Jennifer pulls her long, dark hair to one side and exposes the fading tattoos on the back of her neck.
Jennifer pulls her long, dark hair to one side and exposes the fading tattoos on the back of her neck.
"I was branded by my pimps," says the Rogue Valley mother of three.
The two neck brands are almost gone. Another pimp's tattoo on her lower back already has been covered up, she says.
But erasing the scars on Jennifer's psyche has not been as easy. Jennifer, now 31, has asked that her real name not be used to protect herself and her family members.
Most people enjoy the sight of a new day dawning. For Jennifer, sunrise is a traumatic reminder of the six years she spent trapped in the brutal world of sex trafficking — of being raped, beaten, and bought and sold as a slave to an endless succession of men.
"Watching the sunrise makes me sick," Jennifer says. "All it reminds me of is going home to a man I was more afraid of than what I was facing being out in the streets."
But Jennifer is one of the lucky ones. She was rescued. Now a soccer mom with a husband who loves her, Jennifer also has become a warrior against sex trafficking. She tells her story to promote awareness, prevention and action plans. And to train law enforcement, educators, youth program leaders and youth about the scourge of American sex slavery.
"How selfish would I be to sit here in my happy little home and face-paint with my beautiful daughters, knowing someone else's daughter is still out there?" she says.
It is all the Jennifers in the Rogue Valley, and across the United States, that motivate former Medford resident Liz Alston of Shared Hope International, a nonprofit organization based in Washington state and dedicated to eradicating sex trafficking.
"There are kids in sexual slavery in your city. What are you going to do?" Alston says.
Between 100,000 and 300,000 children are reported missing and/or exploited nationwide every year, she says. Many are trapped in prostitution, pornography and sexual entertainment industries. They become victims of sex trafficking through force, fraud or coercion, she says.
Alston, 29, attended North Medford High School. She says pimping out children is not new to Medford. Nor is the pimp always someone outside the family. Familial exploitation is common, she says.
"I had a friend in junior high school whose father owned an adult entertainment business," Alston says. "He used to make her dress up and dance on the weekends. She would have been 12 or 13 at the time."
Another Medford man, William Henry Thompson, 50, was recently sentenced to 72 years in prison after a Jackson County jury found him guilty of more than two dozen counts of rape and sodomy perpetrated against his daughter and another young victim. In what prosecutors called one of the most disturbing cases in recent memory, Thompson groomed, raped and sexually tortured his daughter. He got her addicted to meth before eventually selling her to other men for $10 or $20 per sex act.
Thompson's charges did not include sex trafficking. But his is also the face of a pimp, Alston believes.
The news is full of stories of women who have been held captive in a home or a hotel room by a man. If force, fraud or coercion is used to compel her to perform in a sexual manner for his friends or other men for commercial gain, that is sex trafficking, Alston says.
Growing demand for commercial sex with young, innocent girls and boys is fueled by a glorification of pimping and normalization of sexual exploitation, she says.
"It's not just intercourse," Alston says. "It's stripping, or phone sex or any erotic service online or in person."
Alston has little patience for those who attempt to minimize the problem, or claim it is something that only happens to "bad girls."
"They often get called 'troublemakers' or 'runaways,' " Alston says. "I've seen a 13-year-old kid in the back room of a strip club with my own eyes. You tell me what 13-year-old even thinks like that if there isn't something driving her. We need to look deeper."
Jennifer attended a local high school. An excellent student, she also was a star athlete. The popular young girl got a boyfriend. Then she got pregnant, Jennifer says.
"It was the typical case of looking for love in all the wrong places," she says.
Jennifer moved to Eugene after her baby was born. The struggling teen mom attended community college during the day, and danced at a nightclub to survive. It was there she met her "Romeo pimp," Jennifer says.
Suave, handsome and a master manipulator, the predator wooed Jennifer for months. He loved her and her baby more than the moon and stars. He couldn't wait to provide for them all. But first they'd need to move to a city where he could make more money, the pimp told Jennifer.
