What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas: Trapped In Sex Trafficking
Most people believe that trafficking only affects children. I get it. We picture young, impressionable kids easily coerced or kidnapped by adults. But what do you think happens when someone turns 18? Are those young people not targeted? Do traffickers kick them out on their 18th birthday? I heard one survivor leader say, “trafficking children grow up to be trafficked adults.”
With brains not fully developed in cognitive reasoning until the average of 25, it is becoming easier for traffickers to target victims ages 18-24. So, those of us who were trafficked during that age group, we slip through the cracks. We slip through the cracks of your empathy and through social services for care and through law enforcement - labeled as the “criminal”. Because of that, traffickers wait. They wait until our 18th birthdays to turn out their victims, start using peer pressure to expand sexual boundaries, or move victims to new cities without a circle of friends. They do this so that we feel trapped when it starts to get dangerous.
At 18, almost 19, I was lured to Las Vegas by a man pretending to be my boyfriend. After I was secluded from my family and friends, the trafficking began. He took me to an escort service and slapped me across the face. He told me that this is how it worked here and that he had spent a lot of money to get me here and put me up.
I just wanted things to go back to the way they were: us in love, wanting to get married and start a family. I didn’t want it to end like this…
The first time I went from “walking the carpet” (working the casinos), to “walking the blade” (walking up and down street corners) - it was frightening. What if the man that picked me up in his car never brought me back? What if he strangled me or held me at gunpoint and raped me? I was so afraid of walking the street in my dress and favorite gold shoes, the only high heels that didn’t hurt my feet after 8 hours. (It’s funny what we remember and hold on to during trauma, isn’t it?) My “boyfriend” (not turned trafficker) would drive me to a strip club and have me walk back and forth in front of the door, waiting for men to come outside. He told me to try to stay in the parking lot, so he could be there “to protect me.” I wanted to believe it was because he cared, not because he wanted to take all the money after each trick.
But mainly I walked the carpet. I walked through the casinos looking for men alone on business who were gambling and winning. I did this to hit my nightly quota or face a consequence at home. That’s what brainwashing is. It’s replacing one’s ideologies with a new set of ideologies and reinforcing it through fear of noncooperation and rewards for cooperation. *Over time, I got to know what each chip’s colors were and who to approach in the casinos.
People ask, “Why didn’t you run?” As if the fear of him beating me and the strip searches were not enough. Why didn’t we grab a grenade, jump out the window and run for freedom like some spy in a Hollywood Thriller? One hard part of being under 21 and trafficked in Vegas is getting paid by casino chips. You can’t even cash chips in until you’re 21, leaving me even more dependent on my trafficker. Even if putting money aside ever crossed my mind… stacking so I could run; it was impossible with chips. And, I was always afraid he’d find anything I’d “stack” and beat me. These $5 and $1 chips in the photo, the one with my infamous gold shoes, I found in the bottom of an old purse years after I had finally ran. Because that’s the thing – why didn’t I run? I did. That’s why I am here today.
I remember that he bought this dress in the photo to take me to a concert for my birthday. I was so excited to get a night off with “my man.” I had never been to a concert before. The day before the concert I did something that made him mad… anything could set him off. He threatened to take another girl I was trafficked with instead - as punishment. For days, I was so disappointed I cried. It was a mind game he played- the mouse trying to get the cheese, but never quite reaching it. The “if you act right you will be rewarded” mind game.
I was shocked that I found these items. The shoes and dress I had thrown in my suitcase the night I ran. It was hard to give them up. In a weird twisted way, it felt like letting them go meant that all of this would have been for nothing. You don’t know what I had to do for new shoes, for a new dress, for a night off. My blood, sweat, and tears literally paid the price for these possessions.
Today you can find them in the Truckers Against Trafficking museum. I let them represent what trafficked women go through. They stand as a reminder of the 18-24 year old forgotten young women.
“And Joshua set up at Gilgal the twelve stones they had taken out of the Jordan…He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the LORD is powerful and so that you might always reverence the LORD your God.” Joshua 4:20, 24 (NIV)