Thirty-two TCU students sat at a restaurant on South University Drive and watched as at least nine vehicles pulled into a nearby hotel parking lot.
The men in those vehicles were looking to purchase sex.
The students had posted an online decoy Backpage ad soliciting sex, as part of required field work for a course.
They posed as prostitutes when men called and responded to the ad. From 4 to 7 p.m. on Sept. 12, men drove up one-by-one, expecting to meet with a female soliciting sex online.
“What the female students who spoke on the phone with buyers could not believe was how many texts came through onto the phone,” said Dr. Vanessa Bouche, the TCU professor teaching “Human Trafficking In The U.S.”
“In a matter of two minutes of being on the phone with a man, [the number] would receive six new texts,” she said. “The phone was blowing up.”
In 2 hours and 40 minutes, Bouche and her class, as well as an experienced volunteer, witnessed hundreds of unique text messages and phone calls coming in to the phone number listed in the ad from men looking to pay for sex.
Bouche said her students were in complete shock at the level of demand from just one online ad.
Sex trafficking by the numbers, trends
Some of the ads offering sex in Fort Worth are not from prostitutes who are willingly selling their services, but also from girls and women who are caught up in the sex trade against their will, a problem known as human trafficking.
The Texas Department of Public Safety defines human trafficking as “the recruitment, harboring, transporting, or procurement of a person for labor or services for the purpose of involuntary servitude, slavery or forced commercial sex acts.”
So far in 2016, 307 human trafficking cases have been reported in Texas, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. Texas is No. 2 for the amount of human trafficking cases in the United States, behind California’s 682 cases. Of the 307 cases in Texas, 210 have been sex trafficking, higher than any other type listed on the site.
Human trafficking is both a state and federal crime. Texas was one of the first states to create a state anti-trafficking law in 2003, which constitutes the trafficking as a second-degree felony, or a first-degree felony if the victim is 14 or younger or if the trafficking results in the victim’s death. Texas is one of 25 states with a human trafficking law.
From Jan. 1 through Sept. 30 of this year, 15 cases were assigned to a Fort Worth human trafficking detective, according to the Fort Worth Police Department.
U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas John Parker said he believes there is far more trafficking occurring in the area than what officials are actually able to expose through law enforcement operations.
“With the numbers we’re seeing now, we’re barely scratching the surface, sadly,” Parker said.
Detective Brian Johnson, like Parker, said he believes the amount of human trafficking that occurs in Fort Worth is probably higher than the number of cases reported. Johnson began working in the Fort Worth Human Trafficking unit in early August 2016.
“Since I’ve started in August, I’ve come across maybe 100 or so victims and suspects across Fort Worth that both I and my predecessor, who retired, have encountered,” Johnson said. “I know it’s going to be higher. I’m sure the number is probably in the thousands.”
The illegal drug trade is the fastest growing criminal industry in the U.S.; human trafficking is the second-fastest. Johnson said he thinks that if human trafficking cases were fully reported, it could pass up the illegal drug trade in the country.
“I think it can have the potential to become the No.1 illegal trade,” Johnson said.
Melissa Ice, founder of The Net, a non-profit that focuses on combatting sex trafficking in Fort Worth through its “Purchased” program, said sex trafficking in Fort Worth is extremely widespread. Trained Net volunteers visit women charged with prostitution in the Tarrant County Jail weekly as part of the non-profit’s jail outreach program.
“There’s over 70 women in the Tarrant County Jail with prostitution charges, which means 70 potential different traffickers involved, and also 70 different johns or customers willing to purchase them. That’s just a little over 210 people involved in sex trafficking in Fort Worth based on that,” Ice said.
Ice also touched on how rampant the issue is in Fort Worth.
“There’s known to be over 40 brothels in Fort Worth, and within those at least a dozen girls per brothel are working there. By doing that math times the customers going through there, girls service 10-20 customers a day,” she said.
The Texas Department of Public Safety has said that “sex trafficking is the fastest growing business of organized crime, and the third-largest criminal enterprise in the world.”
Parker said its growth is due to its lucrativeness and low-risk nature. He said it is more lucrative than any other crime other than drug trafficking.
