Sex trafficking is happening in the U.S. — and young people need to know about it.
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MANY

Have you witnessed sex trafficking? Your first response is probably "no." But many of us have seen it — we just didn't realize it at the time.

Maybe you remember a friend that suddenly started coming to school with much nicer clothes and a new cellphone, which she said were "gifts" from someone older. Or you may recall that guy who seemed a little bit too old to be dating a classmate, even if she was "technically 18." Maybe you encountered someone's sketchy "older friend" at a party who had the hookup for drugs or alcohol, or a classmate who wanted to “introduce you" to an unfamiliar crowd.

It might have been the woman who hung around the bus stop for no clear reason, the man who was chatting up teens at rest stops, or a friend's "modeling manager" making promises that just seemed too good to be true.


The reality is that sex trafficking doesn't just happen in faraway places. In fact, young people are sexually exploited — forced to perform sexual acts for money or other resources like food, shelter, or support — in every state in the U.S. This even includes sex trafficking of youth under the age of 18.

The reality is, though, that we aren't always quick to recognize it.

Photo by Victor Van Welden/Unsplash.

Learning what sex trafficking looks like is the first step to ensuring it doesn't happen to us or someone we care about. These 15 facts about youth sex trafficking and exploitation in the U.S. are a great place to start.

1. Yes, sexual exploitation could happen to anyone — including you.

While some youth, like those who are homeless or transgender, are especially vulnerable, the reality is that victims do exist across every demographic. They could be the class valedictorian, the boy who lives across the street from you, or the captain of the cheer squad.

“The victims that I come in contact with come from all different walks of life," says Mirielle Milne, Youth Catalyst for MANY and Advocate for The Jonah Project. “But I do think people get it in their mind that it is a certain type of person."

Traffickers don't discriminate and they're experienced in manipulation. They're looking for a person's vulnerabilities, and if they're able to find them, virtually anyone can be a target.

2. Traffickers may take on a generous and caring persona as part of a tactic called "grooming."

“Grooming" follows a few predictable steps. First a victim is targeted, usually because they appear to be struggling emotionally, have lower self-esteem, or need resources like a job, money, or a place to live.

The trafficker then establishes trust by befriending the victim all while learning more about them, like where they live, who their family and friends are, and what their insecurities might be.

3. And at first, the behavior of a sexual trafficker might not seem threatening at all.

Traffickers know that before they can exploit someone, they first have to earn their trust.

For example, a victim might be led to believe that a person they've connected with online just wants to be a friend. They might even help them through a difficult time. According to Milne, this kind of behavior is designed to make victims feel cared for, special, and even protected.

But this “friend" will gradually become a little more than friendly, perhaps even making grand, romantic gestures and promises.

4. Trafficking can even begin with something that seems harmless, like a job opportunity, gift, or innocent “favor."

For example, a trafficker posing as a modeling manager might set up a careful ruse by taking a victim to photoshoots and gigs that seem perfectly legitimate. Other times, traffickers might offer to help a struggling teen by buying them clothes or lending them money. Sometimes, it's even a family member that will lure youth in with a “job," insisting they need help to make ends meet.

This is all in an effort to make the victim feel as if they “owe" something to the trafficker, which they'll use later on to pressure and control their victim.

Arash Ghafoori, Executive Director at the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth (NPHY), says it's that “need" that becomes the entry point into exploitation. “[Traffickers] lure youth into victimization — whether it be through love, or through drugs, or through support," he explains. “[Whatever youth] are desperately seeking."

Youth Survivor, Kristi House Project GOLD.

5. But sexual exploitation doesn't always happen overnight.

Part of why exploitation is so sinister is that it can happen gradually, making it more difficult to see at first. According to Lenore Jean-Baptiste, Project Coordinator at NPHY, some traffickers take a year or more to lure their victims and earn their trust before ever trying to sexually exploit them. Other times, an exploitative family member or peer might take advantage of the trust they've already earned to manipulate victims.

6. The trust they earn allows them to slowly escalate their abuse.

As a trafficker becomes a more central part of their victim's life, they begin to isolate them from family and friends. This can involve pitting them against their loved ones, or even controlling their phone and internet usage.

When the victim becomes completely dependent, the trafficker then demands sexual acts as repayment for the “debt" owed.

As Ghafoori explains, “As that dependency — whether it be from a relationship or a resource point of view — is developed, it turns into the sexual exploitation … these are used as tools for trade."

7. And traffickers are getting smarter about how they find and learn about their victims, too.

Social media is a tool often used by traffickers. Not only is it easy to find and contact victims through social media, it's easy to gather information about them, and keep track of their whereabouts and their support system.

“Youth are not [always] going through the person's page to see who they are," explains Jean-Baptiste.

“They introduce themselves via social media, and a lot of times, [they're] promising careers," she continues. At a time in which self-made stars are born online, the prospect of a modeling gig coming from Instagram doesn't seem so far-fetched.

8. And once they have information on their victims, traffickers can blackmail them.

Many traffickers use threats to keep victims under their control. They might threaten to harm a victim's family members or friends, or claim that they'll publish photos or videos of the abuse to shame and expose their victim.

Some traffickers coerce victims into having children as well, and will blackmail victims using their children as leverage, either by threatening to take them away or harm them.