"He said he wanted to marry me, that we could be a real family. He really wanted to get me secluded from my family and friends," Jennifer says.
She agreed to move to Las Vegas. That's when the severe violence began, she says.
"Rapes, beating, torture, you name it," Jennifer says.
Eventually she agreed to do as her pimp demanded. Jennifer sold her body for his gain. Over and over.
The business of sex trafficking is flourishing. It currently ranks as the second most profitable organized crime worldwide, Alston says.
"Think about it," Alston says. "You can sell drugs and they're gone. You can sell a gun and it's gone. But you can sell a girl over and over and over again. They can make up to $10,000 a night, or up to $1,000 an hour."
In 2006, funded by a grant from the Justice Department, Alston's organization conducted field assessments in 10 locations across the U.S. to better understand the situation of child sex trafficking, according to its website. Shared Hope discovered the greatest source of domestic sex trafficking victims is American citizens, and a majority of them are underage girls being criminalized rather than provided rehabilitative services.
Medford's location on Interstate 5 provides pimps fast transport from Los Angeles to Seattle and points in between of a steady stream of victims, Alston says.
"The pimps call I-5 the 'Kiddie Track,' " says Alston.
Any city with an airport, an interstate and truck stops also has a significant transient population, says Sgt. Mike Geiger, superintendent of the Human Trafficking Division for the Portland Police Department. Add the Internet, which provides more perceived anonymity, and you've got a recipe for sex trafficking, he says.
"The problem is larger than what we know about," Geiger says.
Geiger performed a quick check on a website popular with those engaged in sex trafficking. He clicked on Medford. Clicked on escort. Up popped a list of girls being prostituted in Medford. These are girls who have been brought from Portland, Bend, San Francisco and other locations by their pimps, Geiger says.
"There is a demand in Medford," Geiger says. "Young teens don't move themselves up and down the state of Oregon like this."
Most of the nearly naked girls on the website listed their ages as 19 or slightly older. Their ads are full of provocative promises and sexual poses.
"Does she look 19 to you?" Geiger asks, pointing out a petite brunette who appears years younger than her stated age.
One in 5 pornography images online is likely to be of a child, Alston says.
Medford's large homeless youth population makes it a mecca for sexual predators of all sorts, says Faith Morse, an attorney and member of the Oregon Human Trafficking Task Force.
"Kids get stuck here," Morse says. Teens may be heading to San Francisco or Seattle or anywhere up or down I-5. But if they run out of money, there aren't many resources for homeless youth in the Rogue Valley, she says.
Sex trafficking is all about supply and demand. Pimps and johns alike know the Rogue Valley is ripe for exploitation. But prostituted children are not likely to be seen streetwalking up and down city avenues. Many, like Jennifer, are moved to areas with greater population bases and higher-paying customers, Morse says.
"It's a sourcing issue," Morse says. "That's why we aren't hearing the screams here."
Statistics show homeless youth are twice as likely to be victims of sexual exploitation, says Mary Ferrell, director of the Maslow Project, a Medford-based homeless youth outreach program.
There are 1,289 students in the Medford School District identified as homeless because they lack a fixed, regular or adequate nighttime home. Of that number, 197 are not in the physical custody of a parent or a guardian, Ferrell says.
Many of these homeless youths have already engaged in "survival sex," Ferrell says, trading their bodies for someone they believe to be safer than a random stranger they might encounter if out on the streets. But it can be a slippery slope for teens who find themselves trapped by an adult who now has them enmeshed in their secretive and highly controlled world.
Jennifer became hooked on drugs. Her pimp took her to a rehab center. She thought it was because he loved her. Until she heard him tell staff members, "My working girl is using up my money." She was passed from pimp to pimp. They fought each other over her street value. They all beat her.
Jennifer knows people don't understand why she didn't run away. In fact, she did manage to leave. But her pimp followed Jennifer back to Medford, booked a hotel room near the airport, and let Jennifer know what would happen if she didn't return, she says.
