How Exodus Road brings freedom to victims of sex trafficking (and how you can help)

It’s been hard to figure out how to tell the story of Exodus Road, because there is just so much about the scope of human trafficking that is outside of our awareness. I’ve talked about how sex trafficking is defined, and how the Exodus Road has started an alliance to coordinate the efforts of anti-trafficking teams across the globe. I’ve talked about how commonplace indentured servitude (slavery) is in the sex trade. I’ve talked about after care and how rescue doesn’t end after a raid. But today, I want to talk about the bulk of their work. and the most important task in the fight against trafficking: undercover investigations. I’m also going to talk about how you can get personally involved with one of the teams doing this work. I hope you will read this all the way through.

This Independence Day, help bring freedom to those who need it

[photo by Jamie Wright]

Sex trafficking is an insidious beast. It takes place in the shadows, and secrecy is a currency. Traffickers have many tactics to keep girls enslaved . . .most commonly, by removing them from their home country, taking away their passport, and having them work in a country where they don’t know the language and have no community or resources. Even more insidious is the trafficking of children. On our first day with the Exodus Road, one of their investigative teams showed us an undercover video of two girls, around the age of 14 or 15, standing helplessly as men bartered over their virginity. Little did their captors know, the men who were there to barter were actually undercover agents. That video helped to prosecute them and put them away.

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This is the only way to fight sexual trafficking. To walk into the shadows. To go face-to-face with the traffickers . . . to gather evidence and to partner with police and to prosecute in court. While rescue is a part of the job. Matt Parker explained that the real goal is prosecuting traffickers. Without that level of follow-through, traffickers recover from a rescue by finding another person.

This Independence Day, help bring freedom to those who need it

It takes a lot to do this work . . . it takes guts of steel and resolve and patience and organization and self-sacrifice. While I was in S.E. Asia, I got to spend one night in a rural village with one of Exodus Road’s investigative teams . . . specifically the Delta team. I wish so badly that I could share photos of these men . . . that I could outline each unique personality and gift mix that makes them perfectly suited to work in this field and to operate as a cohesive team. Alas, these are undercover agents, and so I need to protect their identities. But these men are coming from backgrounds in personal security, in the military, the police force, and paramedics, and now they have dedicated their lives to putting these skills to use to give freedom. Some of them are retired and this is how they are spending their retirement . . . in a far-away land going into the depths of depravity night after night because they feel called to do so. These men have seen unspeakable things and yet there is no hardness about them. They tear up as they talk about certain cases. They share their strategies for keeping their cool in the presence of some of the world’s most evil people.

The Delta team wanted to walk us through a typical evening of investigations. They emphasized that this wasn’t a practice run or for show . . . they had a specific target in mind (a girl they had been tracking who they assumed to be underage and trafficked across the border) and they were going to visit her and gain more evidence to present to the police. It’s important to note that the Exodus Road isn’t doing rogue work. Their job is to partner with local authorities and to present the evidence needed to stage a raid as well as to prosecute. The flow of intel goes both ways. The police share information with them, and they share back. The scope of the problem is too great for the local police to handle alone, and as you can imagine the profile of these men (and specifically that many of them are white) means that they can go undercover in ways that local police cannot. In fact, one day of our trip we had a meeting with a Lt. Colonel of the police department, and he shared how much this partnership was helping them fight trafficking.

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Before we set out that evening with Delta team, we met to go over some case files and to have a briefing on the evening’s investigation. The Delta team runs like a well-oiled military machine and they take everything very seriously – down to the briefings and de-briefings. Their case files are painstaking detailed, and in each investigation nothing is left to chance, even if it means rehearsing or rehashing each investigation. In fact, that was one of the things the team wanted us to see . . . that this work isn’t all raids and rescues. That this work is sometimes tedious and unglamorous . . . that it requires time and patience and vigilance and commitment.

