Thirty-four years ago, Lisa Hansen was a 14-year-old star student, a Christian, and a victim of sex trafficking. She had run away from home and traded sex with an 18-year-old stranger for lodging. But there was no legal definition of sex trafficking in those days and very little recourse for her or her family. Once found, police reports simply labeled her as a runaway.
In 2000, the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) established a definition (enhanced by subsequent amendments and the Justice for Victims Trafficking Act of 2015) that would have classified Hansen’s experience as sex trafficking. It maintains that adults must be victimized through fraud, force, or coercion but that minors need only exchange a sex act for anything of value such as shelter, food, or money.
Despite these legal provisions, many underage sex trafficking victims continue to go unrecognized today. The majority of sex trafficking victims in the United States are being missed because of the traditional understanding, believes former pastor Jerry Peyton, Hansen’s father, who serves as executive director of Sold No More, an Arizona-based anti-sex trafficking organization. According to Peyton, his staff regularly encounter victims who aren’t being sold on the streets by pimps, but rather, are exploited in the home by relatives, on the Internet, and in schools.
“They’ve just been coming in the door and out the back,” Peyton said. “We didn’t recognize these are victims of sex trafficking.”
Americans are more aware of the $99 billion global sex trafficking industry than its existence in the U.S., potentially because many people — Christians included — have a dated understanding of what constitutes sex trafficking. In a social media age, it is no longer just the homeless, runaways, and those in the juvenile justice system who are most at risk. Given the widened definition of sex trafficking and the industry’s proliferation through the internet, predators have greater access to youth from many backgrounds.
Although anti-trafficking organizations have been active for decades, most find it challenging to collect statistics on sex trafficking due to the hidden nature of its crimes, according to Global Centurion, an anti-trafficking organization. Polaris — a major nonprofit anti-trafficking organization that operates a national hotline — estimates that hundreds of thousands of adults and minors are victims of human trafficking (labor and sex) nationally and 25 million worldwide .
The TVPA recommends prevention, protection, and prosecution as the three-pronged approach to combatting sex trafficking. Peyton’s organization focuses on prevention, which he sees as the most ignored approach — but a tactic that is gaining ground due to the adoption of Erin’s Law, which requires schools to teach about sexual abuse prevention, now implemented in 35 states.
Over the past nine years, Sold No More has educated nearly 3,000 professionals in law enforcement, health care, and social services. But once they recognized the targeting of youth through the internet, Sold No More decided to reach out to educators and kids in middle and high schools. According to Peyton, its program took off in Tucson when the Tucson Unified School District bought 40 copies of its “ Power over Predators” curriculum and trained 120 teachers, counselors, and principals. To date, he says, they have reached 48,000 students.
The main components of the program are predator protection, internet safety, and healthy relationships. Schools often cover internet safety and cyberbullying ever since Congress passed the Child Internet Protection Act (CIPA) in 2000. But Sold No More’s curriculum exceeds CIPA requirements, said Peyton, as it informs about child pornography issues, sex trafficking predators, and healthy relationships.
Hansen, education director at Sold No More, was inspired to develop its curriculum after her own complex history of relationships. She ran away for the first time after a close friend’s suicide at school. Hansen said she felt invisible as classmates overlooked her pain because few were aware of their friendship.
This grief, coupled with suppressed memories of childhood sexual abuse, paved the way for a 10-year journey that included running away twice, dancing at a strip club, living in a Christian group home in Branson, Mo., and marrying an abusive man who fathered two of her children. Hansen described how her relationship with God suffered at that time in her life.
“He’s this hateful master of puppets,” she told those around her. “He knows what’s going to happen and he doesn’t do anything about it.”
After divorcing, she returned to Tucson, worked while raising her kids, and started attending church again. From then on, according to Hansen, God slowly became her lifeline. “He was so loud, and so loving, and so generous,” she said.
During her long process of healing, Hansen heard an interview with former congresswoman Linda Smith, the founder of Shared Hope International — a faith-based anti-sex trafficking organization. She was appalled by Smith’s description of sex trafficking, although parts of it seemed familiar to her. She didn’t have a pimp, Hansen said about her life, but she realized that she had done many of the things that Smith was talking about.
