One woman’s story in sex slavery

This week I’ve been working on a story about women and girls in Maine being targeted by traffickers in this country’s sex slave trade. It’s a scary topic, for sure, and most everyone I talked to about it believes it’s a problem that’s growing here.

Because it’s a relatively newly recognized problem in Maine, there’s not a lot of historical information or statistics on the books to help put today’s sex trade in context. And efforts to protect victims from their traffickers, keeping them safe enough to turn their lives around and someday testify against the higher level traffickers, are also still in their infancy.

So while there are survivors of this business in our communities, there were none apparently ready to share the story of their specific ordeals with a reporter — and by extension, the public at large.

Second hand, though, I did get hear some truly eye-opening stories.

One sticks out, and I’ll be clear about something upfront: I’m going to tweak some of this story in an effort to protect this woman’s identity.

This woman had been taken from Portland and trafficked all over the country for years, mostly in the Midwest or to across to the Pacific. She can recall specifically being beaten to the point of unconsciousness on at least two occasions — she’d been beaten many more times, of course, but in those two instances she blacked out.

As she was losing consciousness, she later told investigators, she believed she was dying.

And yet, she couldn’t bring herself to run from her trafficker until the women she worked most closely alongside — women just like her, maybe seen by their trafficker as becoming less and less profitable as the years and drug use took their tolls — started turning up dead.

Anticipating her number was next, she fled. She was willing to face whatever prostitution or drug charges police might throw at her, because she felt the safest place for her to be at that time was in a jail cell in Maine.

Not all modern slavery is sex slavery

To be clear, not all of the world’s slave trade — worth $32 billion and victimizing 27 million people — is sex slavery.

Many people are forced into labor against their will, doing terrible jobs in terrible conditions, given little to eat and confined to cramped spaces when not put to work.

That said, data from the Polaris Project indicated that most, if not all, of the trafficking they’re seeing tied to Maine is in sex slavery. That is why I focused on the sex trade and not the larger umbrella of universal human trafficking.

Maine is becoming more popular for traffickers, but it’s still not like bigger cities or overseas hotspots

Auburn Police Chief Phillip Crowell went to India last year and saw communities where kidnapping into the sex trade was extreme, and despite major and justifiable concerns coming from Maine law enforcement and social service providers, he was quick to say what we’re seeing here is nothing like what they’re seeing there.

Here are a few excerpts from my interview with Chief Crowell that didn’t appear in the story:

One village alone has more than 100 girls taken every year to Mumbai or New Delhi. You have a range where the numbers on one end are staggering, then you have places like [Maine] where it’s new to us and we don’t have all the necessary statutes on the books. …

I don’t want to be an alarmist and say, ‘At every restaurant and every corner it’s there,’ but it’s happening in the dark areas of the communities and we need to shine a light on it.

Crowell also said the increase in sex slavery can be attributed in part to a conversion from drug traffickers. Heavy penalties are on the books for drug trafficking, and he said some involved in that business are finding that taking young girls away is cheaper and easier to conceal.

Click here now. What do you see?

Sgt. Tim Ferris with the Portland Police Department and Crowell both pointed to the ease at which women are marketed online. Ferris said they can often be found with scantily clad photos, and frequently — although not exclusively — associated with out-of-state phone numbers even though the services are being offered in Maine cities.

Crowell urged me to stop what I was doing and click on the “adult escort” category on Backpage.com.

Backpage.com, in fairness, has a big disclaimer before you click through to that category reiterating the viewer’s obligation to report instances of human trafficking or exploitation.

While I’m not a law enforcement officer and can’t say for certain which ads are cases of sex slavery and which are not, it’s striking how many of the posts match the description Ferris gave. If even a quarter of those ads are featuring women held against their will in the sex trade, the problem is bigger than most people realize.

Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.