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That evening, the civilians (bloggers) stayed in a hidden car as the investigators entered several rural brothels in search of their target, and also in search of potential targets. The team were equipped with cameras so that they could record everything. Evidence is key in prosecution but also in identifying victims. That’s another aspect to this work . . . while every investigation is fueled by intel, each investigation is also an opportunity to gain new information. On this particular night, the target was identified, but several new targets were as well.

It was fascinating to be a part of, and made me understand how difficult this work is. After the investigation, we debriefed and watched the footage they obtained. They discussed next steps. It wasn’t a dramatic rescue . . . yet. But this is how rescues are made. This is how traffickers are taken down. Slowly, deliberately, methodically.  And it’s working. In 2013, Exodus Road assisted with 250 victim rescues in partnership with local police, and helped make 90+ arrests.

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The Exodus Road is currently supporting 45 undercover investigators. Delta is one of many teams, but it’s the team I’d like to invite you to support. It’s hard to explain the immediate affinity we felt with these guys, but several times in the past few days. Heather, Jamie, Roo and I have mentioned how much they’ve impacted us. And we are still in contact – we are in a private facebook group of Delta team supporters where the investigators regularly give us updates on the work they are doing. That’s one of the things I love about the Exodus Road model. It’s authentic and transparent and hands-on. The supporters really are partners.

My goal for this Indepedence Day weekend is to get 100 new supporters for Exodus Road. So I am inviting each of you to join us. For $35 a month you can help fund the investigators who make up Delta team. You can join our facebook community and stay posted with what is going on, and really be the fuel that drives these recues. While not all of us can move to S.E. Asia and do this kind of work, we can support the people who do. We can help bring freedom to people whose circumstances are much different than our own.

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If you are compelled to help, here’s how you can join us.

First, click on the blue “add your link” button below to indicate your commitment. (You don’t have to actually add a link. But if you have a blog or a website, go for it! If you want to donate anonymously, that’s cool too! Just write ANONYMOUS below.)

 

Then, go click on the image below (or here) to sign up as a monthly donor for Delta team:

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And last, consider sharing this on your social media channels. Thank you!!

What after-care looks like for victims of sex trafficking

I’ve been sharing about my trip to S.E. Asia with the Exodus Road and some of the work they do. Many of you have asked what aftercare looks like for children who have been trafficked. I’m going to share some about that today, and tomorrow I’m going to share more specifics about the investigative work that Exodus Road does.
Investigations are at the heart of what Exodus Road does. It is the way they help both rescue victims of sexual trafficking as well as prosecute the people who are trafficking women and children. But through the Liberty Alliance formed by Matt Parker, Exodus Road’s founder, the organization is also able to help children with rehabilitation through partnerships with key after-care facilities. On our trip we were able to visit two such facilities.
First, we visited the Anti-Human Trafficking and Child Abuse Center. This facility is run by Khru-Ja, a man who has dedicated his life to both catching pedophiles and helping children who have been victimized. Khru-Ja has been helping with investigations of pedophiles in his country for over a decade as a key informant and partner to the police. During our visit, he ushered us into a meeting room and showed us some case files of men they have caught. What we saw was sickening.
Khru-Ja also operates a home for children who have been rescued from the clutches of sexual abuse within the sex trade. The home currently houses 38 kids (12 girls and 26 boys). This home is offered to kids until they turn 18, although Khru-Ja emphasizes that they could return if they needed to. The goal is to empower the kids with life skills to live on their own. A part of that is having the kids take part in running the home. There is a garden onsite, where they grow most of their own food, and the kids help maintain it, learning agricultural skills.
The kids also help to raise chickens, and they also grow their own mushrooms in a darkroom.
In addition to learning self-sustaining skills most of the kids are also attending school. But most importantly, they are safe . . . and free from the horrific realities that they once knew. We saw happy, joyful kids living a normal life.
The home is currently at capacity but there are plans to build a few more accommodations so that they can take in more kids.

