Tsvetelina Thompson was 20 years old when her ex-boyfriend trafficked her.
At first, she said, he was a “really sweet guy.” He would take her on lavish trips around Europe, adorning her with elaborate gifts – luxuries she never knew coming from a poor childhood in Bulgaria. So, she ran away with him.
“The first three months was a wonderful relationship,” she said. “He had a lot of money, but he didn’t work, so I always wondered how he got so much money.”
Thompson said she now knows that what he was doing is a common predatory practice known as grooming. He isolated her: no phone, no friends, no family. Not long after, he told her that she should “start working.” Unaware of what was to come, she agreed. She soon found herself in a hotel, in a room, alone and confused.
A man entered. Next thing she knew, she was spending the night with her first client.
“I had no words for how I felt. Shock. Deeply shocked,” Thompson said. “I couldn’t react to anything, I was frozen. Even now, I can’t express how I felt then. It was like someone hit me on the head with a hammer.”
She had become one of the thousands of women who fall victim to trafficking every year; in 2019 alone, the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline identified 22,326 victim-survivors. Thompson’s story is not unique, especially over this past year with COVID-19. Although many areas of life seem to have remained stunted during the pandemic, experts say trafficking – and other acts of violence against women – have not.
Despite the continuation and increase in violence against women during the world health crisis, another force has persevered during this time: those organizations dedicated to mitigating these tragedies. And now, even though they’re fighting an unseen battle that takes place behind closed doors, they’re fighting to win.
The Beginning of Violence
Violence against women encompasses a variety of types, said Madeleine Coy, an assistant professor in the University of Florida’s Center for Gender, Sexualities and Women’s Studies Research.
Victims’ experiences of violence vary based on identities such as race, gender and class. This concept of intersectionality, first developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw as a way to help explain the oppression of Black women living in America, highlights the differences between women when addressing the issues that affect them.
Current and historic research have shown that minorities, Indigenous, trans and bisexual women are significantly more likely to experience violence. And according to 2018 estimates by the World Health Organization, violence by a husband or male intimate partner is the most widespread form of violence against women globally.
For sex-trafficking victims like Thompson, the process starts when women get groomed by their perpetrators. It’s so subliminal, the woman seldom realizes anything is wrong, said Emily Hunt, the awareness and volunteer coordinator for the Florida-based Selah Freedom. The nonprofit is dedicated to helping women trapped in the trafficking industry, who Hunt said often develop a feeling of debt and gratitude toward their groomers.
“One of our survivor graduates was being sold by someone they knew, loved and trusted,” she said. “It was, ‘I just need you to do this one time so we can pay rent, or we can pay this bill.’ Then, that one time turned into two times, turned into three times, and she’s going, ‘Where is this money going?’”
Experts have traced the source of violence against women to a common theme of victim childhood abuse. Alison Ungaro, founder and executive director of Created Gainesville, a nonprofit that helps women escape the sex trafficking industry, said that 100% of the adult survivors the organization serves had experienced sexual abuse as a minor.
“The childhood sexual abuse component is almost guaranteed,” Ungaro said.
COVID-19, The Invisible Opponent During the Fight for Justice
Research revealed that some women might not disclose their experiences of violence due to embarrassment, shame or cultural taboos. Even before the pandemic, Hunt said it took about seven to eight attempts to successfully reach a woman who needed help.
But now, COVID-19 has trapped some victims of violence under the same roof as their abusers. It has distanced them from their friends, their neighbors, their teachers – all common reporters of violence. It has thrust more women and children into situations that can lead to trafficking or abuse. And with this isolation often comes a lack of action.
For example, in a February review and meta-analysis published by the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, the authors said domestic violence incidents in the U.S. have increased by 8.1% since the start of the lockdown. However, this number may be severely underreported for the suspected surge, said Katie Kaukinen, a co-author of the report.
“The partner’s there all the time,” she said. “So, imagine: How can a woman report or call her mom or sneak off to the neighbor’s house when he’s home 24/7? And so yes, we think [8.1%] is absolutely the floor.”
The authors believe COVID-19’s economic impacts may have exacerbated factors traditionally associated with domestic violence, like unemployment, childcare stress and financial insecurity.
The isolating and infectious nature of the coronavirus has further separated women from their resources, Kaukinen said. Many services had restricted support during the height of the pandemic; some police agencies couldn’t even enter houses when they were called. Hospitals full of COVID-19 patients could’ve persuaded violence victims to stay home as well, she said.
This tragic increase, Kaukinen said, comes after decades of decreases in domestic violence cases since the 1990s. Self-reported data was finally declining. More women were heading to shelters instead of staying in abusive relationships. More offenders were being arrested. Now, only time will tell what happens for women due to the pandemic, in terms of their well-being and financial and social trends.
“There are some predictions that the long-term financial implications for women were that they were the most hit, and particularly Black women were the most hit in terms of losses of employment during the pandemic,” she said. “This isn’t going to just turn around once we get vaccinated.”
The estimated increase in cases of violence at home can also have lasting impacts on children into their adulthood, Kaukinen said.
“It’s a well-established empirical fact that being exposed to domestic violence is detrimental to children along a number of measures,” she said. “It’s not that it can’t be overcome, it’s not like we can’t fix it, but it just heightens the risk of behavioral outcomes, conduct outcomes, mental health as well as role modeling.”
