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December 1st, 2009
10:51 AM ET

How one woman escaped sex slavery

By Sean Callebs, CNN

She asked not to be identified. Her first name is Melissa. A victim who beat the odds.

“I thought I would be dead. I never thought I would live to be 22 or 24-years-old,” says Melissa. Her story begins when she was 17, living with another runaway, she says a pimp promised them a better life.

“He started to pay our rent. Pay our bills. Make sure that we had food in our house.” But he also – literally overnight – forced Melissa to trade sex in exchange, she tells us.

“Within a day, my whole life changed. I had to sleep with people. He would tell me where I had to be and when I had to be there.”

Human rights advocates tell us that right now there are about 25,000 young women in the United States who have been forced into sex trafficking. Along with the horror stories we hear of women brought into the U.S. from Asia, Latin America, and Europe, advocates tell us many of the young women forced into sex trafficking are runaways from right here in the United States.

Melissa’s story fits the profile. Trying to escape a broken home, she says she was sexually abused at young age. Pimps prey on women like her.

“It's a problem that's happening right here and it's happening to people’s daughters, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren. And it's plaguing every community in the United States,” says Luis CdeBaca, U.S. ambassador-at-large to fight human trafficking. He says it's time for the U.S. to step up its crackdown on sex trafficking with more aggressive investigations and prosecutions.

“For the first time now we have a combination of actors both at the federal and state level who are really clicking on this. We've got state laws that are being passed. We've got training that's being done by the Sheriff's Association, and the International Association.”

So why not just run to the police or escape? Melissa says she was stopped cold by fear, and the sad resignation this was her life.

“I was too scared to leave or to go anywhere. I had no money. I had nothing. I mean they were all that I had.”

“It's the same story over and over,” says Assistant U.S. Attorney Susan Coppedge, who has made a career cracking down on the sex trafficking of minors. “The pimps almost have a handbook, the traffickers, as to how to catch a girl is the term. They will try this on 10 or 20 girls and only maybe get one that will fall for it, but it's that one who becomes the victim of sex trafficking.”

Melissa says it was an arrest for a traffic violation that eventually saved her life. The FBI convinced her to testify against her pimp and enter rehab for nine months, for therapy and drug addiction.

She's now married and hopes to start a family, something she once could not have imagined.

“All it does is take one person who actually does care and have pure motives – and give you everything that they were taught.”


soundoff (117 Responses)
  1. Constance

    My heart goes out to the young women and children who have lived through, or may now be living in this nightmare. We don't have to sit back and do nothing...we can be advocates, we can support organizations that help set these women free and help them to heal by providing shelter and counseling.

    Thank you CNN for reporting on one of the most despicable crimes in our country, and worldwide, today.

    December 28, 2009 at 5:55 pm |
  2. Tim

    Thank God, she was rescued. I abhor those who take advantage and abuse others who are weaker or who cannot fend for themselves, including these ladies, senior citizens, children, pets, etc. My feelings about the abusers are torn. As Christians, we are taught to forgive, but the "human" side of me hopes that those that abuse others like this should suffer and never be permitted to be out, on the streets, again. I know that God will deal with these evil persons, but I also want others to be protected against these preditors. I am happy for this lady that she has been able to put the past behind her and build a good life for herself and family.

    December 16, 2009 at 10:10 am |
  3. Jeff

    I hope this continues to be seen so that people will understand what's happening here and get involved to change it.

    December 9, 2009 at 7:00 pm |
  4. Shannon

    Melissa was brave for sharing her story. It is a common story, millions of young people are being forced into the sex slavery. Other youngsters are living in homes where sexual addiction is occurring, all of whom are impacted tremendously. I hope that there will be more consequences given to these people who are hurting this world's children. Children should be innocent. Children are precious, lets keep them safe!

    December 9, 2009 at 8:22 am |
  5. Chip

    Thanks so much for reporting on this. We need our eyes opened to how much sex trafficking is going on here in the USA, and need to be motivated to get involved in the fight against it – for the sake of so many women whose lives are so damaged but such inhumane treatment.

    December 8, 2009 at 9:25 pm |
  6. Michelle

    Human trafficking can happen to anyone, anywhere!
    Learn more at or call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-3737-888 to report a potential case of human trafficking.

