We think of slavery in terms of those sepia photographs in the history books, the horror that Abraham Lincoln helped end. That’s what I thought when I first reported on sex trafficking in 1996 — and saw a terrified Cambodian teenager being sold for her virginity. She was a slave, I realized, every bit as much as those slaves in the history books.
I never expected to write about the subject again. But when you’ve seen teenage girls locked up and gang raped daily, it’s tough to go back and write about exchange rates. Millions of girls are subjected to this form of modern slavery, and to prove my case, I purchased two girls in Cambodia and left with receipts. When you get a receipt for buying a human being in the 21st century, something is profoundly wrong.
Then I began reporting on the issue here in the United States. I found that the atrocities and scale aren’t as bad as in some foreign countries, but we still have a vast trafficking problem. We don’t have the moral authority to tell other countries what to do until we clean up our own act.
This is also a soluble problem, but that means prioritizing the arrest of pimps, traffickers and customers. So when people ask me why I keep tilting at these windmills and writing about sex trafficking, I think back to that Cambodia teenager, who is probably dead by now of AIDS.
Here are seven stories about sex trafficking that I wrote over the past 18 years, the ones I cannot forget — a highlight reel of inspiration and heartbreak at once.