Advocates: Sex Trafficking Prominent in Central Ohio

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Human trafficking … at first thought, visions of women from foreign countries locked up in basements in big cities like Washington, D.C., may come to mind. But human trafficking can happen anywhere and to anyone. In the first part of a two part series, WOSU reports on the stories of two Columbus women recovering from their horrifying experiences in the sex trade.

“I’m hanging out with you. And you!”

Vanessa laughs as her little boy gets a kick out of hearing himself talk into a microphone. Vanessa is a 26-year-old brunette with dimples. And unless she told you, you’d never guess there was a time when she did not laugh with her son or even laugh at all.

WOSU has agreed only to use Vanessa’s first name. She’s in recovery for sex trafficking and drug addiction. The numbers are tough to get at, but local human trafficking advocates estimate about 1,200 minors in Ohio are victims of the crime, and likely thousands upon thousands of women are forced to have sex for someone else’s profit.

Vanessa was one of those women.

She grew up in Athens and around a lot of partying.

“That’s when people were laughing and smiling and dancing. And to me that was normal,” she said.

By age 14, Vanessa said, she started drinking alcohol. It was an immediate addiction.

“And it just progressed. I was smoking weed, doing pills, it went from coke to crack to heroine,” she said.

By her early 20s, Vanessa discovered Columbus was the place to get cheap drugs fast. For a while, she bought drugs in Columbus and sold them in Athens to make some cash, used to fuel her own addiction. But then she moved to Columbus permanently. Soon she had nothing. She sold her car, her clothes, everything she owned, for drugs.

“It was kind of a blink-of-an-eye kind of thing. So now what am I going to do? Well, everybody around me was turning tricks and it was so easy’ and it was just so quick,’” Vanessa said.

Physically hurting from drug withdrawals, Vanessa said she walked down the street one day and gave a nod to a man in a car.

“And he pulled over. And I got in the car. I had never done it in my life. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I felt absolutely horrible. But only for a brief moment because that thought of damn that was so quick, like I could just do that so quick, get it over with and move on,” she remembered.

But after brushes with the law — she’s been arrested five times for solicitation — a friend introduced Vanessa to a man, a pimp or dope boy as they’re often called.

“He just kind of sucked me right in with the money, the glamour, and the big thing, he would already have me something so I wouldn’t be sick. He’d already have me dope. So it was nice not to have to turn a trick while I was sick,” Vanessa said.

But it wasn’t glamorous. And soon, Vanessa was being trafficked, forced to have sex with as many as a dozen men a day who answered Craig’s List ads for an erotic massage.

“When I wanted to stop, I wasn’t allowed to stop. Like, you cannot stop. Gotta get that money, gotta get that money, you gotta get that money. Like all day. It was horrible,” she recalled.

Vanessa said she was beaten so badly one time she believes her ribs were broken. She never saw a doctor.

“Like if I didn’t come back with enough money, like I knew it, and he would really beat me and it was horrible. And other girls had it even worse than I did,” she said.

Kae Denino chairs the public awareness committee for the Central Ohio Rescue and Restore Coalition or CORRC. Denino said stories like Vanessa’s sadly are common.

While there’s a minute percentage of people who choose prostitution as their trade, Denino said most prostitutes are being trafficked as a result of an addiction or because they were pimped out at an early age and know no other life.

“The lines do get really blurry because people are brainwashed and so addicted to drugs. But yes the majority of sex workers we meet are desperate to get out of the business, whether they’re in a brothel or a massage parlor or a strip club. Often in a strip club, it’s not the strip club that’s pimping them out. It’s like a boyfriend at home who makes them go to work, get pimped out at work, come back and give him the money,” Denino said.

Vanessa was desperate to get out. And so was 40-year-old Rita Lynch. Lynch recalls being the child of an all American family, sheltered is how she puts it. As a young woman, life was good. Lynch managed a go-go bar and made good money. She had a great live-in boyfriend who helped raise her daughter.

But when Lynch’s mom became gravely ill, the pressures of work and family life were difficult to balance. And she found prescription drugs gave her a quick pick-me-up. Like so many prescription opioid abusers, Lynch found heroine was much cheaper.

“That was the beginning of the end. The very first time I did it,” Lynch said.

Lynch also had a dope boy to answer to. And like Vanessa, she endured beatings.

“I had to pay for the motel room for the dope boy to sell out of, or I owed the dope boy money. So I knew I couldn’t go back until I made that money,” she recalled. Many adult prostitutes, Denino said, are first trafficked between the ages of 12 and 14. And in most cases, the girls are fed drugs like crack and cocaine which lead to addictions. She said runaways and children in foster care are at highest risk for being recruited. Part of CORRC’s mission is to educate students.

“We find a lot of kids that way, just by going to schools.”

Rampant is how Denino describes child sex trafficking in Central Ohio. And she said it’s more prominent in minority communities. Police recently were called after a 16-year-old Somali immigrant was overheard telling her story to two Hispanic girls. A Mexican man had propositioned her, offered her $50 for oral sex.

“The two 10-year-olds were looking at each other, and the one said, ‘That’s a deal. It’s usually $20.’ So for this entire community, as far as we can tell, of children, that was normal and even a deal,” Denino said.

Tuesday we’ll hear how Vanessa and Lynch made it off the streets of Columbus. And what local lawmakers and advocates are doing to help combat the issue and the efforts being made to help these women regain their lives.

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