sex trafficking

If you've watched HBO's documentary The Vow, you're familiar with Keith Raniere. The 60-year-old founded and ran NXIVM (pronounced "nexium"), a sex cult that masqueraded as an expensive, exclusive self-help group, but which appears to have served as a way for Raniere to get his rocks off while controlling and manipulating young women.

Raniere was convicted by a jury in July of 2019 of a host of crimes that include racketeering, sex trafficking, and sexual exploitation of a child, according to CNN. On Tuesday, he was handed a sentence of 120 years in prison by a federal court in Brooklyn. U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis also forbade Raniere from having any contact with NXIVM associates and fined him $1.75 million for his crimes, which Garaufis described as "cruel, perverse, and extremely serious."

The Daily Beast described the bizarre NXIVM cult as "an ultra-secretive organization that preached personal growth through sacrifice" and that had amassed an estimated 17,000 members since it started in 1998. Raniere was a charismatic leader who used the lure of the organization to indoctrinate women, pressure them into have sex with him, and engage in various forms of abuse. In a disturbing twist, the organization was largely run by women, and five of them—including Smallville actress Allison Mack and heiress to the Seagram's fortune Clare Bronfman—were charged along with Raniere, some pleading guilty to the racketeering and forced labor charges.

More than a dozen victims either spoke out or issued statements at Raniere's sentencing, including a woman who was just 15 years old when Raniere began having sex with her—or more accurately, raping her, based on her age. She said psychologically and emotionally manipulated her, leading her to cut herself off from her family. He also took nude photos of her, which led to his child pornography charge.

"While he hid our sexual relationship from others, he explained it to me by telling me that I was very mature for my age. And I know now that it was false—I was a child," her victim impact statement read. "He used my innocence to do whatever he wanted with me—not just sexually but also psychologically."

Another woman who spoke out, Kristen Keeffe, has a 13-year-old son with Raniere. She worked in NXIVM's legal department for a decade, and once she broke away from Raniere's grip, she went into hiding with her son for four years. "My child will never get back the years we spent in hiding," she said.

Testimonies included stories of "women's empowerment group" within NXIVM, which victims allege was a master-slave program in which women were forced to obey, have sex with Raniere, and to brand his initials into their skin with a cautery pen without anesthesia. Followers referred to him as "Vanguard," and saw him as an "evolved" guru of sorts, according to NPR. He promised women that he and the organization would help them get control of their lives, but then ended up controlling their lives.

"You're a liar and a sadist for getting pleasure watching our skins burn," India Oxenberg, daughter of Dynasty actress Catherine Oxenberg and NXIVM member for seven years, said to Raniere at the sentencing. "I may have to live the rest of my life with Keith Raniere's initials on my skin." She also called Raniere a "racist" and a "sexual predator," and said that he had forced her to lose so much weight that she stopped menstruating.

For his part, Raniere maintains that he is innocent of the charges. Prosecutors wrote that in his communications with his supporters (yes, he still has some), Raniere "repeatedly attempts to cast himself as a victim of persecution and harassment from the government and from unknown enemies."

According to CNN, Raniere wrote in a November 2019 email shared in a prosecutors' memo "It is tragic the current organization has been stymied by a few envious men abusing position of power in government, media, and film; some women who didn't live up to their sacred honor and vows; and people in general who just feel threatened by this idea."

At Tuesday's sentencing, Raniere expressed vague remorse for the pain of his victims, yet still maintained his innocence. "I am deeply sorry and I see that where I am is caused by me I am deeply remorseful and repentant," he said. "It is true I am not remorseful over the crimes I do not believe I have committed at all. But I am deeply remorseful of all this pain."

The pain runs deep and the descriptions of the victim's statements here are just the tip of the iceberg. "I can still hear his voice in my head" one victim said in her statement as her voice shook. "He robbed me of my youth. He used my innocence to do whatever he wanted with me."

With 120-year sentence, Raniere thankfully won't have the opportunity to victimize any more women for the rest of his life.


When someone is first escaping sex trafficking, it can feel difficult and overwhelming to imagine what's waiting on the other side.

