Although many presume it’s a scourge that occurs primarily in other countries, human trafficking has a significant presence in the United States, and the Mid-South is one of its hotspots. Shelia Simpkins knows this firsthand. At the age of 6, Simpkins was sexually abused. Until she was 14, she was repeatedly abused sexually by several of her mother’s male friends. She eventually ran away from home. While living on the street, Simpkins met a charming 19-year-old man who offered to provide her with a safe place to stay. She would even begin to view him as a boyfriend. He was a pimp, who, shortly after providing Simpkins with lodging, manipulated her into prostitution so she could provide them with money for food and drugs.For nearly a decade, Simpkins was trafficked from Memphis to Nashville, Washington, D.C., Anaheim, California, Orlando, Salt Lake City, El Paso, and Las Vegas. Fear and addiction kept her trapped.After enrolling in the Magdalene program, a residential rehab center for women who have survived prostitution, trafficking, and addiction, Simpkins has managed to overcome her addictions and her sex-trafficking past.
According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s 2011 Tennessee Human Sex Trafficking Study, 78 out of 95 counties in the state reported at least one case of human sex trafficking n the 24 months of the study. Shelby, Davidson, Coffee, and Knox counties reported more than 100 cases of adult and minor sex trafficking. 79 percent of the counties participating in the study said they didn’t think their departments were adequately trained to recognize human trafficking, meaning the study may have only touched the surface of the scale of minors and adults being trafficked in Tennessee.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has responded with training for law enforcement and the department of children’s services.”I come in contact with rape victims, trafficking victims, juvenile prostitutes, and adult prostitutes every day,” says Suzanna Parkinson, sexual assault intervention specialist for the Shelby County Rape Crisis Center. “In the case of trafficking victims, the key is to try to identify them when they’re brought here. They often don’t self-identify for a variety of reasons. It’s the equivalent of being brainwashed. These young women oftentimes start out running away from some situation at home. They are easily coerced. They are easily seduced. They think they’re in love with their trafficker, so they’re not going to reveal their circumstances when they come.”
“For someone to think that they can exert their will, power, dominion over another human being and treat them as property, solely for financial profit, is something that’s unacceptable,” Edward Stanton, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Tennessee says. “I want to ensure that victims know that they have a place where they can come and seek justice to get out of these situations.”
Learn more at Louis Goggans’ Memphis Flyer article: Modern-Day Slavery: The dirty business of sex trafficking in the Mid-South.