By Abby Gray, ’18 and Bre Hart, ’19

More slaves exist in the world today than in any other time in history. 20.9 million people on Earth are victims of human trafficking. That’s 607 times the entire population of Upper Arlington.

Almost 32,000 cases of modern-day slavery have been in the United States, and Ohio is home to the fifth highest amount of trafficking victims in all of America, behind Florida, Texas, Illinois and California.

Traffickers, commonly known as pimps, use threats, violence, debt bondage, deception, drugs and numerous other tactics to force their victims into acts of sex and labor.

Close to Home

From March 2-5 the Arnold Classic was held at the Columbus Convention Center. On the surface, the Arnold Classic appears to be a highly regarded event that positively impacts the city of Columbus with a large flow of visitors from all around the world – but many are blind to the horrors occurring behind the scenes.

With the Arnold Classic comes athletes, models, Arnold Schwarzenegger and about 5,000 sex slaves and their traffickers.

These traffickers make deals for attendees to pay to have for a girl in their possession for an allotted amount of time.

Lauren Nutter, a formal social worker for trafficking victims, described why the Arnold is one of the largest grounds for human trafficking.

“Events like the Arnold are always big places for recruitment and selling because the events have high adult male audiences,” Nutter said. “They draw in a lot of men who are out of town, by themselves, are lonely and want company, so that’s typically who women are sold to at those events.”

Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution, or S.O.A.P., is a campaign that puts labels on bars of soap with the sex trafficking hotline number and places them in the bathrooms at hotels across Columbus.

Before the Arnold, S.O.A.P. went around to Columbus hotels, putting up missing children posters and giving hotel staff members bars of labeled soap.

Attorney Sue Pohler works with human trafficking victims and volunteers with S.O.A.P.

“[S.O.A.P.] gives [hotels] a poster of missing girls and they ask them if they will put bars of soap in their bathrooms. On the back, the soap wrapper has the national human trafficking hotline number,” Pohler said. “When the girls go into the bathroom, they can see the human trafficking phone number on the soap bar and they can remember it, hopefully.”

How it Happens

Traffickers typically look for girls from as young as 12 to 17 to enslave. While some victims are kidnapped, many pimps manipulate young teens by making them feel like they’re in love. They pamper and spoil their targets and in many cases, slowly introduce them to drugs.

“Typically young girls are very vulnerable and they think it’s really fun and silly when some really cute older guy hits on them. It makes them feel special,” Nutter said.

Once addicted or convinced they’re in love with their “boyfriends,” victims are forced to stay with their pimps in order to get the drugs they depend on, to avoid threats of a breakup, to escape being beaten.

“If you have drugs, you have human trafficking. If you have human trafficking, you have drugs. They are synonymous,” Pohler said.

With threats looming over their heads, slaves are sold off to buyers to provide sexual services and then returned to their pimps.

To keep track of their girls, many pimps brand their slaves with tattoos containing gang signs, or “property of” marks on their lower backs.

Slaves may be regularly physically harmed by their pimps in order to instill fear in their victims and assert their own dominance. If the victims resist, they may be beaten, starved or raped. Human trafficking survivor Jennifer Kempton has experienced this abuse first hand.

“I’ve had guns in my face. I’ve suffered beatings. I’ve been in rooms with girls who were locked in dog cages and beat,” Kempton said.

A Vicious Cycle

Kempton’s childhood was violent and abusive. At the age of 12, she was sexually assaulted for the first time.

“I grew up feeling unloved and unworthy. I had deeply embedded negative thoughts and feelings that drove me to seek comfort in negative things. After losing my virginity to a sexual assault at 12, I began to seek comfort in drugs and older men,” Kempton said. “After a series of abusive relationships, I ended up with what I thought was someone who took care of me and truly loved me.”

The boyfriend that she believed loved her so much eventually introduced her to heroin, leaving her dependent on him for a high. In order to supply his drug addiction, Kempton’s boyfriend began to sell her, forcing Kempton to have sex with buyers who would pay him for time with her. To keep her within his grasp, Kempton’s boyfriend forced her to get a tattoo saying “Property of Salem.”

He eventually sold Kempton to the gang ‘King Munch’. Kempton was forced to get another tattoo of the gang’s name along with a crown behind her right ear.

For six years, the gang controlled Kempton. She was regularly sold, raped, beaten and forced to comply with the gang in order to get heroin and to stay alive.

The conditions trafficking victims are kept in are deprived of many of the basic necessities for a healthy life.