This is especially true for children and minor youth, who make up a sizable percentage of those who are exploited in the United States. While the exact number is not known because many instances of exploitation go unreported, the National Human Trafficking Hotline and BeFree Textline report that roughly 25% of the calls they receive are from minors.

Some have never known life outside their abuse, so picturing a different life can feel impossible. But, no matter how hard it can feel at first, the other side of surviving sex trafficking is more than worth the journey it takes to get there. Because there is always hope and people that are there to help you along the journey — and no one knows this better than the survivor-leaders who've gone on to help other survivors find their strength again.

All photos by iStock unless otherwise noted.

One such leader is Dr. Karen Countryman-Roswurm, founder and executive director at the Center for Combating Human Trafficking (CCHT) at Wichita State University.

Today, she considers herself a “survivor of the systems and the streets." She has been doing anti-trafficking work locally, nationally, and internationally for 23 years.

"My personal experiences led me to this work," she says.

She was hired to do street outreach for the same shelter she once stayed at, and that helped her come to terms with what had happened to her. And because Karen had been in the system, she knew what needed to change — like talking to survivors about what they'd gone through.

"Nobody ever asked me the question, 'what happened to you while you were on the streets?,'" she says.

[rebelmouse-image 19397893 dam="1" original_size="700x467" caption="Photo by Flo Karr/Unsplash." expand=1]Photo by Flo Karr/Unsplash.

She also knew that if anyone could help facilitate that change, it was a survivor like her. So that's exactly what she set out to do.

Today, she's an inspiring leader in the anti-trafficking movement who uses her personal and professional expertise to improve services for survivors of trafficking. Karen has not only worked directly with survivors, but has also conducted decades of research on what helps people overcome experiences like abuse and exploitation. She also has a PhD in psychology — another attribute that makes her instrumental in the fight against exploitation.

Karen's developed services and programs to help survivors reclaim their lives, but she stresses that it starts with "creating a space that allows them to become more than just [their] experience."

After all, they're much more than survivors of exploitation.

Karen explains that "there's a context that created the scenario of exploitation, and that's really what you've overcome."

Finding others to talk to about the trauma you've experienced is integral to overcoming it, and eventually thriving afterwards. A supportive group of people who understand what you've been through is often the safest place to work through feelings, and eventually find some peace. It can also be helpful if you're still dealing with exploitation, and not sure how to find a way out.

[rebelmouse-image 19397894 dam="1" original_size="700x467" caption="Photo by Omar Lopez/Unsplash." expand=1]Photo by Omar Lopez/Unsplash.

Through weekly survivor meetings, mentorship, counseling, and support networks, CCHT strives to give survivors the tools they need to heal. These tools can be especially helpful for survivor youths who may need more help finding a supportive community.

Karen notes that this comes down to forming a "transformational relationship" with someone who can help a survivor "move past their need for a system, so they have support when they need it, but can [also] exist well on their own."

It's also important to remember that it takes time and lots of self-care to go from a recent survivor to being a survivor leader like Karen. Just ask Judge Robert Lung.

Robert is a District Court Judge appointed by the governor of Colorado, an appointee to the United States' Advisory Council of Human Trafficking, and a consultant for the Department of Justice Office for Victims of Crime, just to name a few of his credits.

But, while he's a well-known anti-trafficking advocate today, it took Robert, who is also a survivor of exploitation, decades to get to a place where he felt comfortable speaking publicly about his own experience.

Photo via iStock.

"I got involved when I'd had enough recovery that I could engage in that kind of work," he explains.

For Robert, that involved decades and stages of self-care.

“It's always about self-care. Being aware of your needs and meeting those needs as best you can," he continues.

Self-care is an essential part of recovery for anyone who's experienced trauma. For young people, it might mean seeing a licensed therapist or sharing feelings with a trusted friend or loved one. Or it might mean doing something as simple as spending a few minutes a day breathing in and out deliberately (inhale for three counts, hold your breath for three counts, then exhale for three counts, working your way up to eight counts). If you're not sure what to try, these easy grounding exercises are a great place to start.

