The Wild Midwest: The Dangerous Route Sex Trafficking takes through Our Own Communities // Aimee Poleski

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The weather finally broke.  Winter coat abandoned, I breathed in the crisp air while settling into my car for a quick food run during what was hardly a lunch break.  The sound of a public radio interview grumbled from the speakers of my dusty dashboard, neglected in the controlled chaos of a regularly overbooked schedule.  I listened as a Chicago man spoke of the impact of new regulations on internet sites commonly used to solicit commercial sex.  While the comments described the effect of new legislation on those willingly engaging in selling sexual services, I could not help but think of young girls I have worked with in the past who may have been at risk of being trafficked and how girls and women may now be better protected:
“Now this time sit up a bit straighter,” I prompted the eleven-year-old girl in front of me.

Her gait was awkward, reflecting her disability and shortage of confidence.  When sitting, her posture conveyed the same.

“Nice and loud,” I continued.

She straightened her back, remaining postured slightly to the left, apathetically resting her body weight upon the palm flattened on the carpet, near the checkerboard in between us.  Her meagerness made her seem susceptible to drifting off with the smallest puff of air.

“No,” she replied.

This time her response was much better than previous attempts at assertiveness.  Initially, she presented “no” as more of an offering, as something that sounded more like a suggestion for the listener to heed, or not.  Yet by now, she regularly made eye contact and kept her head positioned forward, her chin lifted up rather than shadowing a downward gaze, chin tucked into chest.  Likewise, her responses when discussing appropriate sexual behavior were now presented as her own thoughts and beliefs, rather than empty guesses or sad attempts to recite what she thought an adult wanted to hear when engaging in such discussion.
Among many things that I enjoy, I am particularly passionate about working to help girls develop comfortability discussing sex and sexuality with parents, as well as helping them find an effective, assertive voice.  It is my hope that such work within the mental health community can help families be prepared to face more serious threats, such as that of sex trafficking. 

The lack of awareness surrounding sex trafficking within United States communities is grim.  Many people do not realize how real of a threat this industry poses.  In many cases, the threat is quite close to home.  Sadly, a lack of recognition does not reflect an absence of a threat, and many people do not even understand what is under the realm of sex trafficking.  Often lumped in are terms such as sex work or prostituting, yet these actions are not generally classified as sex trafficking due to the worker having greater autonomy and personal choice (Gerassi, 2015).  Instead, the illegal act of sex trafficking involves a victim under eighteen-years-old or an adult who has been trafficked against their will (Weitzer, 2012).  Sex trafficking involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to engage a minor in prostitution or pornography in exchange for money, drugs, food, shelter, or clothes (Shared Hope International).  The nature of sex trafficking as a punishable offense emphasizes the role of the trafficker, rather than the person providing sex acts, as the latter is best described as a victim.

The sex industry is the fastest growing criminal industry internationally, second only to drug trafficking (Indiana State Report on Human Trafficking, 2016).  However, this is not a problem foreign to the US.  Statistics vary and may not represent the magnitude of the problem (Hounmenou, 2015), though it is reported that over 80% of sex trafficking victims are U.S. citizens (Indiana State Report on Human Trafficking, 2016), and the industry has generated up to $300 million as recently as 2014 (Hounmenou, 2015).  Such prevalence and profitability of the sex industry is not unprecedented.  The National Human Trafficking Hotline has received over one hundred thousand calls since its origin in 2007 (Cone, 2017), many resulting in sex trafficking cases.   For instance, around a quarter of callers from 2012 to 2016 self-identified as sex trafficking victims (24.52%), and roughly the same number of family members (24.17%) reported a relative being trafficked (National Trafficking Resource Center).  Of the calls within this timeframe, over 90% of victims were female and just under half were minors.  Sex trafficking cases increased 35% into 2017 and continue to rise (Cone, 2017).  Like a noxious leak, this ubiquitous nightmare infiltrates communities wherever a demand for sex exists.  Though, many community members remain unaware of proximity to dangerous players within the sex industry. This is particularly true for areas in the Midwest, where the industry thrives due to federal interstate routes facilitating the transportation victims (Siao, 2017).  Recent documented sex trafficking activity within Chicagoland and Northwest Indiana reflect this.

Within the last several years there have been a range of sex trafficking arrests and convictions in Chicago, Chicago suburbs, and neighboring counties in Indiana.  As recently as February of 2016 a male occupant of Northwest Indiana was arrested for forcing underage females to perform sex acts on adult men (DOJ, 2018).  He, like many arrested or convicted, used the internet to advertise commercial sex acts.  The activity in this case was also a component of a larger operation being executed by gang members operating out of several areas within the region (Franklin, 2016).  In November, 2017, a massage parlor in Merrillville, Indiana went under investigation for potential sex trafficking in (Lowe, 2017), and in the same year a woman from Plainfield, Illinois was trafficked into Philadelphia after being preyed on during postpartum depression following the birth of her second child (Siao, 2017).  She is reported to have been held captive through the perpetrator making her fear for the safety of her children.  Another interstate trafficking case resulted in a seventeen-year-old girl from West Virginia being trafficked to Illinois, where she was forced into performing commercial sex acts out of a Schaumberg hotel room (Finefrock, 2017).

