“Then this one favor turns into more than once, and then he says, ‘I promise we’ll have a better life. You won’t always have to sell your body, but right now, you do,’” Helen Van Dam said.
It’s a form of sex trafficking known as “Romeo pimping,” where the trafficker snares his or her victim by pretending to be a boyfriend, girlfriend, lover and then convinces his or her victim to engage in prostitution.
Van Dam is the director of the Freedom Drivers Project, the traveling and messaging outreach of Truckers Against Trafficking, a mission to educate and inform the public and particularly the U.S. trucking industry, from drivers to dispatchers to truck stop employees, on how to recognize and report instances of human sex trafficking.
The big blue semi trailer parked in the Peoria Civic Center at the Midwest Truck and Trailer Show has been on the road nearly non-stop since it appeared last year at the Peoria truck show.
“We’ve had a very busy schedule since last year, and it’s busier this spring. We used to go to an event and then go back home, to Denver. We don’t do that anymore. We’re out for several events in a row and traveling across the country and to so many events,” Van Dam said.
Getting Word Out
That’s good news for the effort to spread the word about sex trafficking.
“We’re working with and through the trucking industry to combat domestic sex trafficking. We want all drivers to be trained. We want all truck stop employees to be trained. We want them to be able to recognize and report potential cases of sex trafficking,” Van Dam said.
The trucking industry, from drivers to employees of convenience stores, truck stops and delivery points, is uniquely positioned to make a difference.
“The sheer numbers, the nature of their travel, just the nature of their jobs, they are in locations where they can come in contact with victims of sex trafficking. To be able to train them means we have extra sets of eyes and ears out there to be able to inform law enforcement,” Van Dam said.
The 24-hour hotline is operated through the Polaris Project, another non-profit, non-governmental organization dedicated to raising awareness about human trafficking and modern-day slavery.
“There have been more than 1,300 calls that have come into the hotline, led to over 400 cases involving 692 victims being recovered due to calls from drivers,” Van Dam said.
Van Dam said the project also aims to break stereotypes about who is a victim of sex trafficking. Victims can be female and male and come from anywhere.
“Sex trafficking knows no barriers when it comes to race or socioeconomic status,” she said.
Van Dam said she and her team want to arm drivers and truck industry employees with a different perspective.
“Part of our training is trying to change a mindset, ‘oh, this is a prostitute or a lot lizard’ to ‘no, this is a human.’ This is someone’s daughter, someone’s sister. This is a human being who is caught in this situation,” she said.
Van Dam said just changing that mindset is a victory against those who engage in sex trafficking.
“That’s what traffickers are counting on. They are counting on apathy toward this person to let the trafficker continue to sell them,” she said.