January is human trafficking month -- a time when groups trying to eradicate the crime, raise awareness about it. Across the world, it’s estimated that around 27 million people are being trafficked for sex. Most of them are women. The numbers here are hard to pin down. But some experts say Milwaukee is a hotbed for the activity.
WUWM caught up with a couple people working to fight sex trafficking in Wisconsin.
What were you doing at age 13? For many people, the answer probably revolves around going to school and hanging out with friends. But that’s not the case for all 13-year-olds. In fact, 13 is the average age of girls who are sex trafficked across the country, according to Dana World-Patterson.
“When we go back to being 13-years-old, we weren’t thinking about how do we pleasure someone day in and day out with our bodies,” she says.
World-Patterson chairs the Milwaukee human trafficking task force. For the past decade, she’s been working to eradicate the problem here.
She says over time, awareness has grown about who the victims are. “When we started 10 years ago, that’s all we heard. That it was an inner city black girl - no father, poverty-stricken problem."
World-Patterson says, in reality, sex trafficking victims are often boys who are younger than 13 and girls, men and women of varying ages and ethnic backgrounds. She says the crime is happening in all of Wisconsin's 72 counties. She says once people across the state began to pay attention, the way they thought about human trafficking started to change.
“It opened the eyes of individuals in different counties that I believe just wanted to maintain the status quo that said no, it’s an inner city thing. That’s them over there,” World-Patterson says.
She says the one thing that all victims have in common is that they are in some way vulnerable. As part of her quest to eradicate the crime, she educates people about what the traffickers look like.
“They show up as boyfriends. Now also be mindful of this, that it’s not just men who are traffickers. So, it’s also the nice lady in the grocery store who approaches the girl at 11 o’clock at night like honey, why are you out here? Shouldn’t you be at home? What’s going on? So, we also have to be mindful of the smooth-talking females that are also recruiting for this lifestyle,” World-Patterson says.
World-Patterson says last year alone, hundreds of women went missing here. And she says it's likely that many of them at least had some sort of contact with traffickers.
As part of an effort to stop sex trafficking, state lawmakers last fall passed legislation calling for truck drivers to be trained to recognize — and report — trafficking. And Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel says the state has developed screening tools and training programs for medical staff and police officers to identify victims.
Schimel says now the goal is to crack down on the buyers. “These individuals are the ones who are creating the demand. If they’re willing to pay for sex with people who are being trafficked, therefore, that’s why the traffickers engage in this and have people working in modern day slavery."
He says one of the biggest challenges in eradicating sex trafficking is that it’s an underground business.
“The people who are purchasing sex, they don’t want to talk about what they’re doing. The survivors are different than most crime victims because they’ve been manipulated and had so much fear instilled in them that they don’t come forward voluntarily either. And then, of course, the traffickers don’t want to talk to us,” Schimel says.
He says the days of street walkers are largely gone. Much of the sex trafficking now occurs online, also making it tough to track down the predators.
Meanwhile, Dana World-Patterson — chair of the Milwaukee human trafficking task force — says there's another industry that needs to be targeted in order to cut down on trafficking: strip clubs.
She says she's known victims of trafficking as young as 13 who've been put to work as strippers.