Alumni combat Florida sex trafficking industry


A woman was arrested by a Pinellas County Special Victims Unit last November for forcing her 14-year-old foster daughter to prostitute herself to an older man, according to an article in the Tampa Bay Times.

A 29-year-old man was arrested last month for forcing teens into prostitution, among them a 15-year-old he kidnapped in Ybor City, according to an article in the Tampa Tribune. 

Statewide statistics suggest that acts such as these are far from isolated incidents.  Though human sex trafficking is often perceived as an injustice confined to developing nations, a report commissioned by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement ranks Florida as the third most active destination for sex trafficking and smuggling. 

The state Legislature has addressed the problem with recent legislation that would increase penalties and strengthen investigations. Some activist groups have decided to take further action.

One such organization, the Abolish Movement, was founded by a group of USF graduates aiming to increase awareness of the sex slavery epidemic from the Tampa area.

Kelsey Farnell, creative director of Abolish, said the group could not stand idle while the $31 billion trafficking industry continued to exist in Tampa, especially with children involved.

“The average sex slave is 12 (years old) and sometimes services 15 men per day,” she said. “These girls are in prison.”

Blindfolding statues, spraying washable purple – a color used to represent exploitation of innocence – graffiti and plastering visible surfaces with stickers throughout the Tampa area, the group aimed to raise awareness of human trafficking in Tampa through January, which the White House has named National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention month.

The key to success is raising awareness where the problem occurs, Farnell said. The group aims to face the problem from the street level. 

“You probably see these girls in the street or anywhere and don’t know that they are being trafficked,” she said. “People didn’t even know this was happening in Tampa.”

Randi Sether, strategy director for Abolish, said activists have already influenced legislation by raising consciousness. 

Only recently did those forced into sex slavery become legally recognized as victims.

The Safe Harbor Act, which went into effect in 2013, allows children rescued from prostitution to be assigned to child welfare professionals instead of placed in juvenile delinquency. 

“These girls are not criminals – they’re victims,” Sether said. 

According to a Florida State University report, sex slaves are often uneducated and unable to speak English, which may result in an uninformed understanding of legal rights.

Child prostitutes sometimes believe themselves undeserving of basic freedoms, Sether said. 

“They are in a world controlled by pimps so they are not hearing that ‘Hey, there is help out there,'” she said. 

Abolish is also trying to raise awareness of the National Human Trafficking hotline and its texting service. 

Victims who text the hotline will connect with anti-trafficking resources near them, she said.

“Young girls text all of the time and they are able to do that on the sly,” Sether said. 

The campaign will continue through the week, but the people behind the Abolish Movement said they hope the effects of the awareness they spread will last beyond. 

“We were talking about how the people of Tampa are sort of blind to this issue,” Farnell said. “What we want to do is turn this town purple.”