“It’s high-yield, meaning those involved will make a lot of money for their investment. For instance, if I buy a kilo of cocaine and sell it, I’ll have the money, but I’ve given up the cocaine. If I have a young girl, I can sell her repeatedly, sometimes 30 times a day, and still have the girl,” Parker said. “That’s one of the reasons it’s so attractive to those running the organization; it’s a renewable resource.”
The types of people affected by human trafficking has changed, he said.
“We’re now seeing more American victims; we used to see a lot of foreign victims,” Parker said. “We’re seeing more victims in massage parlors and also very disturbingly, we’re seeing more minors.”
Parker said that across the victim spectrum, law enforcement is seeing a more diverse group.
“If people think, ‘Oh, that’s an Asian problem, we don’t have to worry about that,’ or ‘That’s a Hispanic problem or a black problem,’ my answer would be that is not true. We’re seeing this across the board and it’s impacting women of every race, ethnicity, and culture, so no one can really say, ‘That’s not us, that’s not our problem,’” Parker said. “It’s all of our problems.”
TCU students get involved
Senior TCU political science student Taylor Dennis was one of the students from Bouche’s class who volunteered to speak to a man over the phone, pretending to be the woman in the decoy ad.
“I volunteered to talk to one of the guys over the phone. He was calling to see where he should meet me,” Dennis said. “He was probably in his early 60s; I saw him get out of the car and he looked like he’d be a normal grandfather, like he would be watching his grandkid’s soccer game or something. So the fact he was buying a prostitute was disturbing.”
Dennis said that the experience at the restaurant on University Drive challenged her ideas of what “someone who bought sex might look like.”
“We had guys show up, some were 40 years old in a nice Lexus, wearing a suit, clean cut. If you saw them at a restaurant you’d never think twice about the person.
“That surprised me the most because all the stereotypes I had were crushed,” Dennis said. “You had grandparents, you had young people, you had professionals, then you had people in crappy cars who fit the idea I had.”
The class also noticed how far the men would go for purchasing sex.
“Students would say, ‘Can you lift your shirt up, I want to make sure you’re not a cop,’ and the man would do it,” Bouche said. “Or they’d say, ‘I’m not feeling well; I’m coming down from a high, do you mind getting me a coffee?’
“Multiple of the buyers crossed University Drive, mostly on foot and some drove over, to get her coffee,” Bouche said. “One student said her son was with her and the guy didn’t even mind nor bother to think, ‘Why is your son with you?’ They’re clearly not thinking straight and clearly not in their right minds.”
Dennis said not one man said no to anything that was asked of him.
Bouche noticed during the experience that her students had conflicting feelings.
“On one hand, it was funny observing these desperate men, and on the other hand just realizing this is reality and it’s really sad and it’s not funny at all,” Bouche said. “Some students were conflicted because they wanted to laugh at times, but realized it’s actually not funny and it’s pathetic and sad.”
This semester is Bouche’s third time teaching “Human Trafficking In The U.S.” at TCU. She has done extensive research on the topic since her junior year of college in 1998, during a time in the U.S. when “the word human trafficking was just getting on people’s radars and we still didn’t have legislation on it,” she said.
Bouche has also co-written a book, “Identifying Effective Counter-Trafficking Programs and Practices in the U.S.: Legislative, Legal, and Public Opinion Strategies that Work.”
Beginning her Ph.D. program in 2005, Bouche said she remembers how at the time, stories about the human trafficking movement in the U.S. were sensationalized and not empirically based, which led to criticism of the anti-trafficking movement for not having enough data.
“In the mid-2000s, there was a growing need for more empirical rigor in research on the issue,” Bouche said. “As a new Ph.D. student who had just developed all these methodological skills, I wanted to fill those gaps.”
Bouche’s research on human trafficking initially began by looking at the issue domestically. She started by developing a database, coding all 50 states according to different provisions they had in their human trafficking laws, which led her to explore what caused certain states to have more comprehensive legislation from others.
She soon after applied for a federal grant through the Department of Justice to study effectiveness in terms of arrests and prosecution at the state level. The project lasted from 2012 through 2015.
Bouche received yet another grant from the Department of Justice to look at the relationship between human trafficking and organized crime in the U.S., part of which included her developing an online open search of federal human trafficking cases.
Her interest in researching and combatting human trafficking is evident to her students.
“I’ve had Dr. Bouche before this course and she’s always talked so passionately about advocating against human trafficking, and I could tell she was really passionate about it,” Dennis said. “So I wanted to find out more on what it was that made her so interested and develop my own perspective on human trafficking.”
