Orlando, Florida has been known for decades as a major tourist destination, the ultimate spot for theme park enthusiasts, foodies, and cruise lovers. But amidst the hustle, bustle, and vibrant attractions lies a world that is not quite the “happiest place on Earth.” With millions of travelers visiting the city annually, Orlando draws in people from all over the world, some of whom might be seeking more insidious and lewd activities in which to partake.
For years, Orlando has been ranked as third in the nation for the highest rates of human trafficking. About five percent of all trafficked individuals, mostly male teenagers, are forced into labor work, while the remaining 95 percent, mostly female teenagers, are forced into sex work. Occurring throughout International Drive and the surrounding area, an overwhelming number of bars, clubs, restaurants, and hotels allow this type of activity to go on rather inconspicuously. The transportation and soliciting is done carefully, strategically, and mostly online. It feels like a terrifying thought in a 2019 digital world — endless places to hide within the infinite that is the Internet.
I went into researching this article with the assumption that most cases of human trafficking closely resemble the 2008 film, Taken, minus Liam Neeson. My contact at the Orlando Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation (MBI), whom I will refer to in this article as Joe, was quick to correct me on this assumption. “It happens, but not as often as you would think,” he clarifies. He has lost count of the number of stings he’s been involved in over the years and has only seen a few instances in which the victims have been kidnapped and forced into sex slavery. More often than not, he explains, the victims are slowly lured into the world of prostitution, but before it even gets that far, the trafficker must successfully establish trust and dependency with his/her victim(s).
While there is no specific “type” of person in terms of physical traits that perpetrators search for, Joe says that the targeting always starts online, primarily through Instagram, Facebook, and other social media sites.
Nowadays, the boundaries have been blurred and people’s online presence is more exposed than it has ever been. Some are far too willing to share intimate and personal details about their life for thousands to read.
Predators seek out those who seem lost, helpless, unhappy, financially burdened, or who are from troubled homes. Knowing their victims are longing for some type of connection, they validate the pain and become their confidant. Other times the victims are homeless and addicted to drugs, making them vulnerable and easy to prey on. Regardless of whether the approach is made online or in person, pimps seek out people they can manipulate and control.
Joe emphasizes that he has seen all types of women get trapped into this world. He doesn’t want people assuming that runaways or troubled teens are the only people at risk. “I’ve seen straight-A and honor roll students get pulled into this,” he mentions as an example. He says it’s more about the emotional/mental state of the person that can make them a potential target. He cautions people to be mindful about how much they choose to share with a public audience.
The “initiation” into prostitution is not something that occurs overnight or in a set amount of days. It’s not the linear path we want to carve out in our minds, but rather it is one founded on trust and dependency. Most victims are not held against their will. They choose to stay, often feeling option-less and like they would be worse off if they left.
Joe mentions phrases like fear exploitation, trauma bonding, and Stockholm syndrome. It’s clear that there is a deep level of psychological manipulation that is at play in these situations. Much like an abused partner is afraid to leave their abusive spouse, these victims are also too afraid to leave. “After a while,” Joe says, “it starts to feel ‘normal’ for them.”
This got me thinking about the definition of the word “cult.” While most people attach religious connotations to this word, an alternative meaning is: “a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing.” Which is exactly what seems to be happening to the women who become involved in sex trafficking.
Although one must be able to prove “force, fraud, or coercion” in order to formally charge an offender with human trafficking, Joe says that an additional difficulty is getting the women to recognize that they are even victims to begin with.
Much like the followers of cults, these women have been brainwashed for years and must face weeks of purging to cleanse their minds of the poisoning and programming to which they have been subjected.
Indeed, it’s a “cult-like” mentality where the punishers are loved, revered, and entrusted with total power over those whom they abuse — and the spirits of the abused eventually become so beaten down that they become silenced entirely.
For Joe, helping them find their voice again is the most rewarding part. Many victims become activists and counselors, helping other women like them to face their trauma, accept it, and become empowered through it. It is a triumphant and happy ending to what would otherwise be a sad and painful story. Truly, it is a brilliant example of transcendence, in which pain is turned into power.
Julia Piantini is a freelance writer, health enthusiast, and wellness coach based in Florida. She enjoys copious amounts of coffee, little to no weight lifting, and making occasional posts (without giving too much away) on Instagram at @julia_piantini.