Written by Alison Singh Gee:
Most Americans think sex trafficking is something that happens somewhere else to someone else, if they think of it at all. Brianna was a bubbly high school student, a beloved daughter and sister, and a cheerleader. Trafficking was not on her radar.
After school Brianna waitressed at a diner in her small Washington state town. Richard, a man in his mid-40s, and a woman he introduced as his wife often came in and engaged Brianna in conversation. Richard asked her about her life (she was the youngest daughter of five kids in a loving middle-class home), her birthday (she would turn 18 in a couple of weeks), her dreams for school and work (to go to college in Seattle), and the kinds of boyfriends she liked the most (handsome blond athletes). Brianna thought he was merely being friendly, but as the weeks to come would reveal, the seemingly innocuous customer was actually a veteran sex trafficker mining the young student for vital information he would use to try to lure her into a world of strip clubs and prostitution.
A few weeks after their first encounter, Richard returned, this time alone. He explained that he and his wife had divorced, but he was ready to move on. Then he asked Brianna if she’d like to “party with him.” She’d later learn this was code for having sex with a client, but at that time she says, “I just thought why would a middle-aged man want to party with a high school kid?” She told him no, but that wasn’t the last she would see of Richard.
A few weeks after that, when Brianna had just turned 18, the man of her dreams appeared in the diner. Nick was a gorgeous blond football player dressed in Gucci, designer denim, and an expensive watch. “I noticed him right away,” Brianna says. “He flirted with me and made me feel so special and beautiful. I’ve never been talked to like that. When I told him I liked his watch, he said, ‘I’d like to buy you one to match.’ ”
Nick invited her to visit him in Seattle, and when she saw his chromed-out Mercedes and stately Victorian house, she felt she had wandered into a dream. When her family adamantly told her she could not spend the night with him, he told her to break her ties with them and move into his spare room. He also suggested she could attend college while doing a little work on the side. Why not try dancing in a club?, Nick asked, adding that his former girlfriend did that and made “tons of money doing little work.”
Within hours, Nick had taken Brianna to get an entertainer’s license, helped her choose her stripper’s outfit, and led her to a strip club. There he warned her not to make eye contact with certain men. She later learned this was to keep her from becoming the property of another pimp. During her second night in Seattle, she took the stage at a strip club for the first time, all the while telling herself that even though she was naked, she would have her clothes on in a matter of minutes. She did this for three consecutive nights, working seven hours on the last and pulling in $850—a big change from the $85 she made on her best night ever at the diner.
Sensing her potential, Nick offered to take her on a trip to Arizona and Nevada, where Brianna most likely would have been completely cut off from her friends and family and disappeared into forced prostitution.
Still excited by her new-found freedom, Brianna wanted to stay but she had to return her family’s car. She told Nick and arranged a ride back to Seattle with a trusted high school friend. That friend, Evan, sensing a dangerous situation, alerted Brianna’s parents. They then met their daughter, along with former Congresswoman Linda Smith, at Evan’s house. Brianna refused to believe that Nick was setting her up, until Smith, founder and president of the national anti-trafficking organization Shared Hope, took her to a cafe and talked to her about the patterns and come-on lines of sex traffickers. In Smith’s discussion, Brianna recognized every line Nick had said to her.
“I learned that the average age of girls lured into sex trafficking is 13,” says Brianna, choking up at the memory. “When I was 13, I was playing softball and having the greatest time of my life. How easy would it have been for them to trick me?”
Brianna agreed never to go back to the diner where she worked, to drive a different car, to change her cell phone number, and never to travel alone—lest Nick, and the other pimps involved, such as Richard, whom she had seen at the Seattle strip club, try to track her down. “I was so scared,” she says.
Today, some three years later, Brianna fights against sex trafficking by sharing her story. “There is no stereotype of a girl in sex trafficking,” she says. “It doesn’t matter how rich or poor, if she’s white or black, fat or thin, a pimp can look at any girl and find a vulnerability that he can exploit. He might tell a girl that he will hurt her family if she runs. Or he might rape her and videotape it, and threaten to show it to her whole school.”
Brianna has helped make a 20-minute film, Chosen, to show at school assemblies to middle and high school students. “It is a human right to know how these pimps work. I don’t want kids to feel scared when they learn about this. I want them to feel empowered.”