    December 8, 2009 at 8:34 pm |
  7. Lynn

    Thank you for reporting on this.
    I thought we ended slavery in our country almost 150 years ago. Apparently not.
    I think we do not hear more about this because it is a multi-billion dollar industry and there are a lot of people paid to ignore the problem.
    I also think people ignore this issue because they think it will not happen in their backyard.Think again. This happens in the city, the suburbs and the country.I see a lot of preteen girls at our suburban malls and our theaters. I can visualize a scenario where a girl steps away from her friends for a minute and gets snatched. I would like to hear some reporting on statistics so we know how big a problem it is.

    December 8, 2009 at 2:07 pm |
  8. Logo4245

    This is such a serious problem. Our children are at risk. The government does little or nothing. The news rarely reports on this. So many women and children are suffering. This is even a "tourist industry" in some countries. When people fight enforcement at our borders – crying discrimination – it provides cover for smugglers to bring young girls in and out of the country. Please more coverage on these horrors.

    December 7, 2009 at 6:19 pm |
  9. D. Barber

    It is interesting to me how little is said about the prosecution of the "customers" in prostitution. This is still a supply and demand society. Reduce the demand and you will reduce the need to supply it. Why is it the person who buys and sells drugs is considered a criminal but the man who buys a woman or child is often given a pass. Is it because the majority of the people who make and enforce the laws of this country, as well as the ones who prosecute the crimes and own the media are still primarily male. I watch men cruise up and down the streets of my community all the time, shopping for sex. The truckers that detour from their routes to park in a vacant lots. The grey-haired businessman in the starched white shirt who slows down at the dark end of a dead end street. We write down tag numbers and photograph license plates for the police but nothing is done. But the half dressed little girl with the zombie-like eyes they pick up and put in the back of the police car. Arrest the buyers. Put their names and pictures in the paper or on your web site. Make them register as predators. Maybe then we'd see a change.

    December 7, 2009 at 5:34 pm |
  10. Fran Grant

    Thank you for bringing this important subject to light. During this season of celebration, the Lord prays His little girls can get free. God bless you, Fran Grant

    December 7, 2009 at 3:59 pm |
  11. Gary

    Thanks CNN for running this is time that the Truth is told, that the horrible menace of this stuff is revealed! I had several folks I work with view it with me and they were appalled...heard the usual comments..."I can't believe this is happening in our city and country"....well it is REALLY happening and I believe this piece has done much to reveal it...I would just ask that CNN would continue to show similar pieces on prime time.. Thanks again CNN!

    December 7, 2009 at 3:34 pm |
  12. jennifer

    Some of the posts by men on here are disgusting. A women choosing to be a prostitute is one thing. But giving a women free things with no prior agreement and then, as it often happens, raping her and then telling her to earn money through prostitution is another thing and is disgusting. Not to mention they are often minors as Rachel pointed out. Thiago, and the other men Rachel mentioned; you are disgusting, and insensitive to the emotional trauma some women suffer. To sicko #2, aka Brian, the article mentioned she was being sexually abused at home, so she didn't deserve anything for running away ( not that a women ever deserves to be raped or sex trafficed). I guess maybe you were sexually abused at home and choose to stay there and found that to be the right decision and thats how you feel entitled to pass foolish judgement on this womens choices. although somehow i doubt that. Although theres no doubt some of the men here do seem messed up for some reason or another. And its exactly because she was sexually violated by relatives that she was susceptible to thinking she got what she deserved at the hands of that pimp. But that was all in the article, did you even read it? Please don't say yes because that just makes you even more ignorant and despicable.

    December 7, 2009 at 1:17 pm |
  13. Patty Wills

    I am horrified by the idea of these young girls being imprisoned
    by pimps into this hopeless lifestyle. I wish we could do more about
    it . Surely awareness would help. Please give more press to these
    type stories and ways of how to abate this sex trafficking crime. Also,
    who is out there helping to rescue these young women? Please
    let us know more about this. Thank you for your diligent reporting.

    December 6, 2009 at 8:30 pm |
  14. ella

    As a mother of a daughter who was sexually exploited, I am so thankful for the awareness of the devestation that comes with
    this exploitation. For my daughter, this awareness plays a part
    in her continued healing. Everytime I read a story such as this one
    I am encouraged that each of these women (or men) who have
    dealt with exploitation can make it to "the other side".

    Thank you CNN for running this story.