You don't have to be in an active crisis to do these self-reflective things — they're just practices that help remind you that you're in control of your body and mind. And they don't have to look any one way either. Whatever you choose to do, it's about refocusing healing energy onto yourself, and giving yourself the space and time to process where you're at emotionally.

[rebelmouse-image 19397896 dam="1" original_size="700x394" caption="Photo by Ben Blennerhassett/Unsplash." expand=1]Photo by Ben Blennerhassett/Unsplash.

It's also important to allow your self-care routines to change over time, depending on what kind of support you need.

For example, Robert started going to therapy in his mid 20s, and eventually tried eastern medicine like reiki and acupuncture because as his recovery evolved, so did his treatments. He realizes they may always be a part of his life in some way, and that's OK.

"It's a process, not a destination," he notes.

Both Karen and Robert agree that becoming a survivor-leader is incredibly empowering, but rushing into that work can do more harm than good.

[rebelmouse-image 19397897 dam="1" original_size="700x467" caption="Photo by Daniel McCullough/Unsplash." expand=1]Photo by Daniel McCullough/Unsplash.

"The moment after you realize you're a victim — that's not the time to start doing advocacy work," says Robert.

It's important to focus on yourself and your own needs first. If you haven't fully dealt with your trauma, sharing it could negatively impact your recovery.

That said, once you truly feel ready, advocacy work can help you thrive while simultaneously helping other survivors realize they're not alone.

[rebelmouse-image 19397898 dam="1" original_size="700x467" caption="Photo by Justin Groeb/Unsplash." expand=1]Photo by Justin Groeb/Unsplash.

Robert is a prime example of this. More often than not, when trafficking stories are reported by the media, they're focused on girls and women, which can in turn cause male victims to feel isolated. However, male victims are usually vulnerable to trafficking for the same reasons as females: history of physical or sexual abuse and/or lack of family support. Thankfully, advocates like Robert are working to shed light on the male stories of sexual exploitation.

Survivor-leaders are an essential part of survivor support systems, but they're not the only ones you can turn to for help. Sometimes talking to a trusted loved one is the best first step towards recovery.

Photo via iStock.

It likely won't be an easy conversation, but sharing your experience with someone who cares about you may help give you the strength you need to move forward.

It's so important to have a touchstone like that in your life — someone with whom you can feel completely safe and supported.

With that in mind, if you're not a survivor, but you suspect someone you know is being exploited, the best thing you can do is let them know you're there for them, and there is a way out.

"There is hope in a life waiting for you that will allow you to step into your true identity," says Karen.

And for anyone who's currently experiencing exploitation, please remember, there are people in your community who will stand by you in your journey leaving abuse, even if you don't know them yet.

Life extends beyond trauma — you just may need a little help getting there.

Learn more about community resources that can help you or others overcome exploitation or sex traffickinghere.


This 22-year-old started a fashion line to fight human trafficking.

Noor Tagouri has always been one for ambitious goals. This is no different.

Human trafficking is a global problem affecting thousands of men, women, and children each year.

Trafficking is, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the illegal transportation of a person (an abduction, basically) — most often for the purposes of nonconsensual sex work or forced labor. Every year, thousands of individuals are tragically torn from their families, falling victim to this awful act.

Playing cards featuring the faces of missing Chinese children and suspected victims of human trafficking. Photo by China Photos/Getty Images.

While there's lots of attention brought to the issue in the form of traditional fundraisers and ad campaigns, a 22-year-old journalist had a different idea.

Noor Tagouri is best known for her presence on social media where she has a following of more than 200,000 people with the goal of becoming the first hijabi news anchor in America. But now, in the name of drawing attention to human trafficking, she's taken on a new role: fashion mogul.

Tagouri teamed up with Adam Khafif at Lis'n Up Clothing (LSNP) to create a fashion line that both informs the public and helps fund the fight against human trafficking. They call it "The Noor Effect."

Image via Business Insider.

The design features the word "Girl" crossed out and backwards in a nod to one of Tagouri's favorite artists.

The idea was inspired by a quote from artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, and it's pretty genius.

Image via Business Insider.

Basquiat's artwork is known for the distortion of the words and images he paints. It's the type of art you could stare at for hours at a time and still miss something that's staring you right in the face. 