“Once I understood what sex trafficking was,” said Hansen, “I said, ‘Oh, this is my story.’”
Inspired by Smith, she pleaded with her father, who had already started five nonprofits, to focus on building an organization that would combat sex trafficking.
Today, Peyton, Hansen, and another staff member present their curriculum to assemblies at schools for 45 to 90 minutes or over three sessions in classrooms, where it is easier for kids to express their private concerns. While speaking with students, staff at Sold No More discovered that a large percentage of the predators are fellow teenagers buying or extorting sex from other students online.
Students take nude pictures of themselves to sell online or videotape paid sexual activity in school bathrooms. Child pornography becomes sex trafficking when kids exchange the images for something of value, Peyton explained. The photos can also become a tool in the hands of predators who “sextort” the youth for more photos or for sex.
Christian churches, especially evangelicals, are active participants in the anti-trafficking movement through mission trips, material and shelter assistance for victims, fundraising, and the production of documentary films, according an article published by the National Association of Evangelicals , whose leaders also lobbied former President Obama to upgrade the State Department Office that deals with combating sex trafficking.
Yet, Christian schools and church youth groups have been wary of Sold No More’s presentations.
“It’s ten times harder for us to get into church youth groups to talk about this,” Peyton said, “and into Christian schools than public schools.”
Sold No More staff have presented at 34 public middle and high schools — some each year — and six colleges compared with only two Catholic and two Protestant schools, and 80 church presentations, even though 90 percent of the organization’s volunteers are Christian.
Peyton upholds that all elements of faith must coexist with issues of justice, which he sees prominently in the words of Jesus and the biblical prophets. “You can’t focus on Bible study, and quiet time, and worship,” he said, “and not stand up for the oppressed, and the abused, and injustice.”
As administrators and families are realizing the susceptibilities of their own students to sex trafficking, more Christian schools are opening up to discussing this particular justice issue in the classroom. Most recently, a girl from the largest Christian middle/high school in Tucson was lured onto a plane to Boston on her 18th birthday. She met the predator on KIK — a messaging app, Hansen said. The school then brought in Sold No More to bring awareness to both students and parents after Peyton’s son (a teacher there) intervened on the girl’s behalf.
Dr. Adam Mearse, a teacher and guidance counselor at Naperville Christian Academy in Illinois, teaches regularly on sexuality. He believes that Christian parents might be averse to teaching sexual subject matter to their children out of fear of planting ideas in their minds or of exposing them to danger. But for him, not speaking about it increases kids’ sense of isolation, which in turn makes them more receptive to predators.
“I think we don’t do any favors by keeping darkness in the dark,” Mearse said. “As Christian people, we do good things by bringing the things of darkness into the light so we can be aware of them and see them for what they are.”
In one of the public middle school classrooms at Booth-Ficket Math/Science Magnet School in Tucson, a Sold No More staff member explains that one in five kids under 18 will be sexually solicited by a predator online. While much of the exploitation happens to girls, predators also target boys through apps and gaming.
“The online stuff has taken sexual exploitation and trafficking and put it on steroids,” Peyton said.
In 2017, through “ Operation Open House ,” the New Jersey Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force arrested 24 adult predators — which included a nurse, a police officer, and a firefighter — for chatting with officers posing as kids in an effort to lure them for sex. They communicated on chat apps such as Kik, Scout, Whisper, and Grindr. Just recently, another 16 predators from three states were arrested in New Jersey after an ICAC Task Force underwent a similar operation.
Mearse estimates that one out of 10 kids he has talked with in church youth groups have been solicited online. Christian kids are using the same apps and games as all kids, he said. Peyton insists parents, and not just kids, must also be educated in order to change the culture. He is working on a new curriculum for parents and one for Christians that will include scriptural quotations.
Peyton would like to see one person in a church trained so they can teach parents and youth at their churches. Those trained in churches can also reach out to their local schools.
“Only a small fraction can engage in rescuing victims, busting traffickers, enacting new laws, or providing trauma treatment for victims,” said Peyton, “but almost everyone can engage in prevention education.”
To report a sex trafficking victim, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or text “Befree” (233733).
For online exploitation contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s cybertipline.