SEX TRAFFICKING IS A $100 BILLION BLACK-MARKET INDUSTRY
Words & Photos Lauren Trantham Illustrations Andreas Lie
All I know about her is that she uses an alias, she travels a lot, and she’ll be the seventeenth survivor I photograph. I imagine she’ll be graceful, sharp, and a delicate balance of vulnerable and powerful. That’s how most of these survivors are after having their bodies sold for money. Said to be one of the largest black market industries, raking in an estimated $100 billion per year worldwide, sex trafficking is widespread, lucrative, and vicious.
I’m riding my motorcycle through nearly every state as I photograph 36 women, all survivors of domestic sex trafficking, in order to raise $55,000 for The Rebecca Bender Initiative. Very few women who are trafficked ever escape the trade; the Rebecca Bender Initiative is there to provide support to these survivors. My journey started in the Pacific Northwest, then I rode toward the east coast, and now I’m in Baltimore, eating at a deli as I wait for the woman with a fake name.
When she picks me up, she has even more spunk than I’d imagined, giggling as she steps out of her car. “So this is it?” she asks, looking at my Ducati Monster. “Oh my, girl, that thing is a Monster.” For two hours I photograph her as she stands tall and proud, balancing elegantly on the stems of her high heels. Her eyes shine, but I can’t imagine what she has seen and lived through. I don’t ask about her trafficking story; I never do. I only want to see her and capture her portrait, to show how beautiful and strong she is. When we say goodbye, she sweetly holds my hands and prays for me. Other survivors prayed for me too, asking God to bless me and keep me safe on the road. I cry each time because even though I don’t believe, I feel like I’m being watched over.
The next morning, I wake to the sound of buzzing locusts, unzip my tent, and see my Ducati nestled against a giant North Carolina oak. My body is sore, my forearms are knotted, and I smell terrible. It’s been 26 days and I’ve ridden almost 4,000 miles, but there are more than 6,000 miles left to go. I stare at my hands until my fingers come into focus. It’s been 10 months since I took off my wedding ring but I still panic when I see it’s gone. Then I remember my abusive ex-husband and the panic subsides. I slip on my boots and pack up camp, shaking fine white sand out from everything. With a dozen straps I cinch my tent, my sleeping bag, and a small jug of fuel to my Monster. I also brought a few changes of clothes, my camera, MacBook, and a journal, but that’s about it. I question the enormity of this project, which is partly altruistic and partly self-serving. I want to heal my broken heart by helping others, and I want to use my camera to see beauty again.
Said to be one of the largest black market industries, raking in an estimated $100 billion per year worldwide, sex trafficking is widespread, lucrative, and vicious.
Less than a year ago, hidden in our bathroom, I unlocked his newly password-protected phone and came undone. For seven years, I thought my life was one way, only to realize on one miserable, colorless night that it wasn’t. How did this happen? “You have fallen so hard because he has been slowly stripping you of yourself for years,” said my therapist. “These are signs of abuse.” I didn’t believe her. I’m an intelligent, confident, independent woman, and I never would have allowed myself to be in an abusive relationship. But as I began researching abuse, I felt hot pokers pressing into me as I finally saw my marriage for what it was.
There’s the “grooming period,” those first two years when everything he did and said made me fall in love. He said he was my lion, loyal and protective, and proposed with a ring that had a lion engraved into the band. After we married he began a slow, steady campaign of isolation and criticism that worsened over the next five years. When he showed me love, I soaked it up like a doughnut dipped in hot coffee. Then something would happen — or nothing would happen — and I would beg him to not be angry. An abuser builds you up and breaks you down so many times that you don’t know which direction you’re facing. Nothing you do or say is right. My life was all about mitigating my ex-husband’s moods. Every day I walked on broken glass and if my feet bled, I got yelled at.
The week before Thanksgiving, when he and that tall blonde drove off in his pickup, he took my self-worth with him. I realized that if abuse could happen to me, it could happen to anyone. I wanted to meet other women who were swept up, deceived, and abused. I wanted to take their photos and show them their value, hoping that in the process I could rediscover my own. As I planned a cross-country motorcycle ride and researched charities to partner with, I met Rebecca Bender, a survivor previously trafficked in Las Vegas by a man she thought loved her. After six years and four failed escape attempts, she finally broke free when police arrested her trafficker. She then founded the Rebecca Bender Initiative, which helps survivors through an intensive 16-week online course, a year of follow-up, and a lifetime of support.
She explained to me the framework of trafficking in America, the same way she educates the FBI, Homeland Security, local law enforcement, and first responders to recognize and combat modern-day sex trafficking. Sex trafficking in America can be mistaken for what we typically call prostitution; people don’t realize that many of those involved in prostitution aren’t there by choice but through fraud, coercion, or force. Traffickers are most often men, presenting themselves as dutiful boyfriends as they target the most vulnerable people they can find. They lay the groundwork of sex trafficking through emotional abuse, and survivors say they go through a grooming period not unlike the one I experienced. While I was never physical abused, most of the women who’ve gone through Bender’s program have been beaten, their jaws, arms, or ribs broken. They have miscarried, or their babies have been born and then held as collateral. Immediately my heart told me to support Rebecca, her organization, and its mission.