While students learn in the classroom about human trafficking legislation and policies, they also have the ability to be involved in the community by working with The Net.
Male students taking the course have the opportunity to participate in The Net’s M.A.S.E. program—“Men Against Sexual Exploitation”—which seeks to “eliminate the demand for commercial sex in Fort Worth.” The program’s goal is to educate and provide men with the tools needed to “change the culture around the objectification and purchasing of women and mobilize them to engage and disrupt sex buyers,” according to its website.
Ice, founder of The Net, said that it is important men are involved in combatting human trafficking because they are a part of the problem.
“There is a large supply of women to be purchased for sex because of the large demand that exists. There are a lot of men wanting sex from women and girls,” Ice said. “We have a lot of men [at The Net] who want to make a difference in the lives of other men and encourage them not to objectify women.
“This is important because men can reach men far better than I could, and they do it in a humble, caring way,” Ice added. “Another reason men should be a part of the solution is because our women who have been abused by men need to see what a positive male looks like so they know that not all men are bad, and don’t need to demonize them all because they all aren’t like the ones the victims have encountered in their pasts.”
Female students taking the course have the opportunity to observe The Net’s jail outreach program, where they may visit the Tarrant County Jail and observe how trained NET volunteers interact with the women there on prostitution charges.
Both male and female students enrolled in the course can attend The Net’s RISE court, a prostitution probation court in Fort Worth. RISE works with women who have been arrested multiple times on prostitution charges. Bouche’s students may observe the judge interact with these women, who checks on their current status and future plans in order to help them stay out of prostitution.
Students can also participate in a ride-along with a Fort Worth police officer to observe commercial sexual exploitation on the street.
Ice said her biggest hope from Bouche’s class partnering with The Net is that the students see the real people involved in human trafficking and be changed by it.
“Anytime you learn about a form of injustice through books, papers and ideas, it can only go so far, but once you interface with a real human with a story, name, and background, it personalizes it and makes whoever’s involved realize that these are real people,” Ice said. “It adds a dynamic to a class that helps students see humanity in what’s happening.”
Backpage.com is a classified advertising website that was created in 2004. In 2011, it was the second-largest classified ad listing medium in the U.S., just after Craigslist.
Backpage is a well-known and widely used online avenue for selling and purchasing sex. Users can select the location and service they’re looking for.
While a large amount of ads on the site are legal services, current controversy in regards to the site is in response to its “escorts” subsection, which is under the “adult” section.
It is free to post a sex ad under the “escorts” tab on the site.
Within 72 hours in Fort Worth, from Friday, Sept. 23 to Sunday, Sept. 25, there were 258 sex ads posted on Backpage, under the “escorts” tab.
Recently, Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer was arrested and charged with pimping. After a three-year investigation, it was revealed that both adults and children victims of sex trafficking were forced into prostitution in the escort ads seen on Backpage. Authorities reported the site’s operators were “effectively running an online brothel.”
Before Ferrer was arrested, Det. Johnson said that Backpage cooperates with law enforcement and when ads and records are subpoenaed, the publication provides law enforcement officials with records promptly.
“Obviously, they still have other legal forms of business they do perform, similar to Craigslist,” Johnson said. “Obviously, it’s known for the escort side of it, but how they stay in business, I couldn’t tell you.”
Craigslist removed its adult services section in 2010. When this happened, its users flocked to Backpage.
Johnson said he once got a tip from Backpage, where it reported possible child sex trafficking based on language used in an ad. Johnson said he could not disclose the specifics of the language.
“Craigslist was one of these sites for escorts that was real big at the beginning, but they’ve gotten so much attention that obviously, that’s no longer a primary avenue,” Johnson said. “But there’s always going to be a site that’s going to cater to it.”
Other popular online media similar to Backpage are MocoSpace, PlentyOfFish and Daddy’s List. MocoSpace and PlentyofFish are online chat rooms where sometimes traffickers recruit their victims; Daddy’s List is an online escort service.
While the majority of sex ads posted online may be voluntarily posted by those soliciting sex, human traffickers use the Internet and social media to prey on potential trafficking victims, too.
Johnson said the traffickers’ method at the moment for recruiting girls for sex trafficking is social media — especially Facebook.
