Sex trafficking in the Upper Valley primarily victimizes vulnerable, female adolescents, Abby Tassel, WISE assistant director and former College Sexual Abuse Awareness Program coordinator, said in a Monday discussion — held in Fahey-McLane hall in front of about 20 students — coordinated by the Modern Abolition Initiative. Many are unaware that sex trafficking exists even in the Upper Valley, according to Peggy O’Neil, executive director of WISE.
Trafficking, which Tassel called “modern-day slavery,” often stems from domestic and sexual violence, with a trafficker posing as the victim’s boyfriend or partner.
“It’s common for the man to meet the victim and say, ‘I’m going to take care of you; you’re going to be my girlfriend,’ and then enslave her,” she said.
Although exact numbers regarding instances of trafficking are “hard to know,” Tassel said she has seen several cases while working at WISE, a designated support center for issues related to stalking and domestic and sexual violence. WISE, located in Lebanon, works to offer support and raise awareness for victims of sex trafficking, according to O’Neil.
Sex trafficking occurs when a victim of sexual exploitation is a minor or if force, fraud or coercion is involved, Tassel said.
Coercion can include threats to a victim’s family or taking his or her money away, she said. Tassel said a woman with whom she previously worked thought giving away her money seemed natural because she assumed that her trafficker had invested it or used it to pay for her lodging, Tassel said.
“It became clear that she would never see any of that money, and if she didn’t do a number of tricks in a particular night, he would beat her,” she said.
Trafficked individuals are not solely poverty-stricken, desperate individuals — they can also be students or come from “well-to-do” families, Tassel said.
“It’s quite amazing how sophisticated the manipulation can be,” she said. “Once someone is in the grips of this perpetration, it’s hard to escape.”
The average age of female victims is 12 to 14 years old, while male victims are typically 11 to 13 years old, according to Tassel. The average prostitute sees 10 men per day, but the average sex trafficking victim sees 20 to 35 men per day. Upper Valley officials have seen more street prostitution than sex trafficking, but truck stops throughout New Hampshire are “good places” for sex traffickers, she said.
“In a place like the Upper Valley, it would be easy to say it’s hard to hide a trafficking operation, but I’m always amazed about the reality of what happens here,” Tassel said.
Tassel said one woman she worked with had been trafficked as a girl, despite coming from a well-to-do family, and was sold by her parents to professors and other Upper Valley residents. Another woman Tassel worked with said her trafficker required her to make between $500 and $1,500 per day, Tassel said.
“She was exhausted,” Tassel said. “The level of violence is unimaginable. He knew where she lived and would come and make her go to work.”
Media coverage of prostitution and trafficking have been “aggravating” in their inaccuracies, Tassel said. She referred to the film “Pretty Woman” (1990), in which a wealthy businessman hires a Hollywood prostitute and eventually falls in love with her as an example of the “ridiculous” depiction of prostitution.
“In ‘Pretty Woman,’ it’s like, ‘This is so fun — it would be great to meet this rich guy,’“ Tassel said. “Prostitution is unbelievably horrible, demeaning, dangerous and violent. Women I’ve worked with who have been prostituted — they are being beaten and raped on a regular basis.”
A federal law was passed in 2000 to forbid sex trafficking, and states have recently passed supplemental laws, Tassel said. New Hampshire passed state legislation forbidding “the trafficking in persons for the purposes of sexual or labor exploitation” in 2009, according to a Human Trafficking Data Collection and Reporting project published by Northeastern University.
Although Tassel praised anti-trafficking legislation, the cycle of dependency continues, she said. Trafficked women are “the ones who get arrested” on charges of prostitution, and in many cases, the trafficker bails out the victim, who then feels obligated to continue to work for him, she said. If a prostitute is not paid or suffers abuse at the hands of a client, she may not feel safe reporting her abuse to the police.
“If someone is doing sex work, they don’t feel like they can go to law enforcement to report because they’re already doing something against the law,” Tassel said.
The existence of trafficking in the Upper Valley surprised Josef Linnhoff, an exchange student from the University of Edinburgh who attended the discussion.
“I imagined it would be a problem in New York or Boston,” Linnhoff said. “It’s so rural here.”
Tassel said in an interview following the lecture that she became aware of human trafficking in the Upper Valley in the fall of 2006. A couple from Litchfield, N.H. traveled to Jamaica and returned with several men who had been promised jobs at a log removal company, Tassel said. Upon their return to New Hampshire, the couple refused to pay the men and took away their legal documents. The U.S. Attorney General who prosecuted the case was present at a training session Tassel attended, she said.
“I realized I was seeing trafficking cases and not thinking of them as trafficking,” Tassel, who has been working at WISE since 2004, said. “There is a whole other level of criminal justice intervention I wasn’t thinking about before.”
Tassel served as the Sexual Abuse Awareness Program coordinator at the College until she resigned in April 2005, largely because she was critized for being too “student-focused,” she said at the time.
Sex trafficking often flies under the radar, much like other issues that WISE addresses, O’Neil said.
“By raising awareness and talking about it, we hope to be providing more information about the problem,” she said. “If people think someone is being trafficked, they know how to respond to that.”
The Modern Abolition Initiative, which hosted the discussion, works to raise such awareness, Yesuto Shaw ’15, who planned the event, said. MAI will screen a movie called “Sex + Money,” about domestic sex trafficking, on Feb. 24 to continue to address the issue, according to Shaw. In the future, the organization will raise funds for advocacy groups, he said.
MAI, founded last spring by Liz King ’13, Ify Achebe ’13 and Gabby Mezochow ’13, facilitates discussion that aims to mobilize Dartmouth students to combat modern-day slavery, King said in an email to The Dartmouth.