Sex Trafficking: The ‘Invisible Industry’ in Detroit

sex trafficking invisible girls
The invisible girls of sex trafficking in Detroit

If she didn’t look at them, they wouldn’t kill her, thought Alice Jay. Her head was in her palms, which were buried in her lap as she rode along with two men armed with pistols in the backseat of a two-toned Lincoln. Another car (“a Nissan maybe?” she thinks) with three more armed men followed. She tried to see as little as possible. If she ever had a plan in that moment, that was it-see nothing. This way, if her captors decided to change their minds and let her go, everyone could walk away and forget it all happened.

But the men knew she was alone; they had been stalking her for some time. And they also knew no one would come asking questions if she went missing. That night, under the cover of darkness, they drove her to a graveyard and raped her.

“I was in shock,” remembers Jay, 43, a preteen at the time. “I didn’t understand.” In hindsight, if it had been only rape, she would have been lucky. From the graveyard, the men took her to an unknown residence where they held her captive, chained in the basement with a pit bull. And so began her genesis into the world of sex trafficking, just two weeks shy of her 12th birthday.

Sex trafficking victims are seemingly imprisoned by invisible chains-since the industry is so underground. An estimated billion-dollar business that operates under the veil of “not existing.” The women are largely unaccounted for; they are runaways or those without family. Some victims are blackmailed and coerced into committing lewd sexual acts for money by lovers. Others are controlled by drug addiction and brute force, a tactic called “gorilla pimping”-making it nearly impossible to escape.

But steadily, thanks to continued efforts to raise awareness of the industry in metro Detroit, the realities of sex trafficking are increasingly less foreign-and its victims as familiar as the girl next door.


‘Reach out to who?’

During the first five years of being trafficked, Jay was moved across the country, confined to different rooms for Johns. Eventually, she gained her trafficker’s trust by helping to recruit other girls, as she was sent across the country to parties, bathhouses, casinos, car shows and other public events.

“I would say that the five years I was locked in those places hardened me. I think I became so desperate, I was willing to sacrifice someone else,” says Jay, explaining that even in the moments when she could call for help, there was no one to call.

“Reach out to who?” she wonders. “There might have been opportunities, but there was no one to reach out to. You have to understand, I was a hooker. And no one helped a hooker.”

She was viewed as depraved, and her suffering “justified.” As Jay puts it, “I didn’t come from the best home.” One of 12 children, she lived in an inner-city ghetto of Grand Rapids on Ionia Avenue. When she was 8, her mother’s boyfriend molested her. Within two years, her mom kicked her out over her sexual abuse allegations. She was living on the street when the men took her.

“Many police, juvenile systems and social workers throughout my life knew what was going on with me, but it was always justified because I was from the hood. It was always justified because I was from a broken family. It was justified because I was homeless.”

Jay was trafficked until she was 28. She finally “escaped” by going to jail and pleading with the courts to help. And Jay still suffers PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) as a result of her experience, chronicled in her 2014 book Out of the Darkness: A Survivor’s Story. But as a survivor, she uses her story as a talking point in discussions on sex trafficking in metro Detroit.

Looking back, Jay says the hardest fact to accept was that people did not see victims, because they didn’t want to, “And I feel that to be one of the most inhumane things that society could unleash on a person.”

The difference between sex trafficking and human trafficking

Often used to refer to sex trafficking, “human trafficking” is an umbrella term that includes labor trafficking (a modern form of slavery and work exploitation) and sex trafficking. At the root of both offenses is commercial exchange.

“People use sex trafficking and prostitution interchangeably,” explains Blanche Cook, a former federal prosecutor and professor at Wayne State University’s Law School. “But sex trafficking is actually a much larger rubric. It’s a much larger term that can often include pornography, exotic dance clubs, strip clubs and massage parlors.”

It’s covered under federal statute-title 18 U.S. code 1591. “If you are talking about adults in sex trafficking,” Cook explains, “there has to be some type of commercialization, something of value exchanged. And there also must be some element of force, fraud and coercion.