Khru-Ja shared a bit of his own personal story with me, and why he is so passionate about helping. He grew up on the streets himself, and his soft heart is evident as he interacts with the children there.

exodus road
We also visited Thrive Rescue Home, another after-care facility in the same city. Thrive is a smaller home that serves girls who have been rescued from sex trafficking, run by Americans Jeremy and Jen Kraus. They have a huge empahsis on caring for the psychological needs of rescued girls. “You can rescue kids all day long but if you don’t develop relationships at the top and the bottom it will never stop,” they told us.
When girls enter the home, there is a sign that outlines their goals for the girls, so that they can understand that they will be cared for.
Thrive is big on dreams and goals, and helping their girl achieve. “Our goals for them are the same for anyone has for their own kids,” Jen said. They take a customized approach to each child, helping to enroll them in vocational school or university, giving scholarships, and teaching employable skills. Here, a wall of the girls’ vision boards.
They also offer a myriad of services to help the girls heal, from counseling to art therapy to music lessons. It really is a rich environment that promotes psychological health and safety.
At both aftercare facilities, I asked about family reunification, and received the same answer: it depends. Family reunification is taken on a case-by-case basis. In some instances, it’s not safe. Sometimes the family was a part of involving the child in the sex trade to begin with. In some cases, kids live in an aftercare facility for a bit and then return home. For other kids, returning home is not a viable option, so the facility will help them launch into adulthood.
It was beyond disturbing to confront the horrifying reality of the child sex trade, but it was also a comfort to know that there are people fighting to combat it, and to restore the victims. I love that Liberty Alliance is looking at this problem from all sides. As I mentioned, in my next post I will outline the important work they are doing to help prevent, rescue, and prosecute.  I will also be outlining how you can get involved. My goal? 100 new supporters this Independence Day . . . 100 people willing to promote freedom for those who don’t have it. If you are compelled already, here’s how you can join me.

First, click on the blue “add your link” button below to indicate your commitment. (You don’t have to actually add a link. But if you have a blog or a website, go for it! If you want to donate anonymously, that’s cool too! Just write ANONYMOUS below.)

 

Then, go click on the image below (or here) to sign up as a monthly donor for Delta team:

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And last, consider sharing this on your social media channels. Thank you!!

That’s what SHE said: The Exodus Road

I’ve been sharing stories from my trip to SE Asia, but my friends who went have also been sharing. Their posts echo my own experience and illuminate more of the work of the Exodus Road in their fight against trafficking . . . I hope you will check them out. that's what she said new Meet The Exodus Road | Dooce

It is this organization’s attitude toward building alliances that I think will ultimately make it successful. They haven’t come into this part of the world with a Superman complex. The easy, ineffective fix would be to find a young girl who has been sold or is being forced against her will into the commercial sex trade, pay for her services and then bring her to a safe house. Their “rescue” numbers would be a significant multiple of what they are if they operated like this, but in turn they would be creating vacuums that would be filled immediately with another human body. The brothel owner would simply go out and buy another girl

A Million Ways To Say It Wrong. | Jamie The Very Worst Missionary

But will she live? Will the girl smuggled across the boarder to be sold for sex daily live? I mean, like, will she really live? Will she live a beautiful life? Will she live a life marked by love? Will she know she’s valuable? Will she ever learn her real worth? I don’t know. But I know I have the power to send out the ones who can find her. I know I have the power to equip those who will do everything possible to make her free. I have the power to bid her “rescue is coming”, even from my place of comfort across the sea. So I will. I want to leverage my power for those with none, so, yes, I’ll do my best to tell her story. There are a million ways to say it all wrong, but I’m going to say it anyway, because this space, this audience, this readership, and these words are the most powerful thing I’ve been given.

image [photo by Heather Armstrong] Delicate / Brutal | SEMIPROPER

I cried with a sex worker. I rode on the back of motorcycle taxis. I reviewed pedophile cases, and now I can’t get the images out of my head. I watched an undercover investigation happen from the back seat of an SUV and ducked every time I saw headlights. I questioned God. I met a baby elephant. I watched horrible things unfold but I sat on my hands and smiled – as instructed – so as not to cause suspicion. I met people who have devoted their lives to rescuing victims and prosecuting evil people. I laughed with my friends in the back of a pickup truck and rubbed at the pain under my sternum by myself in the shower. I danced on a rooftop. I visited a Buddhist temple. I sat and talked with girls identified by the number pinned to their bikini bottoms. I connected with them. I felt a deep love for them. I wanted to rescue them. I left them behind.