“The traffickers will find a person who’s depressed and start talking to them, sweeping them off their feet and appearing like a knight in shining armor, ‘I’ll take care of you, babe’ type thing,” he said. “They’ll befriend you and have all the right words to talk to you and sweet talk you.”
In the U.S., the average age a girl enters into sex trafficking is between 12 and 14.
Females overwhelmingly represent the majority of trafficking victims. Of the 307 human trafficking cases reported in Texas thus far in 2016, 245 were female victims and 47 were male victims, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
Most trafficking victims have histories of abuse, primarily sexual abuse, and were often runaways as well.
“When they’re being sexually abused in their developmental years, that trauma rewires their brain,” Ice said. “What they experienced at that time made them think the only way to receive love and acceptance is by their body.”
Ice said almost all the women The Net works with have experienced childhood sexual abuse.
“With any traumatic experience, you have the option of making it seem normalized to cope with it, so a lot of the girls we work with pretend they enjoy it in the moment because that’s how they cope with it, because if they don’t like it, they think they’re a failure and that they’re doing something they hate and that they’re not a good person,” Ice said. “So they stay in their situation by normalizing it to make good out of the situation, because it’s all they know.”
Also according to the resource center, victims of trafficking represent 198 calls out of the 1,024 total calls this year reporting trafficking in Texas.
Attorney Parker said one of the difficulties with human trafficking is that it’s hard for the victims to seek help, or “outcry,” for a variety of reasons. Victims may fear being harmed because their trafficker has threatened the victim’s personal safety or their friends and family’s safety. Some traffickers threaten to leave them without food or money or to sell them to someone who’s forewarned to be worse.
“Oftentimes the people who engage in trafficking prey on people who are already vulnerable emotionally,” Parker said. “They run away from home, they’re having problems with their parents, they have drug or alcohol problems. Sometimes the victims also blame themselves for not outcrying sooner. It’s a very complex sort of circumstances.”
He also said that law enforcement sees some victims seeking help, but that it would like to see more.
“We’d like to see all of them outcry,” Parker said. “It’s not as common as we’d like, that’s why we need our partners on the social services side who can help provide a forum in which they can outcry.”
Childhood abuse, problems at home, and drug and alcohol abuse are just a few push factors that keep trafficking victims in their situation. However, Bouche says that what she calls “push and pull factors” can be applied to the perpetrators as well.
“The push factors are not that different for the traffickers as for the victims, actually,” Bouche said. “For example, the pimps may have a lack of education, or may have had their own level of childhood abuse, substance abuse or financial issues. These things leave them to feeling out of control.
“In order to reclaim power and control over your own life, you take it from others,” she said. “It’s the power, control and esteem that comes from being a pimp.”
How much, or how little, do we know?
While human trafficking undoubtedly occurs in Fort Worth, members of law enforcement and scholars say it may not be as obvious.
“It’s extremely prevalent and I don’t think people have a clue,” said Bouche, who recently conducted a public opinion survey with a random sample of 2,000 Americans on their knowledge, attitudes, behaviors and beliefs about sex and labor trafficking in the U.S.
She found a strong pattern when Americans were asked how prevalent they think human trafficking is worldwide, they believe it’s extremely prevalent. Then when asked how prevalent the group thought the issue was in the U.S., the number went down a little bit. When asked about the issue in their state, it went down more. Finally, when asked in regards to their own community, the number decreased significantly.
“How prevalent the issue is depends in their mind how proximate it is to them,” Bouche said. “People almost purposely don’t want to know how close it is to them. I also wonder if it’s not only, ‘Yes, it makes me uncomfortable,’ but also if they think, ‘It makes me responsible for doing something about it, and I don’t really want to do anything about it; I’m more comfortable in ignorance because then I’m not responsible in any way.’”
On Sept. 17, the TCU Police Department sent an off-campus safety alert email, regarding a man offering a female student money for sexual conduct at a local bar. She refused, and the male began touching her inappropriately underneath clothing.
Bouche says that this recent occurrence is case-in-point of how prevalent the issue is in Fort Worth.
“I remember getting that email alert and I’m like, ‘Oh, my goodness, that very well could have been a pimp,’” she said. “He could have had a plan to put something in her drink, he could’ve had a plan to kidnap her, who knows? This could have turned into a worse kind of situation—we just don’t know.”
