Sex Trafficking in Baltimore

Hello City that Breeds Family,

It’s your friendly, neighborhood, self-appointed Bishop here again with another B-More issue to discuss.

On May 10th I was shocked to read an article in the Baltimore Sun about a Baltimore Police Officer charged with sex-trafficking.  Realizing I know very little about the problem of sex-trafficking in Baltimore, I contacted my friend Mark and asked him if I could interview him.

Mark Stephenson is one of the pastors at Horizon Church in Towson.  He is also the Director of Programs for Araminta Freedom Initiative (, a group working to end child sex-trafficking in Baltimore.  I sat down with Mark to chat with him about the problem.  Below is a summary of our conversation:

Bishop: Define sex-trafficking for me.  What is it and what areas of it does Araminta focus on?

Mark: Let’s start broadly and then work the definition down.  Human trafficking is the commercial exploitation of human beings for fiscal gain.  It can be broken into two forms: Labor Trafficking or Sex Trafficking.

Sex Trafficking is forcing someone to perform sexual acts through violence, fraud, manipulation, or fear for profit.  Most sex trafficking is child trafficking, meaning the victims are under the age of 18.  The average age of a sex-trafficking victim is around twelve years old.  The legal definition of domestic minor sex trafficking is the “recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act” where the person is a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident under the age of 18 years.

While Araminta wants all human trafficking to end, we currently are focusing on stopping the trafficking of domestic minor sex trafficking victims.  And while victims are both boys and girls, we are starting our focus on girls who are trapped in this.

Bishop: What does sex-trafficking look like in Baltimore?

Mark: It takes one of two forms.  It is either Familial Trafficking or Boyfriend/Pimp controlled trafficking.  Familial Trafficking is when a young girl is trafficked by her family.  The girl’s mother, father, uncle, another family member trades sex with the child for money, rent, drugs, or something else.  Boyfriend/Pimp trafficking is when the trafficker pretends to be the victim’s friend or boyfriend, lures the victim into a dependent relationship, and then flips the situation to sell the girl into sexual slavery.

Sometimes sex trafficking involves kidnapping.  When this happens a child is taken from a mall or a school, or a child is offered a car ride by a stranger, or a child gets tricked into signing up for a fake modeling class.   But these incidents of kidnapping make up the smaller percentage of sex-trafficking.  Most child sex-trafficking is familial or boyfriend/pimp trafficking.

The major pre-cursors of sex trafficking are poverty, sexual abuse in the home, absentee parents, or abusive foster care.

Sex trafficking is a transient crime.  Trafficking spikes whenever tourists come into an area.  For example, occurrences increase during professional sports events or large business conferences.  Traffickers follow the surges of people.  More people means more buyers.  Baltimore is an ideal place for trafficking because of our strategic location as a connector city on the 95 corridor and our large airport.

It also benefits traffickers to keep the girls moving.  Victims will be in a city for a few days and then moved to somewhere else.  This keeps the girls dependent on the traffickers.  Girls are moved away from their homes so they become completely dependent on the trafficker for basic needs like housing and food.

Bishop: Already you are beginning to push back on some of the stereo-types I have in my mind when it comes to sex-trafficking.  What I picture is the movie Taken where international girls are tricked to coming to a foreign country and then forced into sexual slavery?  What you are describing sounds very different?

Mark: There are a lot of misconceptions out there.

For example, most kids caught in sexual slavery in the United States are from the United States.  While there are some foreign nationals being trafficked in the U.S., the vast majority of sex trafficking victims are domestic.  Only a small fraction are foreign born.

There are also huge misconceptions in our culture regarding prostitution.  For example, there is no such thing as a “teen prostitute.”  The term “prostitute” frees us from guilt and makes the situation more palatable.  When we hear in the media that someone in power like an athlete or a politician was caught with an under-age prostitute, the word “prostitute” makes us think the girl had some choice in the matter.  It is a myth.   An under-age prostitute is a sex slave.

We also completely misunderstand the word “pimp”.  For many, when they hear the word “pimp” the image in our mind is of an African-American male, dressed loudly, with lots of bling.  A pimp is a sex-trafficker.  Sex traffickers come in all shapes and sizes.  They are all races.  They are male and female.  There have been sex traffickers as old as seventy arrested in Baltimore.  In a recent bust a police officer in his thirties was selling his nineteen-year-old wife.  We have begun using the word “pimp” to mean “to beautify something”.  For example, we want MTV to come and “pimp” our ride.  Pimps are sex-traffickers.  To use the word in such a way glorifies modern slavery.  Traffickers love this by the way.  They love being glorified in music and media.  The change in language makes their jobs much easier.  For example, if a twelve-year-old boy will consume porn, by the time he turns eighteen he is much more likely to buy a person to use for sex.  We’ve got to stop glorifying this part of our culture and instead start calling it what it is – human trafficking.

Finally, people assume that it is not happening near them, that sex-trafficking is something that happens only on Baltimore Street.  That’s a lie.  It’s happening in your neighborhood.  It’s happening on your block.  It’s happening in the shady motels you pass every day on the way to work, and in the expensive hotels downtown.  Traffickers have even been known to buy houses in the suburbs.  They call it “a stable,” which is a grotesque name for where they house three to five girls for trafficking.  It’s going on all around you.

Bishop: How do girls get trapped in sex-trafficking?  Why don’t they just run away?

Mark: Many girls would escape if they believed escape was possible.  They don’t believe they can get away.  They don’t believe there’s anyone who can help them.  They believe there’s no way out.  The traffickers work hard to encourage their dependency and isolation.  In addition to making the girls dependent on them for shelter and food, traffickers will also build psychological chains and shackle the children with drug addiction.

It’s also common for kids trapped in sex trafficking to experience trauma bonding.  This is when a victim builds strong emotional and psychological ties to their oppressor.  The victims cease believing that any life outside of their current one is possible.  These victims need to mentally detox from their circumstances before they can believe a normal life is possible.

Bishop: What can the normal Baltimore citizen do? What steps can we take to bring an end to sex trafficking?

Mark: At Araminta we recommend three steps: Awake, Equip, and Mobilize.

Being “awake” means becoming aware of the issue.  It means refusing to deny that sex trafficking is a problem in our city.

Once you are awake, you should equip yourself.  Start self-educating.  There are lots of great books you can read on the problem.  We recommend “Girls Like Us” by Rachel Lloyd or “Renting Lacy” by Linda Smith.  Araminta also offers training, which will empower you with a deep understanding of the issue.

Once you are awakened and equipped, you should mobilize. I recommend getting involved with organizations already working on the problem.  For example Shared Hope International and Polaris Project are both doing great work.  Araminta is currently doing work with businesses, public schools, churches, and hotels in Baltimore making them aware of the problem and helping them to recognize the signs of sex-trafficking.  We are also working with survivors of child sex trafficking through our partnership with TurnAround.  Our volunteers are mentors and advocates for these children trying to start a new life.

Finally, if you see signs of sex trafficking call the National Human Trafficking hotline and report it.  Their number is 888-3737-888.

Pope Ron Swanson

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