In April 2020, 21 organizations from across the globe signed and released a joint statement that called attention to child abuse amidst lockdowns. The piece urged officials and communities to collaborate in a united effort against this problem and recommended tactics for worldwide responses.
Fears of an increase in cases of sex trafficking have also spiked during the pandemic. Since vulnerable or marginalized people are targeted, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime hypothesized that the resulting recession from COVID-19 could result in more people at risk. According to the report, similar surges in trafficking cases emerged during past economic crises – and were probably underreported.
“Although found in every country and every region, trafficking in persons remains a hidden crime, with perpetrators operating in the dark corners of the internet and the underbelly of the global economy to entrap victims for sexual exploitation, forced labor, domestic servitude and other forms of exploitation,” it reads.
Once survivors are rescued, Ungaro said the most important factor to keeping them safe is residential security. If the necessary housing and resources are not in place, this could set a survivor up for “revictimization,” she said.
“There was already a shortage of safe homes and beds for those who are escaping sex trafficking and sexual exploitation before COVID,” Ungaro said. “And then when COVID hit, a lot of residentials had to limit how many residents they could have.”
Though elusive, Florida’s sex-trafficking terrain has been punctured by recent victories for victims. For instance, during the 2021 Super Bowl – the nation’s largest event for sex trafficking, according to Hunt – Selah Freedom participated in a sting operation that led to the arrest of over 77 traffickers and buyers and the rescue of several women, including one minor.
Misty LaPerriere, Selah Freedom’s law enforcement liaison and trainer, said a significant change in sting operations during the pandemic is a decrease in the employment of women in strip clubs, which could lead to more underground work in hotels and motels. Thus, the nonprofit has pivoted its efforts to these areas.
“We’re trying to link arms with as many people as possible to end sex trafficking,” Hunt said. “The more people are aware, the more people are going to talk about it, the more people are educated. They’re going to get in front of the issue.”
Women Leaders Help Other Women Win Their Battles
Women-led organizations are still taking charge in fighting violence against women – just as they have for decades. For example, Selah Freedom is mentoring Created Gainesville in its process to build a new residential unit by the end of 2021, according to Ungaro.
The U.S. has also seen a recent united front in its federal legislation. The House of Representatives recently renewed the Violence Against Women Act that expired in 2019, which protected women from domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking.
In Florida, legislators proposed multiple bills related to violence against women in the 2021 Legislative Session. One pair of bills, SB 606 and HB 1231, amend the current law to recognize the significant threat domestic violence poses to families. They also add more outreach services to the list of services domestic violence centers must provide and award more funding for these centers. The latter bill passed and is awaiting action by the governor.
Another set of legislation, HB 709 and SB 186, would’ve prohibited those convicted of misdemeanor offenses of domestic violence from owning firearms or ammunition and required them to surrender all such possessions. These bills both died during the Session.
The passed legislation adds another layer of protection for victims and survivors. Kaukinen, however, said there is more to be done beyond legislation.
“I think what we need to do is have large-scale campaigns where we really talk about this in an open way,” she said. “A way that’s transparent, or a way that demonstrates we’re committed to ending violence against women and children – in a way that demonstrates that we believe women when they tell us they’re the victims of domestic violence.”
Kaukinen also calls for more funding for extra training for officers who handle domestic violence cases. She particularly encourages that the state embeds its resources and social workers in communities with historically marginalized groups, where domestic violence can bloom due to underreporting.
These areas are not necessarily the big cities trafficking is known to be – like Miami, Tampa and Orlando, Thompson said.
“Traffickers and victims operate in small towns too, like where I live, in between Fort Myers and West Palm Beach,” she said. “People can fly under the radar and be undetected.”
Unbeknownst to many, sex trafficking takes place right in our backyards, Hunt said. Ranked third in the nation for most reports, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, Florida serves as a hub for the exploitive exchange of female bodies.
To curb trafficking, Selah Freedom teaches children and adults signs of predatory behavior. With more people online now than ever before, the internet is home to a toxic breeding ground that easily connects predators with vulnerable victims, Hunt said.
“Xbox Live and PlayStation are literally [letting children] play games and talk to strangers. This is where predators are now starting to lurk,” she said.
It’s easy to miss the signs of trafficking due to films, Thompson said. Victims aren’t meant to draw attention to themselves; the obvious physical abuse portrayed in popular culture would be a dead giveaway. Instead, victims are kept in “good condition” in order to not raise suspicion.
“Everyone thinks we’re supposed to look like what they’ve seen in sex trafficking films: bruised, battered women, taking buses,” she said. “It’s just not true.”
Thompson is a survivor who managed to escape her fate with the help of a client. She met an American man in Holland who took her back to Florida, where they married and had a child. In 2019, she founded her own anti-sex trafficking organization, dubbed Twentyfour-Seven because “trafficking occurs 24/7, and the organization builds resources for trafficking victims 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” she said.
The nonprofit introduced a QR code that is placed in trafficking hotspots throughout the world, especially in mass transit areas where victims are transported. They can scan the code, pick their language and region and find resources specific to their country.
“They’ll pass through airports and bus stations without ever being detected as someone being trafficked,” Thompson said. “It’s important they know their rights and there’s always help.”