I wasn't sure I would make it home safely that night. I sat in the backseat of the car, my fingers grasping the small, shaking hand of my friend.
We thought it was a joke.
We thought they were playing around.
We thought all guys were good, Christian boys like the ones we had known.
We were wrong.
We made ourselves tiny, quiet, and still as the two boys in the front seats determined our fate. At first they were angry. After all, we wouldn't "put out," I believe were the words they used to describe our shortcomings. Their anger began its climb to simmer and, fueled by the Circle K slushies they mixed with the contents of a large, clear glass bottle stowed under the front seat, began to boil and burn.
There were taunts. There were words we had never heard before. There were brakes squealing as the laughing boys pulled off the road to relieve themselves in the ditch, in full view of our innocent eyes.
There were prayers sent up from the back seat. There were spines of steel which began to forge. No. No. We were going home. And they were going to take us there.
Of course, we had no recourse, no control, no cell phone with which to summon help. Only a prayer, whispered again and again. And a sense of guilt: Had we brought this on ourselves? How did we land here?
We did make it home safely that night, leaping out at our doorstep as they slowed down in the vicinity of my driveway, and we clung to each other with tears and vows to never, ever tell our parents what had happened.
They found out, as parents are mysteriously able to do. And the anger they felt was not, as we'd feared, toward us, but toward the truly guilty party: The boys who'd endangered us that night before they squealed tires into the darkness, threats and expletives tossed out as a parting gift.
There are other girls, mere babies, around the block, across the street, just a train or plane ride away who don't have any protection tonight. The threat of violence against them is not just the bludgeon of nasty words and the control tactic of fear: It is enacted upon them in the searing sun of day and the dark anonymity of night. Their bodies are pummeled again and again by those who will never recall their faces, those who never care to know their names.
Their souls are shattered by the actions of fathers and mothers who, feeling their own entrapment, sell the bodies of their daughters and sisters and sons and cousins in order to repay the crushing boulder of debt that sits upon them, squeezing out their family's life breath. The young become slaves, their bodies available to the highest bidder, their value increasing in proportion to their lack of sexual experience.
I used to think of brothels as brash, bosomy, whiskey-laden places in western movies, where the cowboy's sex with the heart-of-gold prostitute led to love or at least some kind of romance in the days after the camera faded to black. Now I know more. I know real, personal facts: That there are girls who are trapped, stuck, used. There are girls who aren't even women yet. There are girls and boys who are used by men and women who have no thought of romance, no thought of the partner at all, except for a means to scratch an itch, an attempt to fulfill a Hollywood-derived fantasy which will never live up to the hype.
Those who have been branded, emotionally and quite literally, from sexual abuse and slavery are not the mysterious, shadow-hidden strangers of our imagination. They live close by. They walk, not just on street corners, but on Your Street. They shop next to us in the self checkout line. They are daughters. They are sisters. They are brothers. They are us, without the luxury of a safety net.
The problem is overwhelming but, as so often is true, there are little things, tiny steps we can take to start helping. We can buy, whenever possible, from stores who support ethical practices. We can not shut up when we see something that just doesn't seem right. We can be communities where families will thrive, where young boys and girls know they have trusted adults to talk to, where there are options other than running away and becoming vulnerable to those who prey on those who are alone; where they have a chance to escape becoming another sex trafficking statistic.
Some of us have been our own type of statistic. Some of us have darker parts of our past we would rather pretend never happened. While we cannot erase the smudges or smooth out the creases, we can turn our eyes toward redemption: Not that the pain and the wrongs didn't matter, but that they mattered enough...enough that we will battle for the girls and the women and boys all around, that we will stand as a wall between them and the evil waves battering against us. That we won't stop standing until the girls in the backseat come home safely: Because any girl in the backseat is you, is me, is one of us. She just needs us to be her safe ride home.
("Human trafficking makes more money than Google, Starbucks, Nike, and the NFL combined." Stat from fairtradewinds.net, an excellent resource. If you search for "fair trade shopping," you'll see a growing list of companies who fit this definition. It costs more, definitely. But even trading out a few purchases a year in this direction is a good beginning. Front-line organizations to check out include Exodus Road and Branded Collective).