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Sex trafficking is not just a problem in other countries or big cities. It can happen just down the street. And you're probably unaware it's going on.
“For people to think that slavery is over … it is not.”
That's Illinois Senator Toi Hutchinson, a Democrat from Olympia Fields. She's pushing legislation that would help victims recover after leaving the sex trade. She says there are misconceptions about trafficking.
“For people to think that this is something that happens through international trade markets and in other places around the world. It is not. For people who don't understand it … it's in your small mall and in your neighborhoods and kids can get wrapped up in this in all kinds of insidious ways where they're groomed or kidnapped.” Hutchinson says those being trafficked are often held hostage by their pimps.
Finding work or getting an education can seem insurmountable compared to staying put. To clarify, prostitution and sex trafficking are not one in the same. It's true some enter prostitution on their own. But others are coerced and held there by violence and threats … which is trafficking. Some escape and then sell themselves voluntarily. That's what happened to Brenda Myers Powell, who says she spent 25 years as a prostitute. Myers Powell says based on her experience, work picks up in cities like Springfield when more people are present, like during the legislative session.
“That's a huge time of the year where there's money being circulated. And any time there's money being circulated you better believe there is some type of prostitution being incorporated.” Myers Powell says she was originally forced into the business and transported across Illinois, including the capital city.
“There was a lady that had a house here and I used to come here during the session to work.” There are no numbers to officially say the selling of sex increases in Springfield during session, and data is hard to come by. Myers Powell has worked with Jody Raphael … a senior research fellow at DePaul University College of Law in Chicago. Raphael has spent years studying trafficking in Illinois and she conducted a study interviewing 100 victims and former pimps.
“The ex pimps as well as the girls we interviewed said they were transported in cars down to Springfield during the legislative session." The Springfield Police Department says it's difficult to track prostitution. The days of streetwalking have given way to arrangements through the internet. PLUS … the department says there's simply not enough manpower to regularly conduct undercover stings.
Prostitution arrests are mainly complaint driven, says Springfield Deputy Chief Dan Mounce.“Back when it used to be on the street … people would call and say 'hey there's a prostitute working on my street corner' and we would respond to it. And make contact with the person they were calling about and persuade them to move along.” According to the police department … no arrests for prostitution were made in 2013 in Springfield, since then there have only been a few and johns are rarely arrested.
For Myers-Powell she says prostitution nearly cost her her life before she left at age 39. She says it's hard for many women to seek help because they're brainwashed, manipulated, and without resources.“They just can't stop prostituting on a Friday and go get a job on a Monday. There has to be a lot of work … a lot of mental health work … trauma work a lot of rebuilding … a lot of nurturing going on there has to be something for women to feel again. To help them feel again.”
Many victims of the sex trade go under the radar. While numbers are hard to pin-point, researchers say any time there are large groups gathering, especially men, prostitution increases.