Some Initial Thoughts From A Travel-Addled Brain | Dooce

Earlier in the week I asked one of the investigators if he ever got into these situations and was tempted to take a girl home either to set her free or even temporarily relieve her from one night of barbarity. Did he ever let his professional guard down and experience that kind of response? He shook his head but not to say no. “Every single time, Heather,” he answered. “Every single case. It’s not about being professional. We’re always professional. But you don’t ever get used to this. It’s about being human. What kind of human would I be if I didn’t feel that way every single time?”

3 Tangible Ways To Stop Sex-Trafficking In The U.S. | Jamie The Very Worst Missionary

So instead of filling your head with a bunch of internet facts and figures that may or may not mean anything, find out what sex-trafficking actually looks like in your town. Call the police station and ask if they have an anti sex-trafficking unit and, if so, see if someone from the unit will talk to you about it. If sex-trafficking is a problem in your area, learn who’s at risk to be trafficked and who’s doing the trafficking, and learn about who is driving the demand. Research non-profits near you who are working in this field; pull their tax info, review their track record, compare their claims against what you’ve learned from the police, and if you like what you see, give them your time and money. Be informed about the place you live, and then get involved accordingly.

Oh No, Dooce Found Jesus | Dooce

And then I, the atheist, offered to him, “I think that if the Jesus you read about in the Bible were on the earth today he’d be doing the work that your team is doing. His message is that agnostic undercover investigator who collects evidence in brothels, it’s that Buddhist man housing 40 abused children, it’s that Hindu counselor who offers psychotherapy to rescued girls. I can tell my readers I found God.”

Bright Lights And Brothels | SEMIPROPER

The girl with the tall white boots may be here because she wants to, I recognize. Because the money’s good. Or maybe because her boyfriend knows he can remain jobless and carefree as long as she’s turning at least a few tricks a night. The bored-looking girl with the heavy bangs may be from a small village where a man promised her parents a good job working at a restaurant, making enough to support herself, her parents, her brothers and sister, but she ends up being enslaved. “Raped and beaten for a week to break her spirit,” Matt had told me. He mentioned the words “professional rapists” and I’ve still not wrapped my head around that concept. After the breaking week she may have been told that she’ll still get to send money to her family, but if she runs? Doesn’t cooperate? They’ll go after her little sister next. Another might have been taken across country borders at the age of 14, passport taken away, now in debt bondage to her pimp. Her virginity’s been auctioned off for $300. They call her a “fresh girl.” She can’t run for help. She can’t speak the language.

But What About Trafficking In The United States? | The Exodus Road

It’s why I send my husband out into brothels to look for children. It’s why we work long hours to raise funding for equipment that trusted police partners have asked for. It’s why we advocate and travel and write and have meetings, and quite frankly, bleed-out. Because a girl or boy in a brothel, and even millions of them, are begging for freedom, are desperate for it. And it’s not a half-hearted effort that will provide it for them.

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What I learned about sex trafficking from an evening with two prostitutes

    I mentioned in a previous post that I had a lot of apprehension about going on a trip to S.E. Asia to learn about sex trafficking. When I saw our schedule, one thing stood out to me: we were scheduled to hire a prostitute and pay her for an interview so that we could hear her story. This seemed daunting to me. I mean, it was one thing to see these girls lined up like an auction block at the “go-go bars” (brothels), but sitting face-to-face felt so raw and so personal and so vulnerable. I was also really worried because I didn’t want the situation to feel exploitive. I didn’t want the girls we talked to to feel like we were judging them or mothering them or viewing them through a lens of cultural superiority. So when this night came around, I was nervous.

