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Sex Trafficking In Milwaukee: 'A Crime That Doesn’t Discriminate'

Milwaukee has a reputation as a hub for sex trafficking, a crime that's often hidden in plain sight.

Milwaukee has a reputation as a hub for sex trafficking. So, what is it? Who is it affecting? What are the numbers?

Here's a primer on what the crime looks like here in Milwaukee.

What It Is  

Sex traffickers get an adult to exchange sex for money through force, fraud or coercion. But it’s also considered trafficking to have a child exchange sex for money, under any circumstance.

Traffickers may separate victims from family, control their lives and even move them from one city to another.

Assistant Milwaukee County District Attorney Erin Karshen sees a common thread in how the relationships between traffickers and those being trafficked begin.

“So, the trafficker either picks them up off the street, provides them food, provides them shelter, showers them with compliments, gives them money to have their hair done, their nails done,” she explains.

Once victims are dependent on the trafficker for basic needs, she says the trafficker manipulates them by saying they need to contribute. Saying things like, “Why don’t I just set up a date with you to talk to this person, not necessarily have sex?”

Karshen says different traffickers use different tactics to control victims.

“There’s one that can, almost like a Romeo-pimp, manipulate them to think that there’s feelings there and there’s a relationship, then he puts them out into a trafficking situation. There are definitely more violent pimps where they’ll have multiple girls that are working with them and then they’ll perhaps beat one of the girls in front of the other to prove a point,” she explains.

WUWM's Maayan Silver gives a preview of the series on human trafficking in Milwaukee.

Who They Are

That’s something that a survivor, who wants to remain anonymous and that we’ll call Michelle, knows firsthand.

She says she was lured into sex trafficking when she was 19, and that her trafficker turned violent.

“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 recalls.

LISTEN: Michelle's Story, A Milwaukee Sex Trafficking Survivor

Force is the easiest to identify because usually either the victim or another person under the trafficker’s control will have some kind of injury, says Karshen.

"I can remember one beating that was so bad, both of my eyes ... literally bled," one survivor says.

But coercion and fraud can have many forms.

One example, Karshen says, is keeping drugs from an addicted victim until he or she finishes a sex act.

“It is manipulating somebody with, probably, an underlying vulnerability to control them and get them to do what the trafficker wants,” she explains.

While Milwaukee is a hub for trafficking in the United States, Karshen says statistics vary.

She says there are several reasons sex trafficking is worse in Milwaukee. One is because of the expressways and easy access to places like Chicago, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Wisconsin Dells. There are also a lot of conventions and sporting events in Milwaukee where trafficking surges.

Traffickers cross all walks of life, says Karshen.

"The vast majority of our traffickers are men, but they are people you probably walk by on the street all the time. They are smart businessmen, they may appear to be entrepreneurs. But there’s no category of ‘this is what a trafficker looks like,’ ” she explains.

And just who is being trafficked?

A new report based on Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) data estimates that from 2013-2016, 340 young adults and children were confirmed or suspected victims of human trafficking. About two-thirds of those victims were black and almost all were female. The majority were first trafficked when they were under 18.


Why It's Underrepresented

But activists and some law enforcement say sex trafficking statistics are just skimming the surface given the underground nature of the exchanges.

"It doesn’t matter — rural, urban, a lot of money, no money — every ethnicity, every economic group, every sexual orientation has been affected. It’s a crime that doesn’t discriminate," says Milwaukee Police Lieutenant Dawn Jones, with the Sensitive Crimes Division.

“If you find somebody that thinks that they can make money off of another person, then that person is susceptible to being trafficked,” Jones says.

There are a lot of challenges in fighting sex trafficking, including victims forging a trauma bond with their trafficker, not trusting the police, or not coming forward for fear of being judged.

Michelle — the survivor you heard from earlier — confirms this.

“Survivors, and I say this all the time, genuinely hide in plain sight because of the fear of the stigmas that will be placed on them if society only knows what we have been through,” she says.

Editor’s note: This is the first part in our series about sex trafficking in the Milwaukee area and Wisconsin. We’ll hear Michelle’s storyabout how she was trafficked — and how she escaped from that life — on Wednesday.

Maayan is a WUWM news reporter.
Lauren Sigfusson
Lauren became WUWM's digital producer in July 2018.
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