Sex trafficking is happening in every city and could impact any individual regardless of gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic background or education. With Florida ranking third in the country for reported cases of sex trafficking, it’s important that as a community we understand the reality of this issue and commit to doing something to change it.
The indicators of trafficking and exploitation often go unseen, so when we as a community acknowledge the prevalence of sex trafficking locally, we create a safe place for survivors to be heard, believed, supported and, ultimately, for lives to be restored.
A foundational point to understand is this issue has little to nothing to do with choice, but rather the lack thereof. Nearly all survivors we work with at Created Gainesville report they were victims of childhood sexual abuse. When we talk about the grooming process of victims, the early experiences of sexual abuse are a part of most survivors’ initial grooming, which creates normalization and vulnerability of continued sexual exploitation.
Victims of sexual exploitation and sex trafficking don’t find themselves in those circumstances overnight. Rather it often is a life-long process of desensitization to being abused and taken advantage of.
Additionally, many victims of sex trafficking will be forced into prostitution, which is one of the most common forms of trafficking. This leads to countless mental and physical scars, with 68% of those involved in prostitution meeting the criteria for PTSD.
Often, these scars are manipulated by traffickers as tactics to gain and maintain control over another person; these tactics include severe forms of violence, isolation, fear, sleep deprivation, quotas, debts, shame, drugs and promises of love, protection or fast money. It is important to understand that trauma is a frequent — and, for most, a daily occurrence.
An added concern today is the prevalence of websites and online platforms which serve as a hotspot for predatory behavior. The internet adds to the shielding of this issue, meaning that more and more local youth and young adults are impacted. This needs our attention, especially that of service providers in our community, who may be the first point of contact for someone looking for help.
This phenomenon of greater online trafficking through escort ads, pornography and social networking platforms or video games, means as a community we need to stay vigilant in educating ourselves and others, while also creating safety measures and standing with those who may have experienced this reality.
As a community, we also need to recognize no two experiences of sex trafficking are the same. As much as it is our human nature to want to understand trends, norms and patterns, we must remember that with trafficking, every story and situation is unique. When we attempt to box every survivor into one narrative, we strip the ability and opportunity for survivors to be heard and to access the help needed to escape. With that, it is vital that the most important voice in the conversation about trafficking is that of survivors. We learn best from those who have lived it. No one knows as much about what the needs of survivors are along the journey of escape, healing, and restoration as the survivors themselves.
If we want to make lasting changes in our community and in the lives of survivors and those most vulnerable to sexual exploitation, we need to start with humbly acknowledging our gaps, shortcomings and lack of resources. We need to acknowledge there is a big issue in Gainesville and our surrounding communities that demands our response of action, compassion and generosity of time, resources and expertise.
According to the Tim Tebow Foundation, there are only enough safe beds in the U.S. to serve 10% of victims of sex trafficking in our country. We must do better, we can do better and Created Gainesville is working tirelessly to fill this need of more safe homes, not only for survivors in our community, but for survivors all over our country in need of a safe place to hit pause, to rest, to create stability and sustainability to heal, to rediscover themself and to overcome the impact of sex trafficking and sexual exploitation.
To learn more about Created Gainesville and find ways that you can help us reach and restore lives impacted by sex trafficking, visit www.createdgainesville.com. No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.
Alison Ungaro is the executive director at Created Gainesville which is aimed at reaching and restoring lives impacted by sex trafficking and exploitation.