of people as an object to purchase goes beyond dating.
It is commonplace for men in a relationship with money or resources to be referred to as a “sugar daddy” or “arm candy.”
This perpetuates the growing issue in relationships that something is owed and that, in a lot of ways, money can equal sex.
Anne Groggel, assistant professor of sociology who also specializes in intimate partner violence, said that there’s a very inherent power structure we think of in dating.
“Oftentimes we normalize sexuality in ways that aren’t always natural, but women become very accustomed to becoming a product,” said Groggel. “We’ve normalized the idea that someone is arm candy and someone else is paying for that right.”
This kind of language continues to enforce the idea that dates are just an avenue to debt. After a date, considered a kind of transaction, this person owes you something which often times can be a dangerous connection.
Human trafficking victims find themselves getting justice only years after being in this life.
While those in trafficking are often revealed when they end up in hospitals, convicted of felonies or drug use, it can be difficult to find the source of the trafficking. This means despite living years as a victim, they could only ever been seen as someone prosecuted for a crime.
Human trafficking is the world’s fastest-growing criminal industry, according to the UN Refugee Agency.
“From the comfort of someone’s home, someone could observe on the film a child being molested or a woman being forced to perform sexual acts that is broadcast,” said Groggel. “From the comfort of your home, you can be involved in this industry and never have it linked to you.”
Recent arguments suggest that legalizing prostitution would help empower and free women. In human trafficking, women are often bound and trapped in ways they may not even realize themselves. On a day-to-day basis, these women are in survival mode.
“Just the other day a news article went out saying ‘Online prostitution is making it safer for women, so we should legalize it so that women can work independently from their pimps and make their own money’ … very few women do this independently. There’s always a pimp or trafficker involved whether they are being sold online or not,” said Pollino
How can trafficking be stopped when recognizing the signs can be difficult?
Conversation and training can lead people to see the signs.
“One industry where people are actually becoming better trained are the airlines. They are being trained to notice certain cues or warnings to watch out for. When there are individuals traveling alone or with someone who is aggressive,” said Groggel. “Someone who is just a normal flight attendant is now really important in terms of intervention.”
Intervention can happen anywhere and is one of the most effective forms to halt the effects of trafficking.
“Use your voice. If you see something strange or off like a young girl with an older man … follow your gut,” said Pollino. “Call the police, engage the young woman, get a license plate. Every little bit counts.”