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Selling people for sex or underpaid labor is considered a $150 billion business worldwide. Researchers who study trafficking in Alabama said our state is a microcosm of what’s going on in the U.S. In other words, problems in Alabama are likely occurring everywhere.
“My friend Becca took to me the hospital, but I hadn’t told the hospital what had happened to me,” Dixie Shannon said. She lives in Central Alabama.
“I was just blindly…I just…was just going along with going there. And, the hospital recognized me as a trafficked victim. And, they asked me ‘Ma’am, have you been trafficked? Are you being trafficked currently?’ And, I just remember breaking into tears, and just crying, and like…just, finally someone had a name for it,” Shannon said. “Someone had a name for the torment I’d been just been through.”
It happened twice, first when she was 17, and the second time in her mid-20s. Each time, Shannon said her trafficker acted like he was on her side, at least at first.
“This guy was going to give me some more security. He was going to put me in a hotel room, and I was going to take a shower. I just needed to eat,” Shannon said. “He did all of that. He brought me in a hotel room, and he took care of me. And he said ‘This is what I want from you.’ And, I was like ‘OK.’”
The phrase "what I want from you" is one you hear a lot from survivors of human trafficking. It’s like a code that means you’re about to enter “the life.” That’s code too, for the world of commercial sex.
“I ended up doing so much drugs, because he was requiring me to do so much…I couldn’t take a shower without making a certain amount of money…I couldn’t eat…I couldn’t do anything…I couldn’t rest…I couldn’t talk to my kids…nothing," Shannon said. "And, I couldn’t do anything. And, I ended up getting to a point where I was I either going to kill myself because I’m going to overdose on these drugs, or he’s going to kill me.”
For some of the survivors, their trafficker started out as a stranger.
“He drugged me and I woke up in a hotel room, naked, on a bed, and had no idea how I got there or anything,” said “Ace,” who was trafficked along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
For others in Alabama, their trafficker was a member of their family.
“You might have a mom, who…the only way she can keep her house, or her…wherever she’s at…will let her landlord have sexual access to her kid,” said Teresa Collier of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. “That sort of thing happens quite a bit.”
Human trafficking isn’t limited just to women. Both men and boys are abused, as well as members of Alabama’s LGBTQ community.
“Most of our kids identify as bisexual. And, that’s because they’ve been sold to this person or that person, males and females. So, they don’t know what their gender is,” said Lynn Caffery, Executive Director of the shelter Safe Harbor Youth in Huntsville.
Traffickers often use psychological games to ensnare their victims.
“They pick up on that,” said Sharon Robbins, a survivor and founder of the trafficking support group Jubilee Havens and lives along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. “It’s almost like they’re honed into that. So me, being already abused as a child, I had a lot of insecurities, I was an introvert, so, they picked up on that.”
Cybercrime analysts in Birmingham study sex traffickers when they advertise on the internet in Alabama. This data can track sex workers who live in Alabama, and those who travel into the state like a caravan.
“So, if I can find five girls who are in Atlanta on Monday, and Birmingham on Tuesday, and Chattanooga on Wednesday, that’s something we would consider a strong indicator of trafficking,” said Gary Warner, director of the UAB Computer Forensics Research Lab in Birmingham.
How the Deep South handles the issue differs from other parts of the country, according to Crystal Yarborough who is the Executive Director of the Rose Center, a drop-in shelter for victims of human trafficking along the Gulf Coast.
“In the Midwest, it’s very much like ‘let’s fix that, what can I do about that?’” she said. “In the South, it’s very much like ‘Oh, I wish you had not told me about that. I did not want to know that.’”
Christiam Lim is leading a project at The University of Alabama’s College of Social Work on human trafficking in the state. His team spent 2017 conducting interviews around Alabama to get a snapshot of how many suspected victims of trafficking asked for help from the police or social service agencies. He said the final number was nearly 1,200 victims.
“The fact is, that there’s a prevalence of human trafficking throughout the entire state,” he said. “Clearly whatever we recovering is a smaller percentage of what’s happening.”
So small, that some estimates put the real figure at 10 times higher. If that’s true, the total could be closer to 12,000, just in Alabama in 2017. Lim said the point is that authorities know what they know, but that's it.
“What that means is there are a lot of professionals in our state who are running across victims of human trafficking, but not identifying them and seeing them as victims of human trafficking,” he said.
But, the College of Social Work found another number that could give an even clearer picture of trafficking in Alabama. It's based on when traffickers come out in the open and advertise on the internet. Two years ago, the college counted those ads and the total was 641,000, just in Alabama, just in 2017.
Editor's note: If you or someone you know is being trafficked, Alabama Public Radio has resources to help. Got to apr.org-slash-traffic for phone numbers and links to groups that support trafficking survivors. You can also text the word traffic to 855-353-6644.