Compass: Alaskans must have zero tolerance for sex trafficking

For far too long, society has hardened its heart against those known as prostitutes. They were seen as willing participants in what was considered a mere transaction between consenting parties.

In recent years, however, those who have cared to look more deeply into the world of sex trafficking have discovered the disturbing reality.

The vast majority of prostitutes are being preyed upon by someone. After all, no little girl or boy dreams of growing up to be abused, raped, addicted, and cast aside.

One cannot look at the facts of the human trafficking trade without being deeply affected. Those who are sexually exploited are trading their bodies for a place to stay for the night, for a meal, or because they are under the very real threat of grave physical harm and relentless emotional abuse from a pimp.

In fact, sex trafficking is a form of slavery -- something most Americans thought was abolished years ago.

Victims are often quite young. Nationally, the average age of teens recruited and trafficked in the sex trade is 14. Think for a moment of the young teens you know, and then think of the horror of them being forced, coerced or manipulated into selling their bodies. We should all be outraged; these are our daughters and our sons.

The transformation from "girlfriend" to "street walker" is insidious. Pimps find young girls at the fringes, in places like middle and high schools, outside courtrooms, in foster homes, bus stations, and homeless shelters. Traffickers target victims who already have the odds stacked against them, such as runaway youth, who are often fleeing abuse.

Young teens are manipulated into a relationship with a trafficker that starts with gifts and grooming, and then turns into an isolating, violent nightmare. They're purposefully addicted to drugs or alcohol, and controlled through their addiction.

Alaska is not immune to this ugly crime. Sex trafficking is perpetuated in our state, and is now being recognized as the serious crime it is.

We hear more and more anecdotal evidence that teens from rural communities are being hit especially hard. Young girls are offered what appears to be a glamorous life in the city, but they are completely unaware of what their lives will really be like under the fist of a pimp.

You may not see these victims on the streets. Many transactions are now hidden away on the internet or, with text messages covering perpetrators' tracks.

This is heartbreaking to me, as a mother and as a concerned citizen. Join me in saying, "The threat of sex slavery to our children is unacceptable to us, as caring Alaskans."

I ask you, who pays to have sex with a child? It's time we go after the traffickers and johns who are profiting from the misery of others.

Trafficking is now considered one of the most lucrative crimes. Polaris Project, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit organization working with human trafficking victims, conducted an informal analysis of a pimp's wages, based on victims' accounts. One teenage girl was forced to meet quotas of $500 per night, seven days a week, with the money going to her trafficker each night; that pimp also controlled three other women. Polaris estimated the pimp was making $632,000 a year from four young women and girls.

What are we doing to end this evil? This past legislative session, the governor sponsored and signed human trafficking legislation, making trafficking a serious felony, subject to Alaska's most severe penalty.

Senate Bill 210, sponsored by Sen. Lesil McGuire, established a task force to help Alaska gain a greater understanding of the issue, and the group will report its findings to the Legislature for further action.

Cook Inlet Tribal Council convened a working group of agencies and nonprofits involved in this arena. The Anchorage Police Department, FBI, Covenant House, and other organizations have been working hard on this issue for several years. And the faith community is also involved.

One of the best protections Alaskan families can offer is a loving home, where children are cherished.

National Human Trafficking Awareness Day is today, Jan. 11. All of us should set aside time to discuss this painful topic with our loved ones.