I met my trafficker in high school. He was in the grade above mine. He lured me out of high school with promises of a good life, assuring me I could just get my GED and become successful. He started advertising me online, without my knowledge, and that’s when men started coming to our apartment to rape me. I didn’t know I was being trafficked, prostituted, then.
When I ask people how they picture human trafficking happening they often compare it to the movie Taken—a young lady vacationing in Paris, being kidnapped and sold by her captors. While it can happen that way, here in America domestic trafficking looks much different. Less than 10% are kidnapped. Traffickers often lure their victims by gaining their trust, posing as a boyfriend, and offering their victims false promises.
A couple of years ago I drove by a house here locally in Marysville, and there were obvious signs of trafficking going on. So I called 911 and said I suspected trafficking going on in the house. When the officer arrived, he said, “Yes we are investigating. This guy is on parole for trafficking girls in the Bay Area.” I wasn’t so surprised that it was happening or that the police were on to it. What frustrated me was watching all the people walking past that house that had no idea even what the signs of trafficking were.
There were people during my exploitation that could have seen signs I was being trafficked. The owner of the clothing boutique I worked in then would often ask me if I was ok. But my trafficker parked his car in front of the store and watched me, to make sure I wasn’t telling anyone, so I always said “yes.”
My trafficker separated me from my family and support system. Separating a woman/girl from her support systems is a common move for traffickers. It helps them to gain control of you. My trafficker married me. I felt stuck.
My trafficker separated me from my family and support system… My trafficker married me. I felt stuck.
When I survived it 13 years ago I had no idea that I was a victim of human trafficking. I was headed to play college volleyball. I lived in what was said to be one of the safest communities in Southern California at the time. It wasn’t like what you see in the movies. And I was never educated on trafficking in my small, private high school.
If I had been educated, not only could it have been prevented but I would’ve been able to rescue myself sooner. I needed to know what would happen if I called 911. Was someone going to protect me? Was there a place I could go? Who would help me figure my life out at that point?
This is why I now tour around the country, speaking to and training others. I train first responders on how to identify and respond to victims. I speak on college campuses and community forums to educate others on how to identify trafficking in their community.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 1 in 7 American kids will run away from home and 1 in 3 will become victims within 48 hours. I remember when I first started doing this work and read that statistic—the 48 hours time-frame really struck me.
If you ask most survivors of human trafficking they will say that their story is not like the movie Taken. They were not kidnapped, dragged out from under a bed, and sold on a boat for a half-million dollars. That is one story, but it is not most of our stories. It wasn’t until I started speaking, getting involved, and meeting other survivor leaders that I realized how many others there were like me.
We need to see every victim. Not just the ones that are like we imagine, but the ones like I was: an 18-year-old girl working normal jobs during the day while being sold in her apartment at night. We need to see the 7-year-old girl being sold by her mom for drug money. And the college student who is facing a dark world she doesn’t want to be in, while still getting As in her classes. When we picture it happening only one way, then we are missing all the other ways it happens.
Statistics show that a girl who is trafficked has a seven-year life span.1 One night in a motel I was physically beaten. I knew after that I had to get away. So I went to the doctor and moved back home. That was the last time I was sold.
We need to see every victim. Not just the ones that are like we imagine, but the ones like I was: an 18-year-old girl working normal jobs during the day while being sold in her apartment at night.
I didn’t tell anyone what had happened to me. I wanted to tell someone but didn’t know what would happen to me and was still afraid of him. I planned to go my whole life living with it and trying to move forward. I married, had a son, and moved to a Marine Corps base on the other side of the country.
Six years later I went to the ER after having a breakdown. My PTSD wouldn’t allow me to stay silent any longer. After the ER I spent some time in a mental hospital where I finally told my story.
I didn’t understand what had been done to me. I knew I had been raped but why had they handed my husband money? What did that mean? I didn’t think I was a prostitute because I had never walked the streets or worked in a strip club.
In doing this work, I have realized that traffickers seem to be aware that we’re not educating our students here in rural communities. They send recruiters, often one of their victims, to befriend a girl and lure her away to a city, away from her support system, and then they traffic her there. It’s a common theme among the victims of whom I am able to help.
Some sources say the “average age a teen enters the sex trade in the US is 12 to 14 years old.”2 Human trafficking is said to be the world’s fastest-growing crime.3 There are more people in slavery today than at any other time in history. With such big statistics, to fight it every community has to be educated.
It takes everyone doing their part. We’re all in this fight together. All I want to know is that when I go into a community and when I leave, there’s an opportunity for it to be different for the next girl or boy. Somebody in the audience is going to change things in that place.
I share my story to give hope to other survivors. I started the Jenna McKaye Foundation to assist victims directly and set them up with services and resources. Helping survivors find their way is so important to me. We connect them with professionals that can help them on their journey. We show them that there are people that believe in them and support them. And we help them to dream again, to find new dreams and goals.
There are all these survivors out there waiting for somebody to see them, waiting to be given the opportunity to make a new life for themselves.
During my exploitation, I always thought “What is happening to me and how do I get out of this world that I didn’t agree to?” One of the best parts of my job is to look a victim in the eyes and say, “You are my past and I am your future.” I get to be the person that I needed all those years ago.
You can learn more about me at jennamckaye.com.
Photo Credit: Eric Ward
- 1. “Breaking the Cycle.” Into Freedom, www.intofreedom.org/issues.
- 2. “Human Trafficking Within and Into The United States: A Review of the Literature.” Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. Accessed July 31, 2019, https://aspe.hhs.gov/report/human-trafficking-and-within-united-states-review-literature#Traffickin
- 3. Ochab, Ewelina U. “The World’s Fastest Growing Crime.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 30 July 2017, www.forbes.com/sites/ewelinaochab/2017/07/29/the-worlds-fastest-growing-crime/#1b5ef0a23aae.