Human trafficking is more common than some may think, and experts say it can take place in an average neighborhood with people who may operate undetected. In Texas, it’s especially common: the state has the second-highest number of cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Now, experts warn it’s on the rise nationwide, which means even more survivors could be looking for help.
Brooke Axtell founded the group She Is Rising, an organization that helps women and girls who’ve experienced rape, abuse and sex trafficking. Axtell is also a survivor, and recently published the book “Beautiful Justice: Reclaiming My Worth After Human Trafficking and Sexual Abuse.”
“My mom was hospitalized with some chronic health issues, and I was entrusted to the care of a nanny who became my trafficker,” Axtell says. “I was trafficked at the age of 7.”
Axtell says the trafficking stopped when her mom came home from the hospital and fired the nanny. Her story shows how trafficking can happen in places and circumstances that many might overlook; Axtell’s own mother didn’t realize her daughter was being trafficked at first. But Axtell says most trafficking cases start when a man presents himself as a potential boyfriend to a young woman.
“So, typically targeting girls in their teens, sometimes into their early 20s, and often the trafficker will step in at a point where they’re experiencing emotional vulnerability, financial vulnerability,” Axtell says.
She says kids in the foster care system, as well as those experiencing homelessness and those who’ve previously experienced abuse are most at risk of trafficking. She says in her experience, trafficking rarely involves kidnapping; rather, it involves the trafficker building a relationship with the victim.
“In about 70 percent of the cases that I’ve worked on … it’s more, somebody stepping in and grooming the young woman, promising to be with them and take care of them, and then using violence and psychological coercion to then exploit them in the sex trade,” Axtell says.
Many survivors will live with the effects of the abuse long after the trafficking ends. Axtell says survivors have higher risk of mental health issues like depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as substance abuse. But Axtell says recovery can also be an empowering experience for survivors.
“There are powerful ways in which we can heal and discover our resilience and value our voices,” Axtell says.
She encourages survivors to find help if they haven’t already. For those who want to help survivors, Axtell says they can support organizations like The SAFE Alliance in Austin, or her organization, She Is Rising. Axtell also says educating kids appropriately about their sexuality, about consent and about the hallmarks of a healthy relationship, can help stem trafficking.
“Those are things that are often not taught in schools or modeled in homes – how do we navigate relationship[s]? How do we communicate with respect? What are we teaching kids about their bodies and their boundaries and healthy sexuality? Axtell says.
She says if speaking about sexuality is taboo, kids are less likely to speak up about abuse or trafficking.
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Written by Caroline Covington.