    December 6, 2009 at 2:41 pm |
  15. Jessica Connor

    In addition to my prior post, let it be noted that, forced prostitution is not an identical problem as prostitution, and Human Trafficking is not ONLY forced prostitution. Human Trafficking encompasses many forms of forced acts for another’s profit. This said “Modern Slavery” or “Human Trafficking” is not only prostitution. Many chose to only identify Prostitution as the problem but it is more correct to say that objectifying a person thus perpetuating the idea that they can be controlled and owned is the real culprit here.

    A trafficker has no more rights to objectify or own a person than does a spouse, parent, stranger, pimp, government, corporation, or any other identity. Until society as a whole understands that a person is not, and can not be owned as property, this problem will not go away.

    Finally we must all, as human beings, take an active role in identifying and solving this problem. Everyone must look out for, and protect “Human Rights “for themselves and all others. The solution is in everyone’s hands and hearts. Do not turn a blind eye on this problem by being silent or condoning the acts of those people who endeavor to objectify a person. Perhaps when society does this as a whole we can expand the idea to all life. But for now, let us focus on the most destructive forms of this belief in property and ownership.

    December 6, 2009 at 12:30 am |
  16. Jessica

    The Victims are not the problem, as some would suggest. No one asks to be a victim. Being a victim is not a choice one makes, but rather a position a victim finds himself or herself in when…

    a) Someone knowingly harms them and/or takes advantage of
    their vulnerability, and

    b) They do not have the information, opportunity, and/or resources
    needed to avoid it.

    Think of this analogy, when you think about, “what a Victim faces while they are being victimized”…

    “Imagine being trapped in the back of a cave with an alert and
    unfriendly predator like a bear or lion between you and the cave
    opening. The predator knows you are in the cave, it knows where
    you are, and it is focused on not letting you get out. You are trapped
    there with nothing but the clothes on your back and no sign of help
    or outside assistance. You find the courage to make a run for the
    opening of the cave and jump over the sleeping predator
    (sometime later) only to find it is not alone and has an equally
    dangerous partner. By being in that cave, you are unable to care for
    your own needs and, must rely on scraps left behind by the
    predators or sources within safe reach, to sustain you until you can
    escape, die, or be killed. “

    With this in mind what would you do? Would you reach out and cry for help to a passing backpacker with a pocketknife for help? Would you call to a passing hunter and hope they could stop both predators without you being harmed? What if there were no backpackers and hunters to help? Good Samaritans like the Backpacker, are not equipped to help directly but can give the information to someone who can if they happen to notice and understand the situation. They can also help the victim get to safety and recover if the victim escapes. Law Enforcement like the Hunter, can only exact an escape if they know of the need and have the training, information, and equipment to neutralize the threat.
    The amount of courage and strength a victim must find to escape Human Trafficking is enormous. Any victim that can escape Human Trafficking for any period of time is to be applauded and held in high esteem for that act of courage. To do so is to look death in the eye and say to it “Not if I have anything to say about it!” and then run for their lives. They are victims trapped by predators who would rather see them dead then have them escape. They live with the knowledge that they could be harmed or die at any moment. Regardless of how they came to be in that situation, any help they can receive, could be the difference between life and death.
    The problems faced by victims of Human Trafficking are many. There is more that can be done by everyone on the planet. Anyone can help regardless of income or social standing. If you have time you can help by donating that time to Organizations that are making, or trying to make, a difference like “Tiny Stars”. If you have money or know people who would like to give financial support then you can rally them for funding. If you have the ability to talk coherently then you can speak up and inform others. If you have a home with a spare room then you can offer shelter. If you have nothing to offer you are not looking at what you do have, but rather at what you want to give. Clothing, food, shelter, access to services (such as law enforcement, doctors, lawyers, mental health professionals), transportation, communication, and emotional support is always needed. No person deserves to be a victim human trafficking.

    December 5, 2009 at 9:18 pm |
  17. LH

    I applaud Melissa for allowing her story to be told so that others will know there is a way out and a place to go after this horrendous life.
    We should be willing ot hear the truth and share it and give to the organizations like Wellspring that can help out. Healing is important after the trauma of such emotional and physical abuse. Many places are unavailable due to lack of space due to finances.

    Let us support not only with words but $$ and deeds to get these young women and men into a life that will be filled with goodness, not anger and hatred. The people do perish for a lack of knowledge.
    So flood the airways, newspapers and TV stations with the truth, the facts and close the ranks of this crime against society.

    Do you understand that these are the next generation ? Do you underdstand that it could be your daughter, grandaughter, niece, nephew, sons being approached just because they are young and vulnerable ?

    December 5, 2009 at 2:27 am |
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