Hiding In Plain Sight: The Story Of A Milwaukee Sex Trafficking Survivor

Apr 17, 2019

Michelle is a sex trafficking survivor. She says it was a milestone when she started sharing her experiences. “For a long time, due to the fear of being discriminated against and preconceived notions of what it is to be trafficked, I was really too afraid to step out and tell people,” says Michelle, who’s originally from Milwaukee.

It’s important to note that Michelle isn’t the woman’s real name, but we’re using it to protect her identity. Also, Lotus Legal Clinic connected us with her and vouches for her story. 

People who fall prey to sex traffickers span all ages and genders. They include all racial and ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations and identities. But they tend to have one thing in common: a vulnerability that a trafficker can exploit.

READ: Sex Trafficking Is 'A Crime That Doesn't Discriminate'

Michelle was trafficked from the ages of 19-24 — first from Milwaukee to Chicago, then out west, before she was able to find her way home. And Michelle says two things set her up to be trafficked at 19.

“I think that desire to be loved because I kept feeling like I was unloved in so many different areas of my life. And then that desire to have the material things that I saw some of the other youth around me having that I associated with success and popularity,” she explains.

And one seemingly normal day changed Michelle's life forever. She was walking to a bus stop from a friend’s house on the near west side, and a stranger drove up to her and offered her a ride. At that time, she says she was very depressed because of a recent break-up, and she was impulsive.

“I said, ‘Yeah, sure,’ that way I don’t have to get on the bus. And in the meantime, he engages me in this conversation. He’s very nice, very friendly, very reassuring, laughing, joking. Immediate comfort happens there,” Michelle says.

She left with the impression that this was a very nice guy.

In a short span of time, he took her to meet young women he called “wife-in-laws,” and she moved in with them.

He promised her affection and comfort, she says and told her all she had to do was be loyal.

“After a few days, he introduces the idea of, ‘You can have the world at your fingertips, and all you have to do is have sex for money.’ So, then he takes me to Chicago, and I turn my first trick there. I make $200, and to me, $200 is like ‘Wow, this is a ton of money.’ ”

But she didn’t get the money. The trafficker got the money — and the women she was living with told her that was how things worked. 

“And by them reassuring me that, ‘Hey, this is OK, this is how we live, and it’s us against the world.’ I’m thinking it’s a very OK thing,” Michelle explains.

"After a few days, he introduces the idea of, 'You can have the world at your fingertips, and all you have to do is have sex for money.' "

Not long after, the trafficker took her to work in Nevada. She ended up being trafficked by someone else in that state.

Michelle says he occasionally gave her gifts, but he was also very violent. 

“In my personal situation anyway, he might give me a gift very few and far between many beatings — bad beatings, beatings that let me know that I could potentially be killed by him if I didn’t confer to what he wanted me to do,” says Michelle.

One beating was particularly harsh.

“I can remember one beating that was so bad, both of my eyes — I don’t know if you’ve seen anybody’s eyes bleed — but my eyes, both of them, literally bled,” she says.

A couple of days later, the trafficker had her back out selling her body.

“I’m out there, and I look … and anybody with any sense would’ve been like, ‘Call 911 for this girl because this girl is in a very bad way,’ ” Michelle says.

"Anybody with any sense would’ve been like, 'Call 911 for this girl because this girl is in a very bad way.' "

Despite her injuries, she says johns still paid for sex acts.

Meanwhile, Michelle feared for her life because of her trafficker’s violence.

“He is going to kill you one day, and he is not going to care. And your family is not going to know what happened to you,” she recalls thinking.

But one day Michelle fought back. After fighting her way out of a car, she ran to a nearby hotel and told a security guard she needed help. She was able to get in touch with her family and fly back to Milwaukee.

It’s been seven years since her escape from the life.

She says she’s had to fight criminal charges of prostitution and related crimes, spending years to get them vacated. While the people that trafficked her — as far as she knows — never faced charges.

Michelle went back to school, earning a college degree.

And she’s seen a therapist. She says it was important to find someone who understood trafficking, to address PTSD and mental health needs.

“What I’ve learned, and what’s been absolutely beautiful for me, is understanding that I can either live in conflict with my past or I can reconcile my past to my present,” Michelle says.

One way she’s reconciling her past with her present is by working with organizations that help other survivors of trafficking.

Editor’s note: This is the second story in our series on sex trafficking. On Thursday, we’ll explore organizations that help survivors of sex trafficking.