It was 1967, and I was going on my first solo vacation. My destination: New Orleans. I stayed at the Royal Sonesta right on Bourbon Street, and took everything in—the French Cuisine, the jazz, the riverfront and its stores, beignets covered in powdered sugar with a cup of delicious roasted coffee, the Mississippi River, muffulettas’, pralines, Piper’s Alley where the local artists hung out and St. Louis Cathedral. In other words, all the French Quarter could offer in way of its history and its people.
Back then, I had no clue about the evil world of human trafficking. Along with the large plantations, beautiful weeping willow trees, perfume making and cemeteries, my bus tour took us through the red-light district. I saw young girls, ages nine to thirteen, selling their wares in sheer nightgowns. They stood in doorways and sat at windows, plying themselves for any who could afford what they might be selling. I was shocked, dismayed, and had to turn away as tears rolled down my face. What was this? How could this be? My young heart broke. I came from a warm, loving home, and their homes looked old and desolate. Their smiles never reached their eyes.
Forward to 1977. Again, I was headed to New Orleans on the way to see some friends. This time my husband and my parents came along. We stayed at another hotel in the French Quarter. To my dismay, in a ten-year span, the Quarter had severely changed. There was no Piper’s Alley and local artists by St. Louis Cathedral. The Quarter was dingy and dirty. There was now a new football stadium in town. The river front bars, once friendly and open, were filled with drunk and raucous sailors. Policemen walked four abreast down the streets. We were warned not to be out late, to stay away from the riverfront and its bars.
There was something darker happening besides the prostitution I saw ten years earlier, and one of the officers told me that it was “white slavery. Women, particularly young women, were being abducted; then put on ships to other parts of the world for sexual pleasures. Most of these young women were never found or heard from again.
After this trip, I became intensely aware of the plight of battered and trafficked women. I enrolled in a class at College of DuPage, and had the opportunity to meet and listen to women who had been battered either by so-called boyfriends or by their spouses. Burned with cigarettes, beaten within an inch of dying, terrified of doing anything their significant other perceived as wrong.
I asked these women why they stayed, why they subjected themselves, and sometimes their children, to this cruelty and fear. They told me they stayed because of the threat that if anyone found out, they and even their children would be killed. Most of these women didn’t work. Some had no job skills, others were highly educated.
The same thread that ran through all their tragic stories: they had been brow beaten into thinking they were worthless and no one wanted them or really care about them. My heart broke again. These women truly believed they had no way out, and so they stayed, day after day, year after year, and maybe died anyway, either physically or mentally. Very few of their children were unable to break this mode in their lives.
Which brings me back to the gist of my essay—trafficked human beings. According to the Naomi House website “24,000 women and girls are being exploited in Chicago alone! The average age is thirteen. Traffickers use a variety of means to control their victims: from physically restraining them to drugs, branding, and alcohol.” The severity of their trauma is incomprehensible to us, who live sheltered, stable care free lives. The website continues: “Traffickers, like wife abusers, use feelings of fear, dependency, and helplessness on their victims.” Some muster the courage to escape, but then need to be restored to the beautiful women and children that God created. Some make it, but some find the road to freedom so very hard that they return to their traffickers. If you are brave enough to want to know more, read The White Umbrella – Walking with Survivors Of Sex Trafficking by Mary Frances Bowley.
I began this essay with my two trips to New Orleans, where I first encountered trafficked women and saw, for the first time, lives so very different from my own. I have never forgotten the faces of these young girls, and as Christianity Today Magazine mentioned in an article on sex trafficking “the full abolition of sexual slavery will surely have to await Christ return.”
But surely, in the meantime, we stay aware of where our children are when away from home and to teach them about stranger danger, and to realize that suburbia doesn’t guarantee protection. Protection from evil only rests with God. And to remember that so much of what matters in life depends on trust, and trust should lead to love, not being trafficked or sold, or abused. And fully embracing that authentic love and trustworthiness only rests with God.