You can see it in her eyes. Tajuan McCarty has lived enough for three or four people, and only one of those lives – the most recent one – has been the kind whose details you can discuss in polite company.
In her new life, though, her past is a boon. “Just like you recognize a journalist, I recognize someone who’s been victimized,” McCarty told Weld in an interview. And well she should. McCarty was trafficked for sex, forced into prostitution across state lines for over ten years, beginning when she ran away from home at age 15. During that time, she had her throat cut, a gun placed to her head and was raped with “objects I’m not gonna name.”
While her will was being constantly eroded, McCarty developed a crippling drug addiction as a coping mechanism, something that haunted her as recently as a prison stint in 2008.
Now, though, McCarty is a changed woman. Earthy and endearingly blunt, she radiates the uniquely evangelical charisma of someone who has, after long years languishing in the wilderness, finally found her purpose in life. A born-again Christian, McCarty’s purpose lies not only in the good news, but also in working tirelessly to make the same redemption story possible for the thousands of girls (and, increasingly, boys) who are trafficked for sex in this country.
As executive director of the WellHouse, a nonprofit shelter for rescued victims of human trafficking, McCarty coordinates with law enforcement to rescue all the victims she can and to provide a loving home for women aged 18 and older. That includes a 55-year-old woman who had been trafficked in Mountain Brook for 25 years, one of about 60 rescues in the last two years for the shelter.
The exact details of the rescues are kept secret for the safety of everyone involved. Operation logistics can range from McCarty accompanying a raid on a suspected house and sheltering a girl to FBI agents dropping a victim off at the WellHouse in the small hours of the morning. As a civilian, McCarty defers to law enforcement during the most dangerous stages of freeing victims from their traffickers.
“I was trafficked here so much that it became home,” McCarty, a native Atlantan, said. “I have rescued off the same front porch I was trafficked to, 25 years later in Birmingham.”
Birmingham is not merely a beneficiary of the traffic to Atlanta — a major hub for the sex trade in the Southeast, according to a 2010 study by Freedom to Thrive, a Birmingham-based anti-trafficking coalition. Over the last 30 years, Birmingham has become a destination location. “This is not a New York problem; this is not an Atlanta problem,” McCarty said. “Birmingham is a hotspot.”
One of the primary reasons for this tawdry distinction is that Birmingham lies at the terminus of so many highways, the most important of which is Interstate 20. The seemingly innocuous interstate is the main corridor of sex trafficking in the United States, with a consistent circuit through Atlanta, Birmingham, Chattanooga, Memphis and Nashville and in truck stops along the way, McCarty averred.
The vast territory covered in the industry has led to professional traffickers becoming particularly well organized, creating stories that you can’t imagine happening in America, let alone in Birmingham.
Spencer Till, for one, was shocked to see it in person. He’d never thought that something like this could happen here. The executive creative director of Lewis Communications, Till filmed the documentary I-20: The Sex Trafficking Superhighway for the WellHouse and witnessed the problem firsthand. The week the documentary premiered in January, McCarty rescued a girl off the titular interstate in Georgia who had made the rare step of fleeing from her employers at a truck stop.
The meticulous organization of the traffickers is one of the things that shocked Till most. “We really wanted footage of things that are going on at the truck stops, getting footage of girls going from truck to truck,” he told Weld. “But they are so organized, and they have so many spotters at these places, that if you came in with a vehicle…they immediately scattered. It’s the craziest thing.
“My original perception was that kids were getting abducted and transported to big cities,” he continued. “But what I actually discovered is that the stuff is taking place on the interstates. It’s not just the artery; it’s the stage. And it’s rampant. It’s everywhere. … On every interstate, not just I-20.”
The nature of the beast
This is a historically large problem. Four times as many slaves are trafficked in the U.S. for both sex and labor as there were the year prior to the Civil War — just one part of the estimated 27 million people trafficked worldwide, according to Till’s film — and it can be easy to despair of any solutions.
One of the key positions which has opened up in the multibillion-dollar industry is that of the “bottom girl,” a prostitute who has worked her way up to middle management through successful recruiting and being a good earner. Bottom girls frequently lure friends and other unsuspecting targets into being trafficked, and then become some of the cruelest enforcers for the system. They perform a function similar to those of Jewish kapos during the Holocaust: victims abetting victimization.
During her interview, McCarty pulled a card out of her prayer book advertising the services of a voluptuous, nearly nude woman straddling a stripper pole. “I’ve rescued from her,” she said. “Two years ago.” In that case, a desperate girl — formerly on her high school’s national debate team — was encouraged to try stripping to pay for college and her apartment after losing her job in the down economy.