    Around 9pm, we set out to hire two girls. We decided to interview two at once because it might put them more at ease. Laura Parker, the wife of the Exodus Road’s director, took a translator and walked along the beach-front street that is lined with freelance prostitutes and talked with several girls before deciding on two that stood out to her. The girls understood that we were writers and wanted to share their story, and they agreed on a price that was very generous for their time. We agreed to obscure their faces and use pseudonyms. I’ll call them Sai and Nam.

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    [photo by Heather Armstrong]

    We interview Sai and Nam in our hotel room . . . the four bloggers and Laura seated on the ground or on the bed, with the girls and a translator on the sofa. We had pre-arranged a list of questions that were intended to be respectful but also to get to the realities of their lives. Well, we didn’t even make it through the first question. The girls were so eager to talk. My fears about respect and exploitation were completely wrong . . . they wanted to be heard. They talked so much that at the hour point, which is the time we agreed to pay, we had to stop them and offer to pay them for another hour. They readily agreed . . . I think they would have kept talking even without the extra money. They had stories they wanted to get out.

    Nam shared her story first. Nam was a cute girl who appeared in her late 20’s. She came in wearing a very short skirt and grabbed a towel from the bathroom to place over her legs. Despite seeming a bit embarrassed at first, she quickly spilled her story. She grew up in a household with a verbally abusive mother. Her father abandoned them. She said she never felt loved. She turned to drinking and partying in her teen years. At one point, her mother told her that since she was sexually active, she might as well make some money doing it.

    So Nam called her mom’s bluff. She got in touch with a pimp who smuggled her into Bahrain to work in the sex trade. Nam said that her intention was to call her mom and tell her that she’d moved to Bahrain to be a prostitute to prove a point (and get a little revenge.) A typical teenage move . . . a dramatic phone call home which would hopefully get her mom’s attention, but Nam had no intention of staying. She realized upon arriving that she was not allowed to leave. Her pimp took her passport and informed her that she was now in debt for the costs of her travel. She worked for two years to pay that debt off. At that point she was finally able to make money on her own, and Nam stayed on because she didn’t know what else to do with her life. During this time, she became addicted to crystal meth and met a boyfriend she describes as abusive. She became pregnant but had an abortion. She was still a teenager. She was tearful as she recounted the way her treated her, but he was a ticket out of Bahrain and back to her home country. Eventually, she made her way to the town where she currently lives, because she had heard prostitutes could make a lot of money. The town’s number one economy is catering to foreign men seeking sex.

    Nam has since had another child, a 9-month-old who lives with her boyfriend, who doesn’t work. She is frustrated that her boyfriend doesn’t have a job, but her earning potential as a prostitute is much great than his so he pressures her to continue. She feels trapped, both in her job and in her relationship.

    Sai appeared a bit more shy than Nam, but as her friend shared she became bolder. It was clear these two were a huge source of support for one another. Sai’s story was quite similar to Nam’s. In her late teens, Sai was recruited to go work in Singapore. She was taken there and then her passport was taken away. Like Nam, she found herself in a situation of bondage . . . she was forced to pay off a debt to her pimp for several years.

    The similar stories these girls told made it abundantly clear that while sex work may be a choice for many women, it’s also true that many women were initially trafficked into prostitution. Just the previous day, we’d sat in the offices of the Exodus Road as they explained the difference forms of trafficking, and the questions they ask to ascertain whether or not a person is a victim of trafficking:

    • have they been taken to another country where they don’t know the language and are isolated?
    • do they have few resources to leave?
    • have they had their passport taken away?
    • are they free to leave or are they being held?
    • has someone created a debt that they must work off?

        We asked two random women from the red light district to tell us their stories, and unknowingly found ourselves face-to-face with the heartbreaking reality of sex trafficking. These women had experienced it first-hand. And yet, they didn’t even see themselves as victims. This was normal to them . . . a part of life that was familiar to many of their peers. Something so unthinkable to us is commonplace with them.