The four women I photograph in Florida have all been through Bender’s program. Tara, a talented tattoo artist with cute bangs and a deep love for God and her husband, tells me she was trafficked exclusively to bikers during motorcycle meets, shipped from Daytona to Sturgis and other rallies in between. At her first rally she thought she would be giving people tattoos; instead she was gang-raped in a shipping container. I think about the fellow bikers I’ve met on this trip. How many have bought sex at a bike rally?
Shortly after leaving Florida for Memphis, my Monster’s battery dies. A tow truck takes me and my bike to the nearest Ducati dealership in Jacksonville, where a tech replaces the Monster’s battery regulator and has me back on the road in an hour. Arkansas and western Texas pass in a whirlwind as I ride a few thousand miles in a few days, stopping in Austin to photograph four survivors and to meet a couple of riders from Bikers Against Child Abuse, Inc., a worldwide organization that protects and advocates for children who are victims of abuse. BACA riders will accompany kids into court when they testify against their abusers. I can only imagine the comfort and confidence they bring to children who are about to face their abusers, something I haven’t even done as a grown woman. That night I camp on the bank of the Colorado River, sip a stout, and toast all the people advocating against abuse.
A flat tire sets me back six hours as I head for Phoenix, where I am hosting a fundraising event. The sun sets before I reach the summit of the desert mountain pass separating New Mexico and Arizona. Riding down through the forest on a dark highway flanked by black mountains, I start to lose feeling in my arms. Maybe these long rides and sleepless nights are catching up to me. I think about quitting, asking myself, “What the fuck are you doing out here, riding a motorcycle for 60 straight days with a broken heart and no feeling in your limbs?” Then I remember the survivors I’ve met and the stories they’ve shared, and I think about what it means to be a survivor, reaching deep inside to find one's strength and resolve. The thought pushes me on to Phoenix, where we raise $11,000 for the Rebecca Bender Initiative.
After photographing a couple of local survivors, I visit a doctor to see about my arms. He says it’s the result of low blood pressure caused by dehydration. He measures my forearm grip strength and says I’m weaker than an 80-year-old, which would worry me more if I weren’t scheduled to meet three survivors in Los Angeles. I take a few days to shoot and recoup in L.A. before riding up the Pacific coast toward NorCal’s Black Lightning Motorcycle Café, where I give a presentation to a packed crowd that contributes another $2,000 to the cause. I continue north, stopping at gas stations and diners to hand out informational cards about sex trafficking, because raising awareness is the first step toward facilitating change. Americans need to understand that these cruelties are happening all over their country to people like Jessa, a survivor I photographed as I passed through Denver.
Jessa is tall and beautiful, with strong, toned arms covered in dozens of little scars. She told me her parents trafficked her as a child, that she had been forced into child pornography, and that she had been raped and sold to church pastors, police officers, and seedy men of all sorts. Even after such trauma, she found a way to survive. She told me about her puppy, Charlie, and about the time she climbed the Grand Tetons. About how she escaped her family at 21 and found love, first in a foster family and then in her husband. She taught herself how to read, passed the GED, and is pursuing a master's degree in counseling, hoping to help others like her. Then she told me about the tumors on her thyroid. “God has given me these tumors as a gift," she said. "He gave them to me so that I would be sure to take the time for my both my heart and my body to heal. Simultaneously. God wants me to heal mentally and physically.” She showed me a tattoo on her forearm, scrawled across her scars: “Redeemed through unfailing love.”
Jessa’s story will be seared in my heart for the rest of my days. As I roll through a redwood forest an hour south of my home in Oregon, I think back to that moment less than a year ago, when I collapsed on my bathroom floor, knowing so little about myself and about abuse. I would never have believed that my own hardships would connect me to dozens of resilient women who refused to let their own wounds define them.
Each of the survivors I photographed showed me that while life can be dirty and painful and cruel, it is also a road that can lead back to love. Long days spent on my Ducati cleared my senses; inside my helmet, I had a place to reflect, and sometimes, to cry. The survivors I met while riding thousands of miles reminded me of my inner strength, and in return, I did what I could to remind them how beautiful they are, knowing that it could never erase what’s been done to them.
Sex trafficking is a real issue, and it’s happening right under our noses. It’s horrible that small-minded people exploit those who are more vulnerable and trusting, but I’ve learned that with a little support, those who survive deep adversity can grow to be our best leaders and teachers, reminding us that life is for learning, loving, and pulling beauty out of every moment we can.
(The sex trafficking survivors shown and featured in this story have all been supported by the Rebecca Bender Initiative. To learn more about the organization or donate to its cause, visit www.rebeccabender.org)
This Article Was Originally Featured In Issue 028 Of Iron & Air Magazine.