McCarty relates the story, all too common in her experience: “Well this lady – if you want to call her a lady — ‘friended’ her on Facebook and winds up saying, ‘Let’s go here and make more money.’ And so they flew from one city to another city, got into the club, and everyone in the club was involved. The bouncers wouldn’t let her leave, they forced her to do pornography, and she was only able to escape after several weeks.” This is what is known as a bait-and-switch recruitment, one of three types relayed in the 2010 Freedom to Thrive study: a bottom girl promising a movie deal or other golden ticket to entrap someone into pornography or prostitution.
Ironically, that story contains one of the few examples of outright force being used to coerce a victim into sex at that early stage in the process. The most violent style of “recruitment,” called guerrilla pimping, involves an abductee being forced to meet nightly earning quotas of $500 to $800 or be faced with beatings, rape, or the prospect of being left in a ditch and seamlessly replaced by a new victim.
More often, though, the process relies on the illusion of a paternal relationship on the part of the pimp. Preying on children who have been abandoned by their families — “throwaways” is the term used by social workers — the pimp offers the prospect of love, and, in some cases, survival.
“No guy walks up to a girl, says, ‘Hey, wanna be my prostitute,’ and she says yes,” said Kelly Burns. Burns is a worker at Project HOPE, a day shelter for at-risk youth located at 1321 7th Avenue North. “That’s just not how it works. [The pimp] will see a girl outside when it’s cold, and if he’s got a room for you, and some nice clothes, and some money, then why wouldn’t you go? Especially if you’ve been treated your whole life like you were worthless. That’s how it starts.”
The process of “grooming,” or finesse pimping, preys on those physical and psychological vulnerabilities. The phenomenon of “survival sex,” as it’s called, sees far more prostitutes render services in exchange for food and shelter than for drugs or money. According to a survey of Jefferson County social service providers in the 2010 Freedom to Thrive study, “66.7 percent identified shelter as the number one exchange between a buyer and a child victim or pimp, 53.3 percent identified food and 26.7 percent identified transportation.”
Even with sketchy data, it’s clear that the vast majority of prostitutes in Jefferson County are operating in the service of a pimp, as over 85 percent of Jefferson County social service providers surveyed by Freedom to Thrive attest. Of those pimps, only about a third are complete strangers.
The truth is that the most common relationship between pimp and prostitute among those surveyed was the girl’s mother; this can range from bartering her daughter’s services to pay rent or, more commonly, trading her for money and drugs.
Tajuan McCarty said that the reason the WellHouse is so strict about maintaining the privacy of its rescues isn’t the fear of professional traffickers seeking to reclaim their chattel, since they can always be replaced. “Family traffics family, and that’s different,” McCarty said. “We’ve had those situations, and they do look for them. Because they’ve been [trafficking their children] for years.”
Unraveling a Gordian Knot
In the face of these horrors, there are many people — from private citizens like Tajuan McCarty to legislators and law enforcement agents — who are working to combat the problem.
Jack Williams, a Republican state representative for the 47th District, got involved when he learned about the gravity of the situation years ago. “Birmingham, really, from a transportation perspective, is at the hub of a lot of what’s going on,” Williams told Weld. “It’s happening all around us, and it’s totally beneath the radar.”
In 2010, Williams worked with colleagues from across the aisle to pass the Williams-Coleman Human Trafficking Act. Alabama’s first official ban on human trafficking, it also is one of the tougher prohibitions on the practice in any state.
“In all honesty, when I first introduced this legislation, folks were looking at me and laughing,” Williams recalled. “It was like I was tilting at windmills, with people saying, ‘That can’t happen here.’ In two short years, it’s gone from ‘It can’t happen here’ to: ‘This is a real problem.’”
Williams feels that raising awareness of the issue has led to significant gains in fighting trafficking, and McCarty agrees: “It doesn’t matter whether you call it prostitution or human trafficking, if the word’s getting out, a life’s being saved. That’s all that matters.”
One point of contention between the two, however, is the criminal status of prostitution. Having seen it firsthand, McCarty feels that the threat of being jailed is another weapon in the pimp’s arsenal to coerce women. “Decriminalizing prostitution does not mean legalizing it,” McCarty was quick to clarify. “Legalization of prostitution would allow the state or the county or a committee to manage [or zone] it. We need to do the Nordic model, which says we go after the purchaser of sex. It’s basic supply and demand.”
