You are looking at potential human trafficking victims. That’s me on the left, when I was about 20. You can also see me in the group photo, second from the left, with long hair, at age 16. The fact is, any young person could land in the sex industry, for any number of reasons and due to various combinations of circumstances.
“Not you!,” you might well exclaim. Actually, yes! It could have happened to me, to you, to anyone we know. Although I was a high-achieving student in an upper middle-class suburban high school, I was innocent, naive, and completely oblivious to the perils of real life. Like most teens, I was insecure, lacking self-confidence on a personal level (apart from my good grades), and just wanted to be liked. I was never a member of the popular group, never a part of the “in crowd.” I recall being picked first by my fellow students to be a part of their spelling bee team or math team, but I was hopelessly shunned when it came to being picked at all for a sports team in my phys ed classes. When the team captains selected their teams, the only people left standing, unchosen, were another misfit girl and I.
Although such instances of shame and rejection might appear trivial, such situations shape the self-image and psyche of most of us. Young people are particularly vulnerable. Traffickers prey upon pre-teens and teenagers who suffer from insecurity and lack of confidence. I desperately wanted to be viewed as pretty (which I was convinced I was not) and popular (which I definitely was not). It was not popular to be brainy in the anti-establishment, anti-intellectualism culture prevalent in my teen years. I felt like a misfit most of the time, despite my efforts to fit in with my peers.
Mercifully, I had the support and encouragement of amazingly caring parents. They told me regularly that I could be anything I wanted to be, that I could accomplish whatever I set my mind to, and that I would be successful. Most importantly, they assured me that God loved me. Somehow, despite some twists and turns (years of anorexia and bulimia), the truths they spoke resonated in the deepest recesses of my heart, and I managed to complete my university degrees and secure a job with a living wage. Of course, my parents paid my college expenses, as the jobs I found in the summer did not pay for more than my books for the year (if that!).
In retrospect, I am aware of at least two situations when I could easily have been kidnapped into human trafficking. When I entered college (at the ripe old age of 16), I met a young foreign student at an all-dorm dance. Anyone could attend, so I gave no thought to the fact that he did not live in our dorm. As my interests were foreign cultures and languages, I was happy to talk with him, and he invited me to have pizza at a local restaurant the next Saturday. During lunch, we spoke in detail about his family, his country, and our mutual interests. Afterward, he invited me to his place to see photos of his family and home; intrigued, I readily agreed. However, when he padlocked the door to view the photos, an internal alarm bell sounded within me . I hastily paged through the album and felt to take my leave with a reasonable excuse of homework to be done. Fortunately, I recognized that something was wrong. Was he a trafficker? Probably not. However, he could have easily raped me and insisted I marry him. Due to our completely different faiths and world views, my university aspirations could have come to an abrupt halt.
The summer after my sophomore year in college, I worked at a castle hotel in southern Germany, about a twenty-minute car drive from a beautiful Bavarian village. My friends and I often hitchhiked into town on our days off. Since I spoke German, I always sat in the front seat with the driver. One particular afternoon, I was disturbed by the questions asked by the driver (of a very expensive BMW sedan). He wondered if my friends and I worked at the castle, to which I responded that we did. He gave me his card, told me that he frequently had driven other castle hotel employees to town, and offered to pick us up whenever we needed a lift. Feeling something was off, I glanced down and noticed he had leather driving gloves on his hands. To my young mind, those gloves, combined with his deep, authoritative yet soothing voice, triggered concern. Once again, the alarm bells were resounding in my head. I resolved to change our specific destination (which I had yet to tell him), so I requested that he please drop us off at a particular intersection upon entering town (as opposed to our actual destination). The atmosphere of threat in the “favor” of the ride was palpable. Fortunately, this man let us out of the car at the designated intersection. We fled into a nearby place of business to recover from the terror that had gripped us.
God had protected me in spite of my foolishness and my personal lack of judgment. However, I had come perilously close to serious circumstances. Those are not the only situations where my course of life could have been radically altered for the worse, but the point is made!
People who work in the sex industry are just like you and me. They are ordinary people who have landed there for different reasons; they may have been deliberately targeted or victimized, or they may have been forced into working in the sex industry by adverse circumstances (such as financial need, lack of education, a series of failed relationships, substance abuse, abuse by family members, lack of familial support, or a combination of those factors). They deserve to know that they are valued and significant, that their lives are precious to God. They need to know that they can be free from fear and shame. That is our message, and that is why we want to support initiatives that demonstrate kindness, genuine compassion, and partnership with sex industry employees. Most of them are fathers or mothers, and they genuinely love their children. Many of them are believers and struggle with their own sense of guilt and shame; they are really no different from you or me.
Those are the reasons my husband and I are committed to The Ark Bakery & Café. The bottom line is that we are keenly aware that we ourselves could have been victims of human trafficking, had our life circumstances been less advantageous.
Of course, we are not undertaking this effort on our own. We have a small but talented core team of people who are laboring to get this project off the ground. We will feature more about them in the future.