Reactions to underage sex trafficking within the hospitality industry
Article by Astrid Zeppenfeld
In our summer issue we published an article titled “Children Are Taboo,” detailing our keynote at the Groovy Galas & Funky Functions Expo on how to recognize and respond to – especially underage – sex trafficking in this industry. Dr. Thimsen on our panel shared a great list of things to be on the lookout for to potentially save these kids.
Whether you were at the Expo or read the article, you most certainly had a reaction to this information. I did. For me, it was not so much shock that it is happening or how frequently; I had been involved with an organization in St. Louis that rescues girls from the trade a few years ago, so I was fully aware of the numbers. I think my surprise and shock was about how young these children were. A decade ago, the magic number was 13, the youngest age of girls to enter the sex trade. That is most certainly bad enough. But children aged 8-14, engaging in various sex acts with adults and each other? Are we not supposed to think of the other sex as “having cooties” at that tender age?
I could tell that many people in the audience at the Expo were equally stunned. The audience by and large fell silent. At a few tables, one could see light come off a cellphone… were those people already texting this information to someone who might be able to help save these children that are forced into this every day? Did someone just make the connection between this information and the kid with the winter coat and backpack he saw in the lobby of his hotel this morning? The child that looked out of place, but not disoriented or scared enough for a stranger to be bothered?
ASK AND YOU SHALL GET RESPONSES
Curiosity doesn’t always kill the cat. After the keynote, I walked around and asked several attendees what was going through their minds, especially those who had a decisively somber look about them. Basically, I found three camps of people:
THE DON’T ASK, DON’T TELL CAMP
In my mind, I call people in this camp the “Ostriches.” Like the birds, they would rather not be bothered by terrible news, for various reasons – the news upsets them because it affects them personally and makes them either feel scared or guilty, or the news doesn’t affect them directly. These were the very few people who were quick to mutter things along the lines of:
- That’s terrible, but why do you feel like you need to ‘ram it down my throat?’
- Oh, so glad it worked out for those children that Dr. Thimsen spoke about, but I’m sure the numbers are over-exaggerated; it can’t be happening this frequently.
- I’ve never heard of this; I’m sure if it was that big of a problem, I would have heard of it before.
- I would have rather not known this much about it.
- And the one that really stood out: What a waste of time, this keynote!
THE ON-THE-FENCE CAMP
In this camp, people were bothered by what they heard, wishing they hadn’t. They didn’t want to talk about their reactions to the keynote and very clearly needed more time to digest the information. However, these were the same people who quickly made their way over to the speakers’ table for questions or to the Monarch table to purchase jewelry so Crisis Aid International in St. Louis could use the proceeds to help rescued trafficking victims.
THE OUTRAGED/WE NEED TO DO SOMETHING, ANYTHING CAMP:
Then there were the people who were visibly upset that this could be happening among us, or maybe even felt guilty that they might have seen it before but couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything about it. The latter was me, by the way. If you read my last article on this subject, you know when and why.
Greg Smith, owner of Back-to-Work Onsite Massage, was right there with me. His comment was, “What comes to mind first is ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ and we cannot allow that to happen. Up until now, I always thought that women could get out [of this trade] if they wanted to. Today, I learned from Katie Rhoades on the panel how hard it is for women to leave and start anew. But kids? No! I was stunned at the prevalence of that.”
Bryan Mueller with Knight Center told me, “It was definitely a reality check of what’s really going on in the world, instead of [being] in our own little bubble. I have a 17-year-old who doesn’t really go outside of a 10-mile-radius. I’m old-school; I know those things do exist, but she doesn’t. So I will talk to her about it.”
Jeff Koziatek, life coach and motivational speaker, was equally disgusted with “the prevalence of human trafficking” in St. Louis. He says, “It was a stomach-turning but necessary conversation. Kids need advocates to […] fight for them. […] The more we are aware of the signs, the better we can fight back. […]The discussion affirmed what I do as a coach and speaker and inspired me to speak louder. The panel was a great way to start dialogue. I would love to see this followed up with small group discussion or Q&A to dive deeper. I left deeply moved and inspired to help.”
WHERE ARE YOU ON THIS TOPIC?
How did you personally leave this? Please let us know if you were inspired to help and we can put you in touch with the right people.
If you left this keynote as an Ostrich, don’t feel bad, because this is some hard material to digest. I would love to pretend that it doesn’t exist and put my head in the sand on a deserted island far away. But I urge you to reconsider – look around you and you might just save a life or two. Especially those of you who work in hotels; there is a good chance you can save a life or two THIS MONTH, according to the staggering numbers of sex trafficking victims. MM&E
Astrid Zeppenfeld is a writer and MM&E’s editor/business development manager from St. Louis.