Johnson said human trafficking in Fort Worth is not recognized often because people don’t understand what it actually is. He said he did not know how bad the issue was until he started working in the human trafficking unit.
“I’ll be honest, I’ve been a Fort Worth officer for 14 years and in my time, not once have I made a human trafficking report,” Johnson said. “You can see it, you can encounter it, you just don’t recognize that’s what it is so it’s not as recognized; it’s more discreet and it’s done behind closed doors, so it’s harder to detect.”
“For example, you can do a traffic stop on a car, and you can see someone in possession of drugs, you know you have an offense of possession of a controlled substance. You can do a traffic stop and someone’s got a gun and they may be prohibited from possessing, you’ve got that,” he added. “But if you stop a car and have an underage girl in the car, and someone says, ‘Well no, this is my niece,’ we have no way of verifying records, because if they’re not cooperating with us, we have to spend more time investigating it on the side because it could just be a girlfriend/boyfriend situation, not a trafficking situation.”
However, Attorney Parker said law enforcement has already seen significant strides in educating people to notice signs of trafficking.
“The signs are not always obvious, even in sex trafficking, because on the surface it may look like this woman is doing it voluntarily,” Parker said. “We need to have more training for our law enforcement to better detect signs of human trafficking, whether that be with our troopers on the highway pulling over a van of people.
“They can notice certain things like, do the people in the van look related? Are there multiple women? Are they different races? Can they speak English? Are they afraid? Do they look malnourished? Is there one man and the rest are women? Just noticing little subtleties and follow up on them,” Parker said.
Combatting sex trafficking
So far in 2016, The Net has raised $61,000 to combat sex trafficking in Fort Worth. But, it’s the relationship building that Ice finds most important for victims.
“For someone being in the sex industry for a long time, they’re used to being used by people consistently,” Ice said. “It’s important to make clear to them our offer is one-way and we don’t expect anything in return—to not judge them, but encourage them to have the life they want to live.
“We don’t need or want anything from them in return, just friendship,” she added.
When visiting the women on prostitution charges at the county jail, Ice said it’s not always serious conversation matter.
“We joke around about our favorite TV shows or nail polish,” she said. “But a lot of them are wanting to open up about their stories and past, so they are able to do that, and we talk with them, we cry with them, we pray with them, we laugh with them and try to encourage them.”
Ice said that the community and relationships a girl or woman surrounds herself with is the biggest factor for someone relapsing and going back into prostitution or sex trafficking. The Net offers victims a supportive way out of sexual exploitation in the context of community.
“They’ll go to whatever community they can find, and generally that isn’t a positive community,” she said. “Because they don’t have a full concept of what a healthy, respectful relationship looks like, it’s easy for them to be taken down a bad road.
“That’s why The Net works really hard not to just get women the resources they need, but because we want to be their friends for life and let them know we’re here for the long haul,” said Ice.
Attorney Parker said in order to increase effectiveness of combating sex trafficking in Fort Worth, there needs to be more training in terms of awareness, and also more training in terms of promoting victims to talk to law enforcement.
“Once you think you’re on to something that could be trafficking, coordinate with another social service agency to create an environment where victims can outcry,” Parker said. “There are trained professionals in law enforcement to interview these victims and get them to talk, and it’s very difficult because they’re scared and emotionally unable to come forward.”
Bouche said the exploitation is everywhere in American society.
“People think we’ve come so far as a society in terms of exploitation against not just women, but human beings. People don’t realize how exploitative our culture still is,” she said. “I see it everywhere; when you study this topic, you can’t go anywhere, or do anything, or watch anything where you don’t see it.
“We have to continue having these conversations and talking about it, or else we won’t make progress,” she added. “People have to say those things that people don’t want to hear. It can be unpopular at times, but someone has to do it.”
Johnson said he believes this issue rests on the nature of society to fix.
“There needs to be more recognition, not so much individuals walking down the street seeing something, but for businesses owners and hotel owners to recognize the signs and take the initiative to contact the police and allow us to investigate at that moment, instead of reacting to a report the next day or two days later,” he said. “It depends on society as well as law enforcement.”
If you know of someone being trafficked or recognize something that you think may be human trafficking of any type, call the Fort Worth Police Department’s Crime Stoppers hotline at 817-469-8477, or the National Human Trafficking Resource Center’s hotline at 1-888-373-7888.