My name is Holly Smith, and I am a survivor of child sex trafficking in America.
At age 14, I was a shy, insecure and angry teenager. I had just graduated from eighth grade and I was afraid of starting high school.
I was afraid of getting beat up, I was afraid of never finding a boyfriend and I was afraid of losing my friends. I was depressed and in need of real help and guidance.
I grew up in southern New Jersey, in a town so small that I had known most of my friends since kindergarten. In middle school, my friends and I often hung out at the local mall, and it was at this mall where I met a man who picked me out of the crowd and asked for my phone number.
I felt special that he picked me, and he told me that I was special when we talked on the phone. He said I was too mature for high school, that I was pretty enough to be a model, and that he could introduce me to famous musicians to help me become a songwriter. As a kid who grew up on MTV, this was my dream.
After we talked on the phone for about two weeks, this man suggested that I run away from home with him. And I did. Within hours of running away, I was forced into prostitution and coerced into working on the streets and in the casino hotels of Atlantic City, New Jersey.
The first man to whom I was sold told me that I reminded him of his granddaughter.
Nearly 15 years later, I collected police files from my case and learned that the man I’d been talking to on the phone was a completely different person from the man I met at the mall. These two men were working together.
I was a smart student. I had been placed in the gifted and talented class in elementary school and received high grades in intermediate school. But a 14-year-old is no match against two men scheming to outwit a lonely child. I was arrested by police for prostitution and I was sent home without any services.
Days later, alone in my room, I attempted suicide and was hospitalized. The man who sold me on the streets of Atlantic City was charged with sexual assault of a child under the age of 16, endangering the welfare of a child and promoting prostitution – he served one year in jail.
The man who spoke to me on the phone and pretended to be someone he wasn’t served no time – there was no law in place to make him accountable for his actions.
Today, I am an international advocate speaking out against human trafficking and child exploitation.
This year, I published an academic nonfiction book about child sex trafficking in America, titled “Walking Prey: How America’s Youth are Vulnerable to Sex Slavery.”
Although I share the details of my personal story in “Walking Prey,” this book is much more than a memoir. I discuss predisposing factors, community risk factors and the mindset of “willing victims.”
A child victim who does not self-identify as such is often referred to as a “willing victim,” as was I at age 14 in 1992.
Thirty-six hours after I had arrived in Atlantic City, I was spotted by law enforcement and I did not self-identify as a victim. I understand it can be difficult for people to understand my actions (and lack of action) during these circumstances.
I often hear questions like, “Why didn’t you try to run away?” In “Walking Prey,” I discuss the mindset of “willing victims” in order to offer insight to law enforcement, healthcare providers and other victim advocates. My hope is that such insight will enable professionals to offer all victims compassion and appropriate care.
“Walking Prey” also offers practical advice and information to parents, teachers and community members alike. Without the involvement of the entire community, commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) can and will continue to flourish in American communities and beyond.
In 2012, I addressed the Virginia General Assembly in support of Senator Adam Ebbin‘s bill SB 259, which now requires the Board of Education to provide awareness and training materials for local school divisions on human trafficking, including strategies for prevention.
In “Walking Prey,” I stress the need for curricula in schools to educate students on the global issue of human trafficking and child exploitation, as well as programs to help prevent any form of sexual exploitation, including CSEC.
There are a few programs available that aim to educate students about human trafficking and/or prevent CSEC, one of which is offered by ECPAT-USA, a leading organization dedicated to ensuring that children are not bought, sold or used for sex.
ECPAT-USA’s mission is to protect every child’s basic human right to grow up free from the threat of sexual exploitation and trafficking.
ECPAT-USA does this by advocating for federal and state legislation, promoting corporate responsibility, training first responders on how to identify victims and implementing awareness campaigns throughout the community.
ECPAT-USA is part of the global ECPAT network, located in over 70 countries, all dedicated to ending this abuse against children and protecting their right to grow up free. Their recently-launched school program aims to educate, train and develop the leadership skills of young people.
The program’s goal is to empower youth to become the foremost voices in their communities advocating against human trafficking and child exploitation, with a focus on prevention.
ECPAT-USA currently has a campaign running on ENDcrowd.com, a nonprofit crowdfunding site dedicated to ending human trafficking to raise money to turn the curriculum into an e-learning toolkit to share with students nationwide who are at-risk of being exploited.
With your help, ECPAT-USA can continue to prevent children from being recruited, bought or sold in the sex industry.
ENDcrowd.com offers this short video to educate the public on global human trafficking and on what they are doing to transform the fight against “modern day slavery.”
As an advisor for ECPAT-USA, I encourage you to educate your friends and family about human trafficking and child exploitation happening around the world and in our own communities.
Through sites like ENDcrowd.com, you can gain tools to educate others and join the global movement against trafficking and child exploitation.
Together, we can make a difference.