Local advocates are calling human trafficking "modern day slavery." It is a rising trend around the country, including in Tennessee.
New numbers released on Wednesday by Operation Broken Silence show the online commercial sex trade is strong in Middle Tennessee. Between September and November of 2011, the group found more than 2,000 ads on the internet selling sex in the Nashville area. Advocates said these ads are often used in situations of forced prostitution or human sex trafficking.
Wednesday was also Human Trafficking Awareness Day. The East Tennessee Council for Children and Youth sponsored a training class to mark the day. The Knoxville-based Community Coalition against Human Trafficking (CCAHT) shared tips on how to identify potential trafficking situations, and why numbers are up across the state.
"It's been a hidden crime, and as we have more awareness and more training, we are having more tips come in. With the TBI report that came out this year, 68 percent of counties in Tennessee have reported at least one case of domestic minor sex trafficking within the past 24 months," said CCHT President Christi Wigle.
Over the past year, law enforcement in East Tennessee have arrested at least half a dozen people for running human sex trafficking operations. Although we know about he criminals, we rarely hear from the victims.
One East Tennessee woman, who is recovering from a life of forced prostitution shared her story with 10News. Most sex trafficking victims who have escaped captivity are under some kind of police protection while they wait for their pimps to be caught or prosecuted. That is no different with this victim. For her protection, 10News changed her hame to "Sara."
"They'd come into the room and I'd have to do whatever they wanted. If they wanted to do things that I didn't even remotely want to do, I had to do it," said Sara.
Memories of life as a sex slave are still fresh in Sara's 21-year old mind.
"You are their money. That's all they care about is that money. They don't care about you," explained Sara.
Sara said a man she barely knew forced her into a life of prostitution, holding her against her will for more than a month three years ago. She was just 18 years old when it happened.
"He handed me a phone and said, 'Your phone number is online, and this is your name, and this is what you're gonna do, and this is what you're gonna say, and if you try to run, there's people that will kill you'," said Sara.
Sara said her best friend tricked her in to human trafficking by introducing Sara to her boyfriend, "We went out of town and met her boyfriend. When we got there, come to find out, he was a trafficker."
Afraid for her life, Sara gave in to selling her body to as many as five men per day, every day of the week.
"I was scared. I felt alone. I was helpless," said Sara.
She says her pimp also forced her to take the drug ecstacy while she worked.
"It was $100 for 15 minutes, $130 for a half hour, and $200 for an hour," explained Sara.
Sara said she didn't get to keep any of the money she earned. She is not alone. While thousands of international cases are uncovered each year, the U.S. Justice Department reports domestic sex trafficking has quadrupled over the past two years. They also estimate there are more than 500 victims nation-wide who share Sara's horror.
Sex trafficking is not voluntary prostitution. Advocates say it is about power over another person.
"I never in my life thought something like this would happen to me," said Sara.
She got away by pretentint to take a shower, and calling a friend who called Police. Sara was not trafficked in East Tennessee. She came here to re-start her life, and recover from what she calls life-altering and emotionally scarring.
"I don't think I'll ever be the same because you always have boyfriends. They always ask you, you always get that question: how many guys have you been with? I don't know. To have to actually say that and tell somebody, 'I don't know,' breaks my heart," said Sara.
Sara said she is selling her story to help heal her heart, and in the process, help other victims.
Sara said her pimp is currently in an out-of-state jail awaiting trial. She said he faces 35 years to life for holding her and dozens of other women captive, and selling them for sex against their will.
To help someone who might be a victim of human trafficking, or if you might be a victim yourself, the following resources are available:
Tennessee Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-855-558-6454
Federal Bureau of Investigation Knoxville Field Office: 1-865-544-0751
Cry For Justice: www.cryforjustice.org
Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking: www.ccaht.org