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Yvonne Abraham

The sex trafficking in our neighborhoods

The empty store at 828 Massachusetts Avenue in Arlington once housed a massage parlor.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/Globe staff

You don’t have to take a person’s passport to enslave her.

There are countless ways to force unwilling women into the sex trade. It is not necessary to lure them from China and hide them in massage parlors they can’t leave. It is possible to trap them in plain sight, where most of us don’t see their plight or powerlessness.

Let’s face it. Hardly anybody would have noticed the women victimized in the Florida sex trafficking operation exposed last month were it not for the fact that a very rich, very famous client was charged with soliciting prostitution at a massage parlor run by the traffickers. There is no evidence Patriots owner Bob Kraft was connected to the trafficking, or even knew about it. But his prominence brought the Florida victims into view nonetheless.


Can we care about sex trafficking without talking about Kraft? Lord, let’s hope so. Because what we glimpsed in Florida is but a sliver of a gigantic, and intractable, phenomenon we should face.

The mentors at My Life My Choice, which serves sexually exploited children and youth, have seen all the ways young people can be forced into prostitution. They’ve lived it themselves.

“Love was my passport,” said Audrey Morrissey, who was pressed into prostitution when she was 16 by the father of her baby. “It was like a hamster wheel I couldn’t jump off. I had so much at stake.” She started working the Combat Zone for him because she was afraid he’d leave her, and she stayed, even though he abused her, because she was hooked on him, and the drugs he introduced her to. Eventually, she believed she wasn’t good for anything else.

“You’re damaged goods,” said Morrissey, now in her 50s.

The average age at which the clients she and others serve at My Life My Choice were forced into the sex trade is 14. All but a couple of them — the Boston-based organization served about 156 girls, trans, and non-binary youth last year — were born in the United States. Many were sitting ducks: vulnerable, with messed-up home lives. About 85 percent were under DCF supervision.


“There’s this idea that a trafficker is a big, bad person who is out there,” said executive director Lisa Goldblatt-Grace. “It’s usually someone who weasels into their community or in their family.”

Tonya, another mentor, was first exploited at 12, by a cousin who knew how much she needed the refuge of his family. After raping her himself, he let his friends pay him to do so, said the 50-year-old, who did not want her last name used. After that, she went from pimp to pimp, completely dependent on each of them.

She sees her own entrapment in the girls she now counsels, except now, with help from social media, it’s even easier for pimps to spot vulnerable targets.

She saw one group of girls pulled into prostitution, one after another, by a man who offered them free tattoos. She sees gang members forcing 15-year-old girls into prostitution with threats to kill them and their families.

About one in four of the young girls who came through My Life My Choice last year had ties to gangs, said Goldblatt-Grace.

And once they’re trapped, they’re easier than ever to hide, thanks to the Internet, which has migrated the sex trade from the streets to anonymous hotel rooms. Escape, even in broad daylight, is dangerous and feels almost impossible, Tonya said.


“Even when the john leaves, she can’t go for help because the pimp says he will kill her,” Tonya said. “The trauma is the same, if they bring a woman from another country, or if they take a child from Maine and put her in a hotel room in Boston, where she knows nobody except her pimp.”

Some argue that legalizing prostitution would reduce sexual exploitation, leaving the industry to those who freely choose sex work. But studies have found that trafficking victims end up in legal brothels, too. And that women who work in regulated prostitution experience violence and trauma at similar rates to those who work in the shadows.

There’s enough there, and in the stories of survivors at My Life My Choice, to give johns pause every time they visit a “spa” where sex is on the menu.

Then again, if they truly cared whether the women whose bodies they’re buying really wanted to be with them, we wouldn’t be here in the first place.

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect total for the number of clients served by My Life My Choice last year. It is 156.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com and on Twitter @GlobeAbraham