Right now, as Week of Welcome fades into memory and college campuses are merely days into full operation, naïve freshman, away from home, possibly for the first time, are being watched.
Blondes, brunettes, redheads – bespectacled bookworms, pink haired video gamers and underage partiers.
Each are new on campus, trying to find their footing in an environment completely alien to them.
The Predator Makes His Move
The freshman is sitting alone, wishing she had taken a better meal plan. She peeks into her wallet a third time, but she cannot will a $5 bill to appear to buy the latte that is splashed across the coffee shop sign.
In a college logoed T-shirt and ripped jeans, young, clean cut, handsome or “hot “as her friends back home would describe, he approaches. There’s nothing shady about him. He blends in perfectly with the other students on campus.
He makes casual conversation, learning her hometown, the beloved pet she left back home, how she misses her mom, dad, her younger sister. She’s shocked that he would talk to her and he encourages the dialogue, offering to purchase the drink. She hesitates and he playfully nudges her. She finally relents. College is about new experiences, meeting new people. She decides to trust him. He befriends her and they meet regularly.
A few weeks later, he is her boyfriend, showering her with attention and ultimately, gifts – a haircut, a manicure, jewelry, the dress she was looking at in the mall display window, but could never afford. He gives her the world and tells her how sexy and beautiful she is.
And then the time comes.
He reminds her of everything he’s ever done for her, that he loves her so much, but there’s this party and if only this one time, she could do this one thing for him. She thinks of all her mother’s warnings. She feels a little uneasy, but rather than upset the man who loves her, she goes against her gut instinct to say “no.”
Traffickers Prey on the Vulnerable
“Traffickers look for teens who lack assertiveness. People are more afraid of offending someone than saying the word ‘no,’ ” explained Connie Rose, founder of Victims2Survivors.
Rose explained that the young girls are often drugged at the parties.
“They are not going to know what they’ve done and there is going to be pictures taken of them,” said Rose. “The girls are mortified at what they did because they don’t remember. The pimps use the photos to threaten to show to new friends, Mom and Dad back home. They tell things like that little dog that they talked about will be gone. They start listing all the things that they will do to them if they don’t do what they want, so what is a girl to do?”
A Voice of Experience
Rose, 56, is a survivor of human trafficking, sexual violence and the daughter of a sex offender. As a child, Rose was raped by her father and as a teen, sold in to sexual slavery.
Rather than self-destruct down the common path of drug and alcohol abuse, Rose talked openly about her experience and in 2010, founded Victims2Survivors to give voice to other sexually trafficked children.
“It is not something new and is becoming a horrific epidemic. Children can be sold 20 to 40 times per night. Sexual trafficking is a $32 billion business. It is only second to drug trafficking.”
Knowledge is Power
Rose recommended that college students learn the signs of a predator, trust their gut instincts, and have a plan of action if there comes a need.
“I work with Wendy Vazquez-Ernest of I Know My Plan. Oftentimes, when I speak, she comes with me. She can teach you what to do to defend yourself,” said Rose. “Most of the pimp runners on campus are the really good-looking, young guys because the girls are going to talk to them. They’re scouting for the pimp.”
Vazquez-Ernest teaches a R.A.D. (Rape Aggression Defense) program at the University of South Florida for credit and also throughout the Tampa Bay community. The course teaches women and teens realistic self-defense techniques to escape violence.
“The most important thing to do is to keep your wits about you, trust your instincts and don’t put yourself into a compromising situation. Women need to feel empowered. To start on this journey is to enroll in a class that teaches you about risk reduction,” said Vazquez-Ernest. “I teach this class because of the importance of woman being educated that they do have a choice.”
On campus, the trafficker can also manipulate into such a situation by using guilt. The pimp runner reminds the freshman about their student loans- how can the parents afford college, and make suggestions how to earn lots of money through things like stripping so they can “go party, get their nails done, buy that cute dress,” said Rose. “They go through the whole list. Everything that a freshman in freaking out about – they have no money, plus the fact the guy is saying ‘your family is not here; they’re not going to know. You want freedom? Here’s real freedom, a way to make a lot of money.'”
Once the girls begin in stripping, it often leads to sexual slavery.
“Eventually, they will be sold,” said Rose.
In August, volunteers distributed thousands of bars of soap with the National Human Trafficking Hotline number 888-373-7888 to area motels and hotels. Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution, called the S.O.A.P. project educated motel owners and managers on signs of human trafficking.
The SOAP Facebook page said, “Due to the approximate 50,000 people who will be coming to Tampa for the RNC, human trafficking is expected to rise by 50%.”
Rose works tirelessly with this and other local, national, and international organizations and trafficking task forces to raise awareness of sexual trafficking, especially during large events like the Republican National Convention.
“This has nothing to do with a political party,” explained Rose. “Whenever there’s a large event, it’s candy to the traffickers. There’s now tens of thousands of visitors in one place.”
A joint effort between Shared Hope and the Zonta Club of Pinellas County, a billboard campaign running May through September in nine locations throughout Tampa Bay, sends a crystal clear message to guests and Tampa Bay locals, “This man wants to rent your daughter.”
“Human trafficking is a human rights issue,” said Rose. “And I hate the term prostitute because that word gives the false impression that this person choose this life. This is a sexually trafficked child. When someone is starting to be sold or rented, there whole dignity is taken away. Everything about them is stripped. They’ve been totally desensitized.”
That is, by no means, a choice.
To learn more about Victims2Survivors or have Rose speak at your organization, click her Facebook page.