Across the United States, thousands of men, women and children are being forced to work as prostitutes.
Sex trafficking remains a big problem, but a small group is mobilizing the far-flung trucking industry to fight it.
That’s a big change from the early 1980s, when Beth Jacobs was a teenager. At the time, she thought if you were prostitute, it was your choice.
Then, Jacobs woke up one night on the lot of a dark truck stop. She says she had asked a friendly-seeming man for a ride home that afternoon. She says he gave her something in an old McDonalds cup, a drug, and as she was waking up the man announced that he was her pimp.
“I kind of laughed at him, and I said, ‘Oh, that’s great, but I’m not that kind of girl.’ And I tried to get out of the car,” says Jacobs.
Jacobs says he pulled her by her hair and beat her. “He said, ‘No, bitch, I didn’t ask you. This is what it is. I own you now.”
Jacobs says he then sent her to sleep with a man in a truck, but it didn’t go well with the truck driver.
“He pulled me out of his truck, gave me back to the pimp, and said he wanted his money back because I cried too much, and he didn’t enjoy himself. So the pimp then beat me up right in street, right in the parking lot, and told me if I ever lost any more money for him he’d kill me, and my daddy,” says Jacobs.
And for the next six years, Jacobs says the pimp viciously coerced her to work as a prostitute.
“It’s not like I stood up one day and said ‘Hey! I think I’ll be a prostitute. They make all kinds of money!” says Jacobs. “I just wanted a ride home. And, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and asked the wrong adult to take me home.”
The awareness of sex trafficking has changed a lot since then. You can see that by what trucker Kevin Kimmel did last year when an old motor home, parked at a truck stop, caught his eye.
“I saw a guy go in, and I saw motion to the RV,” says Kimmel. “Then I saw what I thought was a young girl peek out and be abruptly pulled back from the window, and the shade pulled back over it.”
Kimmel called police, and that call ended weeks of torture, starvation and forced prostitution for the victim.
Kylla Lanier founded the group Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT) with her mom and three sisters. She says Kimmel epitomizes the group’s mission to enlist the enormous trucking industry in the fight against sex trafficking.
“They are the eyes and ears of our nation’s highway system. They see things that other people don’t see,” says Lanier.
Lanier notes sex trafficking happens everywhere from truck stops to hotels to schools.
“It’s an everywhere problem, but truckers happen to be everywhere,” says Lanier.
Long-haul truckers work long hours behind the wheel, and then sleep in truck stops. There are hundreds of thousands of them on the road all the time.
These days TAT stickers, wallet cards and posters showing a phone number for a sex trafficking hotline, 1-888-373-7888, are becoming ubiquitous in the trucking industry. Trucking companies and law enforcement are enthusiastically on board and helping to reach nearly a quarter million drivers.
Truckers’ calls to the hotline have freed hundreds of trafficking victims, many of the children, according to TAT. The approach is so effective that the Attorney General of Kansas wants to compel truck driving schools to teach sex trafficking prevention. In Ohio, it’s already in the curriculum.
At the TA Travel Plaza near Kansas City, employees are trained to spot trafficking. Between the energy drinks up front and the showers in back, district manager Sam Tahour shows off monitors playing anti-trafficking videos 24/7. Stickers and wallet cards are on the counter, and anti-trafficking posters hang all over the store.
Tahour says the effort has completely changed his view of prostitution.
“Now I know what signs to look for. I know what actions to take,” says Tahour. “Be on the lookout for this. This is what’s going on out there, and, these people need a hero.”
After a truck driver or a truck stop employee reports the crime, someone like Beth Jacobs steps in to counsel sex trafficking survivors. She also works TAT to teach truckers and police to understand the victim’s point of view.
“I’m thinking positive. I’m thinking this is a great change,” says Jacobs.
Truckers Against Trafficking plans to train a lot more truck drivers to spot trafficking and intervene, but Jacobs says truck drivers aren’t enough. The group also sees a need for similar organizations to harness the goodwill of workers in the hospitality industry, as activists work to end expose sex trafficking everywhere it hides.
Frank Morris is senior editor and national correspondent at KCUR 89.3. You can find him on Twitter, @FrankNewsman.