Within the current month alone several trafficking cases have led to arrest or conviction within and around Chicago.  In one case, a Hammond, Indiana man was just sentenced to life in prison after being found guilty of sex trafficking teenage girls (Cross, 2018).  He used, a site frequently used to advertise sex until being shut down this year, to prostitute out of his home and other areas throughout the region.  The perpetrator met one of the young girls on a dating website before proceeded to sell her to fifteen men within only a few days.  Within the same week, an East Chicago, Indiana woman, was convicted of similar crimes.  In the same manner as the previous case, this trafficker also used to traffic teenage girls in the region, though it was also reported this perpetrator utilized drugs and intimidation to sustain her business for several years before being arrested and eventually sentenced to a seventeen-year prison sentence.  A more sobering consequence of the industry is evident in the April, 2018 report of a sixteen-year-old being girl murdered after having been trafficked within Chicago (Cross, 2018).  Her mother recently visited the White House, where she looked on as the president signed legislation that would combat online sex-trafficking (Koeske, 2018).  This bill, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), increases criminal penalties for sites facilitating prostituting or sex trafficking.  The bill also provides those who have been trafficked with restitution (House of Representatives Judiciary Committee).  It seems hardly meaningful to merely hope such legislation will have an impact, though I can’t help but hope the legislation initiates greater change.

A need for greater policing of sex trafficking in the US is necessary, though the industry remains fairly protected due to the lack of awareness that such a problem exists.  Perhaps this tendency is driven by women being undervalued.  Such is evident in sex trafficking being relatively ignored, similarly to other forms of violence that commonly effect women, such as domestic abuse or intrafamilial sexual abuse (Farley, 2006).  These women, many of them young, female minorities of low socioeconomic status, describe violence as normality.  Captive to a life that presents little reasonable escape, sex trafficking victims experience recurrent trauma that is largely overlooked. 

Why is it that this epidemic is absent from common discussion? How are women so undervalued in the 21st century that more controversy surrounds the reactions to peaceful protesting at a sporting event than the dead bodies and recurrent victimization of women and children that peaks at each Superbowl (Finkel & Finkel, 2015)?  How does this problem, somehow, not seem to matter?

Without a presence in regular dialogue we cannot even begin to address sex trafficking.  An absence of awareness contributes to unintended ignorance, reflected in failing to realize that women and children are trafficked even within our own communities. The pseudo-safety within many neighborhoods creates a false sense of security.  And yet we are hardly far removed from the risk of sex trafficking.  A greater awareness and sense of responsibility must be developed if any meaningful change is to occur.  Action is secondary to education and can be reflected in educating others, advocating for legislative policies that enhance protection of potential victims, or becoming active in outreach.  However, acknowledgment of this prevalent issue is a vital start. 
The winter seemed to last a bit longer this year, leaving many people hesitant to trust that the warmth would linger for more than a few days.  Despite this, the sun was refreshing, evident in what seemed like the world exhaling relief to have transcended the cold.

Captive by the relentless demands of life, I could not help but notice for the thousandth time how everything seems better when blanketed by the sun.  Moods lift.  People relate to one another’s joy.  Even music sounds better than usual: Old favorites become new again. The sun, at times, seems to exist as a cure for the winter and anything weighing heavy on the soul.

At the conclusion of what could hardly be defined as a break, I reflected once more on the girls I hoped to help transition into womanhood.  With the podcast interrupted by my schedule demanding I reorient my attention away from reflection and onto work, I still briefly wondered about the fate of women and girls who don’t absorb the soothing nature of the sun, those who remain in a world that is cold and harsh no matter the season.  My mind entertained the potential of a person bringing meaningful change: What would that change be and for whom, and who is capable of having an impact?
By: Aimee Poleski


Brooks. M.  (2017). Suburban family shares their story on sex trafficking in hopes of warning           others.  NBC Chicago.  Retrieved from       Firsthand-Looks-to-Warn-Others-410543245.html

Department of Justice, U.S. Attorney’s Office: Northern District of Indiana.  (2018).  Northwest       Indiana man arrested for sex trafficking.  United States Department of Justice.  Retrieved      from      trafficking

Cone, A.  (2017).  Report: Human trafficking in U.S. rose 35.7 percent in one year.  UPI.    Retrieved from   in-one-year/5571486328579/

Cross, L.  (2018).  East Chicago woman sentenced to 17 years in prison for sex trafficking teen           girls on  Retrieved from           to-years-in-prison-for-sex/article_f2fed2c1-08df-51fe-b1db-5918845d77a9.html

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House of Representatives, Judiciary Committee.  Retrieved from         content/uploads/2018/02/FOSTA-one-pager.pdf

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Koeske, Z.  (2018).  Mother of slain Chicago teen who was victim of sex trafficking attends             white house bill signing.  Chicago Tribune.  Retrieved from http://www.chicagotribune.    com/suburbs/daily-southtown/news/ct-sta-online-sex-trafficking-bill-st-0412-story.html

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Shared Hope.  (2018).  What is sex trafficking?  Retrieved from    problem/what-is-sex-trafficking/

Siao, J.  (2017).  Human trafficking in the Midwest.  Medium.  Retrieved from https:             //

Weitzer, R. (2011). Sex trafficking and the sex industry: The need for evidence-based theory and       legislation. The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1973-)101(4), 1337-1369.

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