That's how Tagouri feels we too often treat human trafficking.

Tagouri and Khafif are donating half of all proceeds to Project Futures, an anti-human trafficking charity.

Project Futures is a charity whose goal is to help fund prevention efforts, offer support services, and empower victims of trafficking. They've been working at it for more than five years, raising more than $2 million in the process. With any luck, Tagouri will help them go even further in pushing their goal of putting an end to human trafficking.

Next time you see an obscured word, take a moment to really look at it. Maybe there's an important message hiding in plain sight.

Image via Business Insider.

To learn more about Tagouri and Khafif's fashion line, check out this video from Business Insider.


How one woman is helping sex trafficking survivors become breadwinners.

She saw an opportunity. And she gave others the same.

Facebook #SheMeansBusiness

What do these bracelets have to do with sex trafficking?

Image via Olivia and Diego, used with permission

They’re a symbol for some women's second chance at life.

Olivia and Diego — a sustainable, upcycled jewelry company based in the Philippines — gives women transitioning out of the sex trafficking industry a place to begin again and to find work.

Olivia and Diego's founder, Yana Santiago, has a unique perspective.

When she moved back to her hometown in the Philippines, she started working with Taikala, an organization that supported women who were victims of sex trafficking. There is not much in the way of economic opportunity for these women, many of whom are mothers who must tend to their children.

Estimates indicate that 300,000-400,000 women are human trafficking victims in the Philippines, and 80% of them are under the age of 18.

Santiago got to know these women — many of them mothers who work all day to raise their children, who fight daily to transition out of hardship, to overcome their past --- and she saw an opportunity.

These women were hard-working, kind, and eager to find an avenue for empowerment. So Santiago gave them jobs.

"Our goal was to transform these women to artisans and entrepreneurs."

Image via Olivia and Diego, used with permission

Santiago started Olivia and Diego. It's a sustainable, upcycled jewelry company. In Santiago's words: "My wish for the world is for its people to work together to achieve inclusive growth, where people of all kinds are empowered and celebrated."

And one of the simplest ways to empower someone is to give them a livelihood. As human trafficking survivor (and member of the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking) Evelyn Chumbow wrote in an op-ed for CNN, "There are times when I feel like screaming, on behalf of all human trafficking survivors, 'We need jobs, not pity!'"

And that is exactly what Santiago and Olivia and Diego are about: jobs.

Each piece is crafted by women who had no source of stable income until Santiago saw a whole sea of opportunity and a way to seize it. She was going to turn these women who'd faced so much hardship into artisans, into breadwinners for their families. As Santiago said when we reached out to hear her story, "Our goal in [Olivia and Diego] was to transform these women to artisans and entrepreneurs."

Not only are the beautiful, colorful pieces handcrafted by artisan women with a new lease on life, they're made out of old T-shirts and textiles that would otherwise be tossed into landfills.

Upcycling, unlike recycling, takes a product and turns it into something even more valuable. And if you look, you can see upcycling trends all over: from backpacks made out of old juice pouches...

Image via TerraCycle/Wikimedia Commons

...to fancy interior decorators creating chic coffee tables from wire spools.

Image via Alex Rio Brazil/Wikimedia Commons

And through posting gorgeous images on her Facebook page, Santiago is able to connect her jewelry lines with other businesses as well — she's been featured by Bride and Breakfast, The Good Trade magazine, and elsewhere. By having a home for her business on Facebook, her products are searchable, easy to find, and with just a glance you can see what a player Olivia and Diego is in the ecosystem of businesses whose bottom line includes helping others.

"I believe my purpose in life is to help women in Filipino communities to rise above poverty and exploitation through fashion." — Yana Santiago, founder, Olivia and Diego

Santiago is just another shining example of a woman starting a successful business that not only makes beautiful products, but that also gives back.

That alone would be wonderful, but her success in business and online on Facebook might also create an amazing ripple effect. So if Santiago has created a business whose purpose is to support other women, imagine the waves of support, hope, and potential she's unlocking as more women feel empowered.

And it all began with a bracelet.