“As a scholar and as someone who is actively involved in this work,” she adds, “my work is to stop problematizing women.” In other words, stop making life tougher on the victims of sex trafficking or the people being sold in sex trafficking-and, instead, place emphasis on the demand and the people who actually do the trafficking.

According to the human trafficking awareness organization Polaris Project, Michigan is ranked as a tier 2 (fairly good) state based on legislation needed to combat trafficking and punish traffickers-such as a lower burden of proof for sex trafficking of minors, asset forfeiture and safe harbor statutes. But when it comes to calculating the data on the estimated human trafficking victims in metro Detroit, solid data isn’t available. That’s because these crimes only recently began to be a definable offense.

“We don’t have reliable numbers for the prevalence of human trafficking-both sex and labor-because we don’t have an organized systematic way to track the data,” says professor Bridgette Carr, director of the Human Trafficking Clinic at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and member of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force. “In fact, it wasn’t until the beginning of 2013 that the FBI even tracked human trafficking data as part of its uniform crime report.”

Additional barriers in collecting reliable data include how victims of sex trafficking are defined. Carr explains that the Human Trafficking Clinic legally represents victims of sex trafficking who are treated as victims within the federal criminal justice system-but as prostitutes in local jurisdictions for the “exact same acts.”

“How should that individual be counted for data collection? As a victim? As a criminal? We haven’t even answered those basic questions around data collection,” Carr says. “While it is the case that some incidents of sex trafficking are categorized as domestic violence or drug busts, the majority of sex trafficking cases are treated as cases of prostitution,” which is a criminal offense.

Combating human trafficking begins with accepting that the industry is happening in our communities, says Carr.

“We have to acknowledge that human trafficking happens in all of our communities and we, as consumers, are part of the problem. We all consume goods and services created by exploited labor. That is not a comfortable reality to acknowledge, but it is the first step,” Carr says. “We also have to get real about prosecuting those who buy sex. The sad reality for my clients is that buying sex is rarely prosecuted, but the sellers of sex-many of whom are victims of sex trafficking-are often prosecuted.”

Who are the victims of sex trafficking? 

“There is an idea that the only people who are being sex trafficked are the very poor,” Cook says. “Sex traffickers are looking for anyone that they believe they can make money on. And that would be women and men who have very chronic problems with self-esteem. And you have sex traffickers who would present themselves as the knight in shining armor.”

Sex traffickers reach beyond socioeconomic status by preying on the emotionally and mentally vulnerable.

“And one of the patterns that you will see is someone who has already been sexually violated at the hands of family members. Then those people, because of the trauma of that experience, are sometimes very attractive to sex traffickers,” Cook continues. “What you have is a person who is just extremely vulnerable.”

She says that the fight against sex trafficking starts at home by changing our ideas on sexual exploitation.

“Training our young men not to sexually violate. Training our young women not to sexually violate. Training our young people and adults not to glamorize prostitution-that sexual exploitation isn’t something that needs to be glamorized,” says Cook.

Preventing sex trafficking

“One of the things I often talk about in my lectures are the ways in which we promote a certain form of femininity or a certain form of gender identity for women. And part of that is a marketing effort,” says Cook. “Even when we look at car commercials, you will have the association of the women with the car. What we are doing is acknowledging the culture part of that sexualization and the vulnerability of a sexualized youth.”

The result is women thinking there is a problem with themselves if they are not sexually desired, says Anne Duggan, Wayne State’s former director of gender, sexuality and women’s studies.

“If they are not physically attractive, they think they don’t have value,” says Duggan. “I think the objectification of women undermines, for some men, the ability to take women seriously. But I also think that certain men-the men who get caught up in certain stereotypes about women-can feel uncomfortable when a woman doesn’t conform to that behavior.”

She adds, more pointedly: “You can’t talk about the objection of women without talking about what it does to the egos of men.” On the other hand, Duggan says, wanting to be desired also comes at its own expense.

“What does that perception of the self do to women psychologically?” she asks.

