Over the course of her teaching career at a public high school in King County, Karen Marion made a shocking discovery – two of her students were working as underage prostitutes. 

Marion and other employees at the school tried desperately to reach out to the girls and a group of additional students believed to be involved with prostitution once they became aware of what was going on.

"I even offered to have one of these girls come and live with me," Marion said.  "I met with the principal and this girl and I said, ‘you can stay with me during the week and I can help you with your homework. You can have a routine.’"

The student rejected Marion’s offer, saying she was too connected to her pimp to abandon him. She told Marion the pimp had said he would marry her eventually, as long as she helped him raise money for their future. 

"This is what she told me: she said, ‘no one has ever loved me before. This is the first person who has really loved me.’ That’s what she really believed," Marion said.

Marion said that for girls raised in poverty, the dual promise of love and money was enough to persuade them to become entrenched in the world of prostitution.

Marion’s story is shocking, but it is in no way an anomaly. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates than anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 American children are victimized through the practice of prostitution each year.

Understanding modern sex trafficking in America requires an adjustment in the way the crime is typically envisioned. The term conjures images of children kidnapped from families in developing countries. In America, it’s more common for pimps to seek out vulnerable members of the population, specifically homeless youth. These children aren’t usually grabbed off of the street; they’re coerced with promises of a better life, money and love.

According to the Washington State Attorney General’s office, several key factors make Washington an ideal place for such traffickers, namely its access to an international border and its abundance of sea ports. Whatcom County also has its own advantages to traffickers:

"Because of Interstate 5 going through our county between Vancouver B.C. and then Seattle and Portland, we are a corridor for trafficking that we don’t necessarily see or hear about, but it’s traveling right through us," Sue Ann Heutink, a steering committee member at Hope4Justice, a local organization dedicated to raising awareness about sex trafficking, explained.

Because of the issue’s prevalence, many organizations are springing up across Whatcom County to try to combat local sex trafficking. Part of the problem is simply understanding exactly what’s going on in a world that tends to operate in the shadows.

Anya Milton is the Executive Director of Access Freedom, an organization that was founded three years ago and provides outreach to commercially sexually exploited youth in Whatcom County.

"It’s transient; it’s pervasive; it’s constantly changing and that is what makes it so hard to combat. There’s no one situation that is exactly alike," Milton said.

What is clear is that American children that end up in prostitution share some commonalities. Debra Boyer, Ph.D., is a cultural anthropologist who first started investigating issues of sex trafficking in Seattle during graduate school at the University of Washington in the 1980s. Boyer’s research revealed that the majority of children that end up in prostitution have a history of poverty and childhood sexual abuse.

"Over 75 percent of the girls in our study had been sexually abused, had been victims of incest and had been raped before they ever got to the street," Boyer said.

Milton said the most prevalent form of human trafficking that Access Freedom encounters is youth who perform sexual favors in exchange for housing, clothing or food, a behavior commonly referred to as "survival sex." Often, abuse at home forces children to runaway, where they then resort to survival sex as their only means of supporting themselves. The average age of entry into prostitution is 14.

There are several groups in Whatcom County, including Access Freedom, that work directly with survivors of sex trafficking. Engedi Refuge Ministries recently opened a safe house for adult victims this past month in Whatcom County to provide the women with a safe place to live, as well as give them access to rehabilitation, further education, spiritual guidance and above all, a sense of self-worth.

"Every aspect of it is reinforcing the value in their worth as a person and that their worth is not tied up in their profitability for someone else at the expense of their own body and their soul," explained Aaron Newcomb, co-founder of Engedi.

While outreach opportunities are critical, other groups feel that without attempting to change the societal causes that have created sex trafficking in America, the problem will never truly go away.

Arianna Cane, a recent Western graduate and an Access Freedom volunteer, explained that the hardest part of understanding sex trafficking in America is realizing why it happens.

"I think the one thing that still leaves a question in people’s minds is it doesn’t make sense how this could happen," Cane said. "Why would we have 13-year-old girls that are sold out on the street? Why would we have people that are willing to buy a 13-year-old girl? A lot of that answer is you really have to look into the parts of society that you don’t want to look at."

For one, the industry only exists because there are people willing to pay for sexual services. According to Access Freedom, the estimated revenue for human trafficking is $87 million per day. The massive revenue stream has made human trafficking the fastest growing criminal industry in the world and the second largest criminal industry overall.

"It gets down to this cultural issue," Boyer said. "Men have got to stop buying women and children. And decent men, men who don’t, and I understand that there are many of them, need to begin to stand up to those who do."

Experts believe problems also arise from a misconception about the prostitute’s role in prostitution.

"When you ask a little girl, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ Have you ever heard anyone say, ‘Oh, I want to be a prostitute,’" Marion asked. "People think that it’s a profession. They think that if they give a prostitute money they’re helping her because she has a job. Really? No, she doesn’t have a job. She has a lifestyle that started probably because she was abused as a child."

"We have a really antiquated view of prostitution," Newcomb added. "We see it in this way where a prostitute is just a loose woman trying to make a fast buck. That is a really, really wrong perception. What’s happening is that men that are exercising control and greed are using them as commodities." 

In a 2008 report commissioned by the city of Seattle, Boyer discussed the harm and ineffectiveness of blaming commercially sexually exploited youth for the existence of prostitution.

"We are, however, placing the responsibility for prevention of prostitution on the shoulders of children and youth alone when we fail to address the cultural norms that shield the dynamics of demand and normalize the behavior of buying sex," the report states. "There is no curriculum that can provide an abused and frightened 14-year-old with the cognitive ability and refusal skills to outthink a 26-year-old offering love, money, and to take care of them."

Those involved with the cause also believe it is necessary to change the way prostitution and sex trafficking are viewed in the legal and educational systems. Inspired by what she observed in King County, Marion now serves as an area associate for Washington Engage, an organization that operates at the state level to form community collaboration against human trafficking. The organization pushes for legislation that protects victims and harshly punishes those who sell and buy sex services, as well as emphasizes a need to education children about what sex trafficking is, what pimps and traffickers look like and how they can both recognize and avoid them.

Primarily, the issue revolves around awareness, an understanding of the factors that contribute to sex trafficking and a dedication to working to stop it.

"I believe that there are enough people on board with this issue that are radically energized and radically empowered to stop it," Marion said. "People need to have the passion and the heart and the vision to believe that we can make a change and make a difference. I believe that Bellingham is ready to explode on this."