The following years were a whirlwind for Friedman, 48, who through a mixture of drugs, low self-esteem and coercion, began stripping and was later prostituted and sexually trafficked around the nation and Canada by pimps and people she trusted.
She told her story to law enforcement, social workers and others attending a human trafficking conference in Oklahoma City on Wednesday.
“I thought I caused all of it. I believed my destiny was for these men to get their issues and abuse out on me so they could move on to love someone else,” she said.
Although Friedman is from Minnesota, experts say cases like hers are happening more frequently everywhere, including Oklahoma, and their scope is difficult to fathom.
Hub for traffickers
Oklahoma’s position along the Interstate-40 and I-35 corridor makes it a hub for traffickers smuggling people in from Mexico and Texas port cities.
Social problems in the state, including high poverty and incarceration rates, domestic abuse, teen pregnancy and drug addiction, make it a prime area for traffickers seeking vulnerable women and children to exploit.
“When you’re looking for poor, broken women who’ve been abused, these are fertile grounds,” said Mark Elam, director of the Tulsa-based Oklahomans Against Trafficking of Humans.
Human trafficking victims are forced or coerced into sexual or labor exploitation. Often they or their loved ones are threatened. Some are kidnapped, beaten or tricked into situations where they’re made to do things against their will. Many of the exploited are undocumented workers.
Elam said from 200,000 to 300,000 minor girls from the U.S. are drawn into the sex industry each year.
The numbers are difficult to ascertain because they’re tracked by different agencies and organizations, but estimates are that about 50 million people are brought to the U.S. each year as human trafficking victims, he said.
“You see a person who’s a victim of this every day and you don’t even know it,” Elam said.
Joseph Otrhalek, with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said human trafficking is one of the fastest growing crimes in the country.
“You can keep using human beings over and over repeatedly, so it’s a lucrative and nasty business,” he said.
Otrhalek said what scares him is the penchant for exploited labor and sex in the country.
“This isn’t to cause an overreaction,” he said. “but we have to be alert.”
She’s now an advocate for women who are sexually exploited, and she spreads the message that this is happening everywhere.
She said she might not ever fully heal, but she wants to help other victims start the process.