I have always had a primal fear of being kidnapped or attacked. When I was in middle school, I could almost never fall asleep unless I felt the security of my sister or my mom’s resting body next to mine. I dreaded the inevitability of going to bed and lying still in darkness where, for hours, my mind would form horrifying, threatening thoughts about an intruder or a serial killer before my exhaustion finally overcame me.
My case became so obtrusive that in 7th grade I visited a therapist. One of the exercises which the calm, 50-something year old woman conducted with me to confront my irrational paranoia involved her asking how many people I knew. The next step involved the therapist explaining that none of these people had ever been kidnapped or murdered and probably never would. “This just doesn’t happen,” she calmly reasoned.
Although my paranoia still sets in every so often when I’m falling asleep, it has been easy for me to escape into a “stuff like that doesn’t happen around me” mentality. This frame of mind extended to when I was reading the newspaper or watching the news. I tended only to partially take in the severity of disturbing news stories; it was easier to move on and read a movie review than to fully confront the magnitude of something like murder or child abuse and try to imagine it actually happening somewhere in the world.
The word “slavery” especially struck me as something completely remote, an occurrence that is relegated to the past or developing countries far away. Last spring, however, the JHU Amnesty International club, of which I am a member, united with two students of UMBC to debut a film they had created called Baltimore, We Love You that focused on homelessness, immigrants and refugees and human trafficking in Baltimore. The issue of sex slavery came up in this film, as it showed interviews of girls forced into prostitution. I could not avoid facing the fact that these problems are not remote and are, in fact, occurring around us.
The perception I had of slavery changed completely for me after realizing its presence in the city where I live. The stories of young girls being forced into sex slavery make the issue scarily easy to imagine. A 14-year-old girl, neglected or abused at home, runs away. A man then comes up to the girl at a bus stop or on the street and starts talking to her, providing sympathy for her situation and offering for her to come home with him. The girl, feeling like she has no other options, agrees. After he has brought her to a secure location, she is then forced into a life of slavery and prostitution. Everything she owns is taken away from her, and any attempt to escape or defy the pimp or other head figure will result in physical abuse. In other cases, the victims are kidnapped and forced into sex slavery. My nightmare is someone else’s reality.
According to a recent report by the Abell Foundation, a Baltimore organization dedicated to improving the quality of life in Maryland, internet sex trafficking is on the rise. Traffickers can easily post advertisements online marketing girls in a certain location, attract customers, pocket their money, and then take the ads down and leave, before police can even find out they were there.
I am ashamed of how naïve I have been about this issue, but my naïvety is shared by most of my friends here. When I was talking to one of my friends about the human trafficking problem, she said when she thought of human trafficking she just thought of the movie Taken. On the one hand, these movies have at least raised awareness of the issue, but they fictionalize and to varying degrees sensationalize.
There needs to be a more open and real dialogue in Baltimore and on the Hopkins campus about forced prostitution. The issue is so disturbing that it elicits either avoidance, as I previously attempted, or exploitation, as Hollywood has done. This is an important human rights issue and a vital women’s issue. The fear I have always had is a universal and justified one that stems from our vulnerability as young women, but also as young men, to being overpowered, violated and controlled. This is a real issue happening here and the first step toward change is facing the magnitude of the problem.
Julia Broach is a sophomore Archeology major from Wilton, Conn.