        Sai revealed that she had three children she supports who live elsewhere. Two live with their father’s mother and one lives with her own mom. She also told us of her boyfriend from Singapore. He’s married and has children back in Singapore, and acts as her pimp here. She’s supporting all of them. As she tells the story, you can hear the frustration and anger in her voice. “I’m so stupid,” she says. “Because I love him and I know I should leave him but I don’t. He takes advantage of me but I love him.”  We all assure her that we get it . . . that we’ve stayed in bad relationships. There are tears and laughter as we relate to this human experience but also a recognition that her reality goes beyond what any of us can understand.

        She tells us how lucky we are to be able to live with our children. She doesn’t have lofty dreams or occupational goals . . . her one wish is to be able to live and work in a way that allows her daily interactions with her kids. Something most of us take for granted.

        Sai then reveals that she is pregnant. She tells s that she is 4 months along and hoping she can work until month 7. We ask her how that works with clients and she explains that she can usually hide it at first, but that many clients get angry when they discover it. “They see my belly and then the want to pay me less.” She has worked through all of her pregnancies. After each child, she started working again within a few months.

        At this point, Sai, who was initially the shyer of the two, turns to her friend and whispers emphatically. It’s clear that she is urging Nam to tell us something. And after some deliberation Nam tells us that she, too, is pregnant. She is visibly upset to share this.

        We tell them that we think they are brave. We tell them that we are proud of how committed they are to supporting their kids. We tell them that we would do the same thing, and we mean it. We tell them that we think it is unfair.

        They nod in agreement.

        “You are the lucky ones” Sai says, motioning to us through tears. “You have an education. You get to go to work and be with your kids. That is all we want. But we cannot raise our kids doing the other jobs. We won’t make enough money. We can’t leave this work.”

        In that room, I think we all felt an overwhelming sense of empathy and connection. I fought the urge to try to fix things, and instead to just sit with them and empathize and listen. We reiterated that we felt it was not fair that such disparities exist based on where we were born. They seemed relieved to hear us acknowledge that. I think we all sat in that room feeling that we are so much alike. I couldn’t help thinking that it is women who really need to rise up and help one another. These girls are our sisters, born into different circumstances, and doing what they need to do to survive.

        As they left, Sai and Nam told us how much the interview meant to them. “This money means something because we made it with our stories and not our bodies. And because we made this money from women.”


        And then . . .

        “Men come from all over the world for our bodies. They don’t want to know us. They only want sex.
        But you came to know us. You heard our stories.”

        Our time with Nam and Sai was incredibly emotional, and there is no way I convey the sense of female connection in the room that night. It was also a heartbreaking smack in the face with my own privilege . . . privileges that I hadn’t even been aware of. The privilege to get an education, of course . . . I knew that. But the simple privilege of raising my own kids, of owning my own body, of not needing to sell myself to survive.

        We are swimming in privilege, but I refuse to swim in guilt. This encounter only strengthened my
        resolve to use my privilege, and I’m proud to share their stories here, because they want us to hear them. Their stories are important. And their stories, particularly of being placed into indentured servitude, represent so many other women in S.E. Asia. They represent why the work that Exodus Road does is so important.

        So thanks for listening, and thanks for sharing.

        I still have a few more stories to share in the next week. I want to do diligence to each one. And then I’ll be offering some ideas of how you can get involved with the work the Exodus Road is doing.

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      The difference between sex trafficking and sex tourism

       
      Today is our last day in S.E. Asia. We’ve had a full trip . . . I’m still processing what we’ve seen and learned, and have so much that I want to share. We hit the ground running and had little down-time so I wasn’t able to write as much as I’d hoped from the road, but have so much I still want to share and I hope you’ll still follow along. I thought I would start with explaining exactly what sex trafficking is, and how it is different than sex tourism.
       
      One of the first things we did was visit a red light district in a city with a thriving “sex tourism” industry. Exodus Road wanted us to see this to provide some context for sex trafficking. It’s easy to confuse all sex tourism with trafficking, and there are certainly some blurred lines. However, not all sex tourism involves human trafficking. For many women in S. E. Asia, sex work (or prostitution as it’s often referred to) is a chosen profession made by an adult over the age of consent. In the particular country we are visiting, sex tourism is big business, accounting for a large chunk of the nation’s economy. While there is much that could be said about the dynamics of sex tourism . . . men coming from all over the world to pay for sex with young women, and an economy and culture that makes women feel like they have few other options . . . Exodus Road‘s mission is to address trafficking specifically. The United Nations defines trafficking as:
       

      The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.