“I would say a majority of the time, when we would find victims, they would be living in abandoned houses, motel rooms, crack houses, or there would be 25 victims living in one home, everyone sleeping on the floor,” Nutter said. “Most of them don’t have beds. They don’t have access to showers, hygiene products or medical care and a lot of them aren’t eating regularly.”

Victims often accept their positions, out of learned helplessness. The psychological explanation of learned helplessness is that people tend to stay in harmful situations that they are able to get out of because they believe they deserve the things that are happening to them.

This is the case with many trafficking victims. They, over time, have learned to devalue themselves enough so that they would believe that they deserve the horrific and abusive treatment they undergo daily from their pimps.

“[It was a very long process] rebuilding the damage that was caused from a lifetime of trauma. The self-worth. The negative self-talk. The feeling like I [didn’t] belong, the feeling like I don’t deserve to even be alive,” Kempton said.

Those who resist their traffickers, or resist the Johns who buy them, are often severly punished. Punishments range from beatings, being starved, raped, or a number of other horrors.

“They would withdraw luxuries, like having a warm place to sleep. Or somewhere safe to lay down and take a nap,” Kempton said. “Not only those things, or leaving you dopesick to keep you compliant and in need of them. Isolation, keeping you in [his] grips and not able to reach out for help from anyone else.”

Kempton’s experience revealed the ‘hidden truth’ behind trafficking. Not only the traffickers, but the Johns also beat the girls into compliance.

“We get beat, we get left to starve, we get left outside, we get branded. We get attacked by other girls. They pay the other girls to beat the crap out of you. Ultimate betrayal and abuse and some of that. That’s more obvious and society can see that,” Kempton said. “But a piece that they don’t see that much of or willing to admit is ‘Oh wait, these creeps that are willing to buy are doing more damage than the guys that are holding them captive.’”

Deep Scars

Surviving human trafficking is one battle to overcome, recovering from the traumas it causes is an entirely different, and challenging monster.

“Many have PTSD and many of them have AIDS. Fortunately, today it’s not lethal. Because of the drugs, their faces are sunken. Heroin eats out their teeth. Their bodies, they’ve been beaten, they have trauma,” Pohler said. “There’s a game out there with pimps, to see how many bones they can break, how many stitches they can get them to have.”

Rehabilitation from the mental and physical traumas of being trafficked is extensive and costly.

“They need programs of rehabilitation for their detox from drugs and alcohol and medical appointments,” Nutter said. “Most of them never graduate from high school because they’re taken at such a young ages so they need help getting their GED, counseling, housing, hygiene products, really anything that you could think of that a person would need.”

Not only are the logistics of rehabilitation outwardly complicated, but also emotionally draining and extremely difficult for the victim.

“Most of the time when we get them, psychologically, mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, they’re just dead. They’re lifeless because they’re going through motion by motion. They’ve have to shut themselves off from the pain and from the trauma in order to survive,” Nutter said. “So when we get them, their ability to communicate normally, to be socially aware of what’s happening around them, even just to be able to sit down and have a conversation with people, they lack the ability to do that.”

Self-doubt and low self-esteem stay with survivors after rehabilitation. Survivors stick together, helping each other through the process. Even after recovery, they stay in contact, always ready to be there for each other.

“These survivors, victims, the ones I’ve met, the ones I will will never meet, we are all different but we are all one. It’s pretty awesome. They’re why I do what I do, they’re why I’m able to keep doing it, they’re why I’m being able to learn how to love myself,” Kempton said. “There’s always one of them, that even if I feel worthless, they need something little like a hug, and that makes their day and I was able to give that to them. [It] gives me hope. It’s a breeding ground of hope, inspiration, love and understanding.”

Close to Home

The problem of human trafficking has been frequently talked about on a global scale, but many don’t realize how close the problem is to Upper Arlington.

“My youngest child’s father, I was with for four years. He was one of my buyers. He lives right here in Upper Arlington,” Kempton said. “I have been brought here. It is very much a problem here.”

Human trafficking, while typically done by a male pimp to a young female, is not limited to this specific type of situation. Because of the massive scale of the issue, every person needs to be careful for signs of human traffickers- whether it be at the mall, or in a girlfriend or boyfriend.

“Every woman, man, ethnicity, age, height or body type is at risk. Human trafficking doesn’t discriminate,” Nutter said. 

An easy way to start preventing the problem is to remind others of their own value and importance. This can help anyone become less vulnerable to the threats and tactics of human traffickers.

Other ways that high school students can be directly involved in putting an end to modern day slavery are volunteering with S.O.A.P. and the Columbus Dream Center as well as numerous other organizations that have victim aid programs. 

“Do something,” Kempton said. “Now that you know, what are you going to do about it? What are you going to do?”