"When someone has beaten you until you're unrecognizable, and he threatens to kill you or your loved ones, you believe him," Jennifer says.
Oregon needs to improve its laws so that it adequately punishes pimps and johns, instead of prosecuting children for prostitution, Alston says. Oregon currently ranks as a "D" when compared to the national standard for protections against domestic minor sex trafficking, according to a study by Shared Hope and the American Center for Law & Justice, she says.
"We can pass a law banning plastic bags. But we can't get effective legislation about trafficking 13-year-old girls?" Alston says. "It's just really maddening to me. I'm using paper bags at Target. But there's a 13-year-old kid at a strip club."
Alston is pressing for prevention education in schools, churches and other community organizations. Other teens may be the first person to find out there is something amiss with their friend, she says.
"We have to get this information in schools," Alston says, adding she sometimes gets push-back from administrators because of the "sensitive subject."
"If we don't talk about it to them, who will? Pimps are happy to give them information about sex trafficking if we don't," Alston says.
Police need training to differentiate between domestic violence cases and ones that involve sex trafficking. Health care workers also need to receive training, Alston says.
"They need to understand these girls are going to lie about their situation. They are in fear for their lives and their loved ones," Jennifer says.
Some victims may actually still love their pimp. In fact, many will not identify themselves as victims, Jennifer says.
"Holding onto that hope becomes a coping mechanism," she says. "I know that's hard for people to understand, but it's true."
Not so hard if you understand the trauma, Alston says. The damage that happens to a young girl's heart and mind is complex. There is the physical damage of repeated assaults, there often are diseases and drug addictions that must be dealt with, and there are "trauma bonds" between the girls and their pimps, she says.
"It's a different kind of trauma than a straight sexual assault," Alston says. "It is just a really complex trauma."
Jennifer's tale of physical, mental and emotional abuse from pimps who promise love but trade in beatings, rapes and sexual slavery for cold, hard cash is all too typical, Alston says.
"They take their time to groom these girls," says Alston. "They capitalize on their hopes and dreams. I always say that pimps are the best child psychologists out there."
One day Jennifer did finally manage to escape, with the help of her mother. She entered a faith-based program that helped her put her body and soul back together. The program wasn't her first choice. It was her only choice, Jennifer says.
"It was the only one with an opening," Jennifer says. "I was planning to stay a few weeks. But I stayed 18 months and my life has never been the same."
Terry Rasmussen, a local real estate agent and assistant boys varsity basketball coach at Cascade Christian High School, is the president of Redemption Ridge, a faith-based nonprofit organization that is working to build such a shelter in the Rogue Valley. The long-term group home will have 20 beds and focus on healing, Rasmussen says.
Rasmussen says he became aware of sex trafficking after his wife went to a training exercise. She shared what she learned, and Rasmussen says the information "burned at my core."
"Once you really learn and get your perspective on board, you can't really sit on the sidelines anymore," Rasmussen says.
Rescue falls short without proper restoration, Alston says. There are not enough holistic, long-term, survivor-informed care for victims of domestic minor sex trafficking. Especially for those who are still juveniles, she says.
"There are more shelters and rescues for abused animals than there are for our own children," Alston says, adding between medical care, drug counseling, therapy and schooling, it can cost up to $100,000 per year to rehabilitate a life.
"We keep fishing these girls out from downriver, after the damage has been done," Alston says. "We need to put more resources in saving them upriver before they are swept away."
Jennifer gets calls from concerned family members, and from girls seeking a safe place to escape. She does what she can to offer information and emotional support.
"I always ask them if she has someplace safe to go," Jennifer says, adding it "breaks her heart" there are not more options.
She also provides outreach education to the public, including motel clerks who may come in contact with potential victims.
"People think this is just a problem in countries like Thailand," Jennifer says. "I grew up in this valley. They are taking our girls off the street. They are also luring them right out the front door."
Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.