“Authorities say that recruitment of girls into prostitution can start through what appears to be an innocent friendship. Pimps often lure young women into the trade by posing as an attentive boyfriend, showering the girl with compliments and romantic gifts, and then trapping her into a cycle of manipulation and fear.” - Kathleen Shryock
This Valentine’s Day, Americans will spend an estimated $18.2 billion on flowers, candy, and cards. For most of us, Valentine’s Day is an opportunity to spend a little extra time (and money) on the people we love. But for some, the holiday can serve as the perfect stage to enact a much more sinister plot. Many women and girls who become victims of sex trafficking receive attention and romantic gifts from men as a means to lure them into the trade.
Rebecca Bender, a former sex trafficking victim who spent six years in prostitution in Las Vegas, shared her story on the Exodus Cry podcast. Her childhood was that of a “latch-key kid,” and she describes feeling unwanted by her parents.
At 17, she became pregnant and gave birth to her daughter, a circumstance that left her on the outside looking in as her friends went off to college. While Rebecca says that in many ways she was not at a high risk to be victimized, her experiences left her vulnerable to emotional manipulation.
Shortly after the birth of her daughter she was living in a college apartment with friends, when she met a charming 24 year old man. He was attractive and drove a nice car and “more importantly,” Rebecca says “he really took an interest in me and my daughter…I started wanting that family for her that I had wanted as a 9 year girl with divorced parents”.
After just a few months of dating, the man asked Rebecca to move in with him and told her his job was relocating to Las Vegas. The night they arrived, the man told her to leave her baby with his brother and get dressed up for a night on the town.
Instead, he drove her to an escort service, slapped her, and forced her into prostitution.
After escaping the sex industry, Rebecca founded the Rebecca Bender Initiative to help other women find the same freedom. Many of the women that Rebecca has helped have stories similar to her own. She describes this shared narrative on her website:
“He will ‘date’ a girl for months. It is during this courting phase that a bond is established. Brainwashing and manipulation are used to seclude the victim. Typically, violence and threats are then used to force the girlfriend turned victim into a life of prostitution; making her believe it was her choice.”
She says that one of the first steps in rehabilitating victims from this psychological trauma is helping them realize that the men who sold them are to blame, not themselves.
He drives a fancy car and wears expensive clothes and jewelry.
He is older than her and usually not in school.
He has no actual job that one could visit. For example, he claims to own a record label, magazine company, or bill boards.
He has dreams of “making it big” and being successful, and will push her to share his dreams and put hers on hold.
He secludes her from family and friends by moving away.
He rushes the relationship by talking about moving in together or getting married in a short time frame.
Rebecca emphasizes that if three or more of the above apply, this should be taken as a sign that the situation should be investigated further.
At Catalyst, we work to bring restoration to women just like Rebecca who are in desperate need of love. This Valentine’s Day, we remember that restoration starts with love. Love liberates—it does not enslave.
After all, as C.S. Lewis once said:
“Love is the great conqueror of lust.”