Sex trafficking must be part of #MeToo movement

First published by Houston Chronicle, January 3, 2018

Last month, the #MeToo movement was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year, and rightfully so. One in 6 men and 1 in 4 women has been sexually assaulted in his or her lifetime. That being said, many #MeToo stories remain untold. In the midst of the movement, victims of child sex trafficking hid in the shadows.

One of these victims is Summer Licon, who is now 19 years old.

When I first met Summer, she wore black Converse and a grey t-shirt with “Harvard” written across the chest. Every few minutes, she pulled up the skinny jeans too big for her thin body, as she struggled to find the words she so rarely repeated.

“I was raped,” she said, hiding her pain behind her smile. But this wasn’t the first time. Since she was fourteen years old, Summer had been raped by hundreds of men.

A few years ago, I imagined Taken’s Liam Neeson riddling dozens of men with gunshots whenever I heard the term “sex trafficking.” Then, I met Summer and realized that I had it all wrong.

Like most victims, Summer doesn’t have a parent like Neeson to fight the men who raped her. In fact, she is one of the 86 percent of victims who had been abused as a child. Her mother beat and starved her until she left her on the streets. Her father was MIA.

Summer also wasn’t abducted like Neeson’s daughter. She was a fourteen-year-old girl looking for food and shelter after she became homeless. Men recognized this vulnerability and provided her basic needs in exchange for sex.

And, most importantly, Summer wasn’t trapped in the international sex trade. Born and raised in Round Rock, Texas, she was an American girl sexually exploited by American men – married, wealthy, prominent police officers, politicians, and businessmen.

In fact, Summer is one of 79,000 victims of child sex trafficking in Texas alone, but she, like many others, has fallen through the cracks. When movies dictate our perceptions of reality, we miss the victims that walk amongst us.

Tally Jorn, the Program Coordinator at Allies Against Slavery, agrees. “Only 306 of the 79,000 victims were reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline this year,” she said. “The only way to combat this statistic is by raising awareness.”

While awareness of child sex trafficking has improved with the recent hire of the director of human trafficking prevention in the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, Kim Grabert, we must do more.

We need to follow organizations like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Shared Hope International and Polaris Project to learn more about child sex trafficking. We need to listen to survivors when they share their stories.

Fortunately, the majority of Americans cannot claim #MeToo to the brutal realities of child sex trafficking. But more Summer Licons surround us than we imagine. As we enter the New Year – and the 8th annual Human Trafficking Awareness Month – we ought to start standing up for #ThemToo.

Texas law facilitates the sex trafficking industry

First published in Texas Tribune: By Katie Watson

Last month, I begged TribTalk readers not to forget the 79,000 victims of child sex trafficking in Texas in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Since then, Texas has stepped up its game, hiring its first ever director of human trafficking prevention in the Department of Family and Protective Services and providing $4.4 million to combat sex trafficking in Harris County. It even earned an “A” in Shared Hope International’s annual report on state child sex trafficking policies. That being said, Texas’ “A” is not equivalent to 100 percent.

According to Shared Hope International, a leading anti-trafficking organization, Texas scored a 93.5 percent for its child sex trafficking law. However, despite being one of only eight states to receive an “A,” Texas also continues to be one of 27 states to criminalize a child for prostitution offenses. Even though the age of consent is 17, a child can still be penalized for having sex for money in Texas.

The traffickers, or “pimps,” exploiting these young victims are also aware that Texas is failing. One way traffickers control their stable, or the group of victims under their control, is through psychological manipulation. They tell them that the law cannot protect them; that they will be penalized for their criminal acts. And, unfortunately, they are right. Texas child sex trafficking law therefore plays a role in facilitating the continuation of this criminal enterprise.

In addition to recognizing the need to decriminalize child prostitution, Shared Hope International’s report highlights a few other problems with Texas child sex trafficking law:

  • Texas law permits the promotion and selling of child sex tourism.
  • It permits traffickers to build a defense around a minor’s willingness to engage in the commercial sex act.
  • It does not require delinquent child sex trafficking victims to participate in the governor’s care coordination program to avoid adjudication. And it doesn’t allow trafficking victims to seal their juvenile criminal records unless they complete that program.
  • It prevents child sex trafficking victims from receiving crime victims’ compensation money if they committed an offense related to trafficking victimization and do not substantially cooperate with law enforcement.

Accordingly, Texas’ less-than-perfect score indicates the need to build a stronger legal framework to protect children from exploitation. The “A” grade received by Shared Hope International is a valuable marker of policy success, but we cannot become complacent with the current sex trafficking law in Texas. We must demand change.

Otherwise, 79,000 children remain exploited in Texas’ sex trafficking industry.

Otherwise, the traffickers win.


A human trafficking story that can’t be ignored

First published in Caller Times, by Katie Watson and Toni McKinley.

My Dear Fellow Americans:

While working here as a mentor in this juvenile detention center, I came across the realization that this month is “Human Trafficking Awareness Month.” Seldom, if ever, do I believe that you will hear my voice, but maybe, on this day, you will hear me.

I think I should first give the reason for my being here, since some of you may not know my history. When I was 15 years old, I ran away into the arms of a man who said he’d love and protect me. Then, the pendulum of his protection swayed. He forced and coerced me into sleeping with scores of men to earn money for him. So I am here today because girls who committed crimes under the duress of their pimp, like me, are here. I am here because, through the Survivor Sisters Leadership Program, I can be the person who was never there for me.

Beyond this, I believe I was meant to bring this program to this detention facility to bond in mutual experience with my survivor sisters and to tell the story we share with millions across the country. There can be no refuting of the fact that sex trafficking engulfs this nation. In fact, Texas is one of the most thoroughly engulfed. Its ugly record of criminalizing children for the evils of their pimps is a notorious reality. And more victims reside in this state than any other besides the Golden State. On the basis of these conditions, victims of this horrific industry seek your attention now more than ever.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by others. However, I have yet to see such a movement for child sex trafficking victims.

Instead, silence rings in the ear of every victim with piercing familiarity. I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of sex trafficking to stay silent. But when you have experienced barbaric rapes that strip your dignity, abolish your dreams and purpose at whim; when you have faced hate-filled men who curse, kick, brutalize, and kill with impunity, and your little sister is threatened to endure the same with any retaliation or refusal; when you hear your bones breaking under the weight of society’s misconceptions, and your name, like watercolor, becomes blurred with shades of “Sugar” and “Ho” and “Bitch;” when you’re forced to find sleep in run-down motel rooms between sweat-drenched pillows and terror-filled dreams; when an investigator reaffirms your entrapment as he concocts an answer for your asking in agonizing pathos, “Why is there no place for children like me?,” and you feel yourself drowning in tears that no one else can see, and you hear yourself screaming words that no one else can hear; when you see yourself begin to distort your personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward all people; when you are harried by day and haunted by night, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodyness” — then you will understand why we can no longer remain silent.

One may well ask, “How can you expect me to lend my voice for those who break the law?” The answer is found in the fact that all human beings are interrelated. We cannot sit idly by whilst 79,000 children are sold for sex within this state’s boundaries, criminal record or not. We cannot follow the “do-nothingism” of the complacent. The Survivor Sisters Leadership Program is the beginning of the end where our voices will be heard and no longer silenced by the injustice of negligence. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and we no longer allow children to endure brutalization at the hands of the greedy, the evil, and the silent. That time must be now.

Yours truly,

A Survivor Leader