Alumna helps human trafficking victims

sarah austin

As humans, we all seek love from our peers, our family and those we cherish most in life, but for many that love is not always unconditional and can come with a high price. Alumna Sarah Austin, ’05 and ’07, works with women who have come to find love as a prison instead of a sanctuary.

“There’s a common image of a typical trafficking victim that follows the issue around: A woman or girl cowering in a corner with tape over her mouth and her hands in chains,” Sarah says. “Trafficking victims often look like normal, everyday women. The chains that keep them with their traffickers are usually emotional and not physical.”

Human trafficking is a means to entice or coerce another human being into forced labor or commercial sex work. For example, forced labor might mean promising someone a job, then taking his identification and refusing to pay him. Sex trafficking could mean enticing someone into a seemingly loving relationship before exploiting him or her into prostitution. Nightlight says an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 men, women, and children are trafficked across international borders each year.

Sarah studied technical and professional writing at Missouri State and earned her master’s in 2007.  She heard about a local organization that combats human trafficking at a Rotary meeting. She recognized a staff member from Nightlight, Shauna Storey, from classes at Missouri State. After hearing Storey talk about the organization, Sarah started volunteering in August and joined the staff in January 2016.

Working with victims

Working with victims is more than reaching out to women in the commercial sex industry. Sarah says it’s really about learning to love.

“I spend a lot of time figuring out how to love these women well and how to build relationships with them,” she says.

Nightlight is different from other organizations because it doesn’t make a distinction between trafficking victims and those who work in the sex industry by choice, Sarah says.

“We believe that every woman we meet is worthy of love and dignity and respect, regardless of whether they’re the victim of a prosecutable crime,” she says.

Sarah characterizes herself more as a cheerleader for these women, so “If and when they decide to pursue different work, more education, etc., we are there for them.”

She says those who are lured into trafficking are often girls who’ve grown up without unconditional love or live in homes where there is domestic violence or sexual abuse. These women develop low self-esteem and become easy targets.

“Pimps are experts at reading people and look for the girls who are lonely and vulnerable. They will groom a young woman with lots of love in the beginning of their relationship and slowly and methodically break her down. That’s one reason why it’s so hard for the women to leave; they want to get back to that honeymoon phase of their relationship. Not every moment with their pimp is terrible,” Sarah says.

You can help

As an outsider, it’s easy to believe you can’t help or miss “red flags“, but Sarah says there’s lots of resources to help you pick-up on those warning signs.

“Be mindful of recruiters that hang out where young women congregate. Recruiters for “modeling agencies” at local malls are red flags. Also be wary of contact from people you don’t know online, especially those offering too good to be true jobs, like modeling or acting gigs. Those jobs often turn into pornography work, and there are often threats to send photos or video to a victim’s family or school if the women wants to leave the job,” Sarah says.

Combating sex trafficking can be as simple as following the same rules as TSA: “If you see something, say something.”

“If you’re in a situation where something fishy is going on, I believe you’re there for a reason. It’s so easy to keep driving, turn your eyes away, or tell yourself, ‘I’m just imagining that.’ But, if you know what trafficking and the commercial sex industry looks like, if you know the red flags, you’ll start seeing at-risk people. You have to listen to your gut that’s telling you something isn’t right and do something,” Sarah says.

If you suspect trafficking you should call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. The hotline is staffed with connections in law enforcement who can investigate the situation and agencies who can assist the victims. You can get additional resources from the U.S. Department of State.

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