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Speaker at college says signs of sex trafficking are subtle

Nikki Valila is the director of training at My Life My Choice has spent the past 12 years of her professional career working with commercially sexually exploited girls.

The following story was written by Paula Owen for the Telegram & Gazette.

Sex trafficking can happen anywhere to anyone, says Nikki Valila, who has spent the past 12 years working with sexually exploited girls, and people need to watch for red flags that may not be that obvious.

Ms. Valila, director of training at My Life My Choice, a national leader in prevention and intervention around the commercial sexual exploitation of children, delivered the keynote at Mount Wachusett Community College’s Tea Time speaker series Monday afternoon. The South Cafe was packed for her discussion, titled “Sex for Sale: A Look at Human & Sex Trafficking.”

Changing the language used when talking about commercial sexual exploitation of children is key, Ms. Valila said, to getting children help. People look at the issue differently, she explained, when a child is called a “teen prostitute” because the term comes with a stigma and places the responsibility on law enforcement to act rather than the community. When the term “commercial sexual exploitation of children” is used instead, the Gardner native said, it is looked at as a community problem with children as victims in need of help and services.

“I’m from Gardner and people think it doesn’t happen here,” she said. “Everyone says it can’t happen to my kid or neighbor or can’t happen here.”

It is not happening on the streets anymore, she said, with people walking up and down the streets in the middle of the night turning tricks. With social media and classified advertising websites like Backpage, it is done on laptops and cellphones, she said. Children who have no idea what is happening are recruited online by agreeing to meet the wrong person or accepting the wrong friend request. Pimps now look like their boyfriends, she said, and most are much older, but look younger.

The media also sends mixed messages of what commercial sexual exploitation of children is, she said.

“If there was a kid from Gardner thrown into a black van, kidnapped at gunpoint and brought out of state, it would be on the news for days,” she said. “That’s not what human trafficking looks like. The reality is the chains our kids have are invisible. That’s why they keep running back. Their pimp brainwashed, coerced and manipulated, like a cult.”

Commercial sexual exploitation of children is a form of child sexual abuse that mandated reporters have to file, she said. The problem is, signs to identify it are not as visible as seeing a “belt mark” on a child’s arm, she said.

The average age of a victim is 14, she said, and 59 percent were under 14 when they were first exploited. Of those, 77 percent were involved with the welfare system and 24 percent had gang ties, she said.

Pimps figure out children’s vulnerabilities and prey on them, she said, and provide some form of remuneration that the child values, including money, goods and services.

Risk factors include domestic violence, addiction, loss of a parent, mental health concerns, learning disabilities, racism, sexism and classism.

Commercial sexual exploitation of children is not delinquency, she said, or promiscuity that suggests children are enjoying having sex with multiple partners in one night – on average 10 to 20 different people a night.

Children she works with often brag that they are making money doing what other people do for free and about how they go to amazing parties, make money and use drugs.

“They brag when they come back … but they don’t talk about the trauma they went through,” Ms. Valila said.

With 100 pimps in Boston known by law enforcement and another possible 75 more “we don’t know about (who are) pimping your kids,” she said, there are signs parents can look for: kids wearing more makeup, having unexplained cash, a change in attire, new friends and truancy. When looked at in their totality, the signs can be an indicator of commercial sexual exploitation of children.

But parents can’t just tell kids to watch out for the “creepy guy,” she said, because pimps and johns can be anyone.

Ms. Valila said that 15 percent of American men, or 15 million men over 18, have purchased sex, and 1 percent, or 1 million, did it in the last year. Between 60 and 80 percent of illegal commercial sex transactions are brokered online, she said. The average age for first-time buyers is 21, she said, and 43 percent of johns were with their friends.

Pimps bring children to where the money is, she said, such as large cities, sporting events and tourist areas, and also to international airports, where people may be looking for illegal sex during layovers.

Parents and caregivers need to watch for signs and ask tough questions to prevent loved ones from becoming victims, she said.

“Ask them, ‘When you were gone for two weeks, how the hell did you make it out there?’ Part of being on the run is couch surfing. Oftentimes, sex comes with that. Our kids would do anything for weed. It’s ridiculous. Ask the question no one else is asking. Be humiliated and ask (children) the questions because I would rather know than not know,” she said.

Ms. Valila worked for the Suffolk County district attorney’s office in the child abuse unit as the lead victim-witness advocate on teen exploitation cases and was program director of an eight-bed group home for sexually exploited adolescent females outside of Boston. She also served as a consultant on teen exploitation cases at a youth residential program and has trained hundreds of child workers and law enforcement officials on strategies in working with sexually exploited girls.