Duggan believes the female body is more sexualized in pop culture than ever-and everyone is becoming more sexualized as a result. “That’s where we can get confused between what is sexual liberation and when are we using sex to sell things as consumerism”-with the most extreme end of this consumerism being sex trafficking.

Only one way out

It wasn’t Joyce Haskett’s intention to get mixed up with a violent man. She was just searching for something; something more than what she had.

“Just needy. My life was a mess, no family structure,” she says. Haskett had been regularly molested since age 7. By 16, she was pregnant with her first child and, at 17, another was on the way. She says she carried her childhood abandonment issues into adulthood. “In my promiscuity, I was never trying to be cheap. I didn’t feel valued,” she explains. “I didn’t have much self-worth, and (sex) was the best thing that I had to offer.”

Haskett, 63, was 24 when she met the man who would become her trafficker. She was in love and he, a well-known man in his 40s from her neighborhood, promised her the world. Her family loved him-“But at the same time I would show up all beat up and (the question) would always be (from family), ‘What do I keep doing to this man to make him do this?'” says Haskett, explaining domestic violence was a “norm” in her family.

“I remember once being beaten so badly that I prayed: ‘Lord, please don’t let anybody read to my children that they found their mother face down naked in a ditch,'” recalls Haskett. A maintenance man found her on the loading dock at a local hospital. “When I woke up in the hospital, somebody asked me what happened, but I was too scared to tell. No one else asked me again. Because when people ask, and you give them an answer, that means somebody has to be responsible. Somebody has to do something. And they did not want that responsibility.”

Haskett was trafficked across Michigan-from Detroit to Saginaw, Flint and Bay City.

“I was ending up in these strange places with all these strange men,” says Haskett. “It was just something that I never imagined happening to me.”

Her trafficker threatened the lives of her family and children to keep her with him. She decided there was only one way out.

“I had already decided that I had to kill him,” Haskett explains. She was living in a subdivision home just outside of Birch Run, Michigan at the time. The doors were kept locked from the inside with her trafficker holding the keys. “You shoot him and you kill him, because he is going to kill you.”

After shooting her captor dead, Haskett fled to Detroit. Eventually turning herself in, she was found guilty of murder in the first degree and given a life sentence.

“That night I went to jail, it was the best sleep I ever had in I don’t know when,” she remembers. For the first time in a long time, she felt safe. “It wasn’t up until a couple of years ago that I knew human trafficking even had a name. I think what hurt me most about my trial is that they treated him like he was the victim, and I was the cold-blooded murderer. And it hurt me because I think the people knew what kind of man he was.”

She adds, with humor: “When I went to prison, microwaves were a concept. But God blessed me while I was there.”

Haskett served 17 years, during which she earned her graduate degree from the University of Michigan. It was a pilot program for inmates that has since been eliminated. Her case had been overturned by the Michigan Court of Appeals five times-until the day a jailhouse lawyer found an issue in the evidence. When Haskett went back to court to file a motion for a new trial, at 43 years old, she walked out a free woman.

“It was the first time that I could remember I was standing out in the sun with no belly chains, no shackles, no leg irons. I was just free,” says Haskett, fighting back tears. Promptly, she enrolled in U of M’s social work master’s program. With that degree, Haskett has became an advocate for women’s rights, serving as constituent outreach coordinator for Michigan State Sen. Judy Emmons (R-Sheridan) and a clinical programs writer for kids who have parents in prison. Currently, she has her own practice in metro Detroit.

“Even now, there are a lot of women who are in prison because of some level of human trafficking,” says Haskett. “They wouldn’t talk about it before because they were ashamed. They would rather go to jail for murder than admit they have been trafficked by a pimp.”

Haskett says changing the culture begins with making sex trafficking our problem.

“This is not a foreign third-world country problem. This is very prevalent right here in our own backyards. The numbers are way off. This is the most under-reported crime there is,” says Haskett. “But there is life after human trafficking. There is life after prison. It’s not how the story begins, it’s how it ends. But first we got to get them out.” 

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