       
      When looking at sex trafficking, Exodus Road is investigating cases in which minors are involved in sex work, as well as cases where women are kept as prisoners, are unable to leave, are not there by their own consent, or have been coerced or manipulated into an indentured servitude relationship. Unfortunately, these kinds of scenarios are quite common . . . in fact, almost every evening we met women who appeared to meet some criteria for trafficking. I’m going to share those stories over the next week or so.
       
       
      The majority of women working in the sex industry in S.E. Asia are not trafficked, and as uncomfortable as it was to visit these red light districts, it was useful to understand the landscape. The red light districts we visited were packed with “go-go bars.” A typical go-go bar features a crowded stage of women, dancing in little to no clothing, wearing numbers so that patrons could indicate to the “mamasan” (female pimp) what girl they would like to choose. These clubs were startling. My only exposure to strip clubs has been in movies or tv (hello every HBO show ever), but this was quite different. The stages were crowded and there was little emphasis on performing or dancing. Most of the girls seemed distant and bored as they stood on the stage. The audience was predominantly male, though we were not the only women and our presence did not seem unusual. Seeing all of the girls on the stage wearing numbers conjured up imagery of a slave auction. It seemed so dehumanizing.
       
      The process in most clubs is that patrons can choose a girl to sit with them (for a drink fee), and then, if mutually agreed on, could then take the woman to a “short-time room” for sex. The mamasan takes the money for this exchange and then the girl gets a cut. This isn’t an underground process- it’s blatant and obvious and talked about openly. On our visits, we split up into pairs with the Exodus Road investigators and each choose some girls to chat with by buying them a drink. We met several girls . . . all of them very sweet. A few of the girls were so smart and witty that I thought, in different circumstances, we would likely be friends. Most of the girls we met had children they were supporting. It was clear that most of the girls in the mainstream red light districts were there by their own consent. However, there were a few girls that appeared to be under age 18.
       
      Some of the girls we sat with made it clear that they were open to being hired for sex. Some were almost aggressive about it. Others indicated that they didn’t “go with men” and instead made their money from the commission they get from having patrons buy them drinks. In addition to the go-go bars, there were hundreds of women who stood on the nearby streets who worked as freelancers, and negotiated their own rates. One nights, we hired two freelance sex workers and paid their evening fee in exchange for an interview. This was the most poignant moment of the trip, and their life stories really illustrated the fine line between voluntary sex work and trafficking. I will share those stories in a later post.
       
      After we had a chance to see the mainstream commercial sex tourism areas, the investigators took us to some of the more rural brothels, which are the focus of most of their investigations. The majority of sex trafficking cases occur outside of the main cities. Often, trafficked women are kept in more rural locations or in secretive clubs outside the main strip. In many cases, girls have been removed from their own country and their passports have been taken away, so that they have no other options. Some of them came knowing they would be doing sex work, and others were manipulated or deceived, but it both cases they have no ability to leave. In other cases a “debt bondage” is established where women have been given a ticket to travel but then must pay back the loan through work. Often that loan amount equals over a year of work, and women are on restricted movements with their pimp keeping tabs on them at all times. In other cases, girls (or boys) are kidnapped or purchased from their parents.
       
      I will be sharing more stories in the coming weeks, including the poignant interviews we had with two women and our night observing an investigation at a more rural brothel. After seeing it first-hand, I have a lot of Big Feelings about the sex industry. I saw a lot of lonely men, and a lot of entitled men, and met some lovely girls who have big goals but feel like this lifestyle is the best (or only) way to support their families. There were many aspects of it that were disturbing to me. But I wanted to clarify that the focus of our trip is not the sex industry, but rather the girls and boys who are unwilling victims. More on that to come.