Williams agrees that law enforcement should increasingly focus on pimps and johns. “I don’t think that anyone that’s concerned with justice wants to prosecute a teenaged prostitute,” he said. He also believes that the threat of prosecution can be a valuable tool in breaking a prostitute from a pimp’s thrall.
In addition to efforts from the FBI and other levels of law enforcement, private organizations like the WellHouse, Project HOPE and Truckers Against Trafficking are sowing the seeds of hope in a desperate place.
The former seeks to help victims learn how to love and respect themselves once again, as well as providing a wide range of services — from computer courses and art classes to GED training and rides to job interviews — that will help ease the painful transition toward re-socializing with a world they’ve been torn from. When it comes to material needs, the WellHouse also provides “everything from clothes to tampons,” McCarty confirmed.
Project HOPE, an affiliate of Family Connection, a Shelby County-based child services nonprofit, does the same for the homeless youth who are so frequently the targets of sex trafficking. “Our mission is for young people to have a place to go and have people that they trust, which hopefully will keep them from being used as a raw material for drug gangs and trafficking gangs,” Kelly Burns said. According to Burns, Project HOPE is the only shelter of its kind for homeless and at-risk youth downtown.
While filming for his documentary, Spencer Till met with members of Truckers Against Trafficking, men and women who work on the front lines of trafficking by the very nature of their profession. “They’re really just trying to report what they see or grab the girls, if they’re willing to go,” Till explained. “They’re trying to talk to these girls to see if there’s a possibility that they want out. They’ll either contact law enforcement or take them themselves,” understanding how difficult and dangerous it can be to try and emancipate these women.
The root of the problem
“I don’t know if it’s shame or a post-traumatic thing, but believe it or not, the actresses we got to tell the story come off more believable than the real victims,” Till said of the dramatic portrayals of trafficked victims in I-20: The Sex Trafficking Superhighway.
That quote gets to the thorniest and most fundamental difficulty of fighting human trafficking: sex slavery is the truest representation of a much broader, and subtler, culture of misogyny in the United States. Interviews with McCarty, Williams and Burns all made it clear that the level of shame, taboo and victim-blaming in our society has abetted the rapid growth of human trafficking. It’s also one of the primary reasons for the sketchy data regarding prostitution. For instance, according to the 2010 Freedom to Thrive study, only 35 percent of victims report their abuse.
It’s a culture that Tajuan McCarty knows all too well. “‘If you didn’t wear that short skirt, then you wouldn’t have been raped. If you didn’t pick the bad guy, then you wouldn’t have gotten beaten every day. Well, why don’t you just leave?’
“In the South, women are fixers, number one,” she added. “Number two, the responsibility always lies on the woman’s shoulders anyway, so if something’s happened wrong in your life, it’s your fault. And society reinforces that here. Especially here.”
The mechanisms that make human trafficking possible on the scale that we find in modern society are psychological, not physical. Brute force could never accomplish what suggestion and manipulation have.
McCarty, who took 25 years to fully realize her victimization, echoed Jean-Jacques Rousseau in her interview: “The psychological chains are even more restraining than the physical chains. I can chain you up and handcuff you all day long and make you do things. But if I can talk you into it, and make you do it, then I have you for life.”
Kelly Burns has seen the process recur daily with a different, but related, class of social pariahs: the homeless. “It’s easier to stand back and say, ‘It’s your fault you’re in this situation,’” Burns said. “It’s much easier than taking a look at your culture and seeing the really dark sides of this.”
Even though McCarty has run into some difficulty getting noticed by people over the mountain — “We’re not a sweet, nice ministry,” she said — she believes that things are improving, and that she owes the WellHouse’s continued survival to community support.
If she never quite wins over the wealthier communities in Birmingham, she’ll find another way. As she has since turning her life around a few years ago, Tajuan McCarty puts her faith in a higher power: “I think that God’s using the WellHouse as a catalyst to open shelters across the United States. It’s going to give Birmingham the reputation for being a human trafficking-fighting town. And if it’s based in small groups to make it work, so be it. We still fight it.”
The WellHouse’s 24/7 helpline is 1-800-991-0948. For more information about how to donate your money, materials, or time, visit the-wellhouse.org. The volunteer process is rigorous and extensive, so be sure to check for training times in advance. The national human trafficking hotline is 1-888-3737-888. If you suspect human trafficking is taking place, call one of these numbers and leave the rescue to the professionals.