9. Fear of law enforcement can make it difficult for victims to reach out for help, too.

Traffickers can also take advantage of an existing fear of law enforcement, making claims that victims won't be believed, or that they will be arrested for prostitution or drug use if they come forward.

People of color who might have an existing fear of police brutality struggle even more with this. “Now we're talking about historical trauma between communities [of color] and police officers," Jean-Baptiste says. “A lot of times traffickers can use those kinds of stories and experiences to make individuals feel fearful."

10. Self-blame can also make it difficult to leave even though it's never the victim's fault.

Many victims feel responsible for the abuse and exploitation they've endured, which can, in turn, make them believe they're not victims at all. Self-blame is often a big part of the trauma they experience. They feel that, by accepting money, gifts, or friendship, the abuse was their own fault.

But even if they feel that way, victims are never to blame. “It doesn't matter if you got money, it doesn't matter if you got to keep all the money," Jean-Baptiste says. “If you felt you had to engage in that activity for any survival or need … then it's exploitation."

Advocates like Milne agree, affirming that when we're talking about youth, sexual exploitation is never a job or a choice — and certainly never a victim's fault.

Traffickers use powerful abuse tactics to ensure that victims will give into their demands, and that manipulation is designed to be difficult to identify and resist. The only person responsible for abuse is the perpetrator of that abuse — no matter what a victim does or doesn't do.

11. Trauma can even be powerful enough to drive victims back to their traffickers after they've escaped their control.

If you've ever seen a victim of abuse and wondered why they didn't just leave or why they went back, it's a phenomenon known as “trauma-coerced bonding."

This is an emotional attachment that victims form with their abusers, and it's unfortunately very common. Traffickers' initial acts of kindness and generosity make a strong impression on their victims. As the exploitation worsens, the trafficker can keep up that image by switching back and forth between positive attention and abusive behavior to keep victims hooked.

Photo by Carlos Arthur/Unsplash.

“We're trying to tell [these youth] that this person is a trafficker… how do you say that to somebody about the person they've been having dinner with every single night for the last year?" says Jean-Baptiste. “It's hard because they've now had a relationship… [sometimes with] years involved."

12. But there is hope and support waiting for victims.

Despite these obstacles, help for victims does exist. “There is help and there are people that are looking for [you] and do care," Jean-Baptiste says.

If you believe that you or someone you know might be at risk or is being victimized, the National Human Trafficking Hotline can help. You can text 233733, use the chat feature on their website, or call them at 888-373-7888. They can connect you with local organizations and support to figure out your next steps.

If there's any possibility that an abusive person has access to your phone or internet history, clear your internet history, and consider using a payphone or borrowing someone else's phone instead.

Photo by Jenna Jacobs/Unsplash.

13. Recognizing the red flags can make a big difference, too.

Knowing what to look for, and being aware of what healthy relationships do and don't look like, can be lifesaving for young people.

For example, Jean-Baptiste advises caution when someone offers you a gift. Before accepting anything, always ask if there's an expectation to pay that person back or reciprocate.

And if anyone tells you to do something with your body or pressures you, it's time to reach out for support. “You should have the full right to consent to what you do with your body," she says.

14. Don't allow a trafficker to be the first person to validate someone who's struggling.

If you're not a victim yourself, it's important to check in with your peers who may be having a tough time. If a trafficker is the first person to reach out to someone who's struggling, those individuals are much more likely to be exploited.

“We need to be more involved in our community," Milne says, noting that young people who feel supported by those around them are less likely to look to an abusive person for validation.

Jean-Baptiste says this is why young people whose families or communities have all but abandoned them, like homeless and LGBTQ+ youth, are frequent targets. “[Traffickers are] willing to have [a] conversation… that we're not having in our community."

If communities can fill the needs that traffickers try to exploit, those young people would be much safer.

15. And remember, your body is yours. Period.

Too often, it's suggested to young people — especially teens — that they should defer to the adults in their lives when making decisions. However, when it comes to our bodies, the only person in charge is you.

Photo by Oscar Obians/Unsplash.

“No one should tell you that you have to do anything with your body… [they have] no right, no access, no privilege," Jean-Baptiste says. “You belong to you."

When we're educated and vigilant, we can make a difference in our communities! Learn more about how to get involved, and help us work towards a future where youth are no longer victimized.

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

When "bobcat" trended on Twitter this week, no one anticipated the unreal series of events they were about to witness. The bizarre bobcat encounter was captured on a security cam video and...well...you just have to see it. (Read the following description if you want to be prepared, or skip down to the video if you want to be surprised. I promise, it's a wild ride either way.)

In a North Carolina neighborhood that looks like a present-day Pleasantville, a man carries a cup of coffee and a plate of brownies out to his car. "Good mornin!" he calls cheerfully to a neighbor jogging by. As he sets his coffee cup on the hood of the car, he says, "I need to wash my car." Well, shucks. His wife enters the camera frame on the other side of the car.

So far, it's just about the most classic modern Americana scene imaginable. And then...

A horrifying "rrrrawwwww!" Blood-curdling screaming. Running. Panic. The man abandons the brownies, races to his wife's side of the car, then emerges with an animal in his hands. He holds the creature up like Rafiki holding up Simba, then yells in its face, "Oh my god! It's a bobcat! Oh my god!"

Then he hucks the bobcat across the yard with all his might.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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