‘They need to know’

Area middle-schoolers learn about dangers of sex trafficking

New Photo by Julie Riddle The changing face of a 16-year-old drawn into sex trafficking is shown to a roomful of middle school girls at a presentation Thursday at the Rogers City Theater. The girl, shown over an 18-month period, died three months after the final photo was taken.

ROGERS CITY — Uniformed police officers and other adults stood in the back to make room for the 270 seventh-, eighth- and ninth-grade girls who filled Rogers City Theater on Thursday to learn about the face of sex trafficking, a face they may be seeing every day.

Onaway Middle School teacher Melissa Makela brought the girls in her classroom to hear facts about the very intense — but very real — topic.

“It’s very scary,” Makela said, “but they need to know.”

FBI Special Agent Michael Glennon of the Detroit-based Southeast Michigan Trafficking and Exploitation Crimes Task Force, spoke to girls from six area schools in a presentation sponsored by the Rogers City Zonta Club.

“You are about 1,000 times more at risk sitting on your couch with your phone in your hand than you would ever be walking through Target or a mall,” Glennon said, listing the sophisticated methods used by predators to lure young girls. Predators make girls think they are talking to other teens, convince them to share compromising photos of themselves that can be sold by the predators and used to destroy the girl’s life.

Once a girl has shared a photo, she’s hooked, Glennon said. The predators use guilt and fear to coerce her into sending more and more photos, trapping her into a secret, terrifying life.

According to Glennon, 27% of girls victimized by an online sex trafficking predator attempt suicide.

Digital exploitation of young girls is relatively new, but a more ancient form of sex trafficking is still among us, as well. Young girls are especially vulnerable to being drawn into a life of prostitution, Glennon explained, because it provides what many of them, at their emotionally fragile stage, feel they don’t get anywhere else: a feeling of family.

A pimp is often a father figure, holding the loyalty of girls who don’t see themselves as victims but as having found someone who loves them.

Meanwhile, people selling other people’s bodies are getting rich off the girls they supposedly love. One night’s fee for prostitution can be $500, earning a pimp up to $182,000 per year for one woman prostituted out.

That rate triples for young girls, Glennon said.

Statistically, the bodies of about 90 girls between the ages of 13 and 15 are being sold for sex on any given day, according to Glennon. Up to 500 advertisements for sexual services can be found online every day.

It’s impossible to recognize those involved in sex trafficking by looking at them, Glennon said. He shared stories of high school girls selling sexual trysts with their friends and mothers earning money for drugs by selling their daughter’s bodies. Honor students, band members, daughters of police officers, girls of every demographic and background are being victimized by others.

The students in attendance were encouraged to tell someone if they suspect someone they know might be involved in sex trafficking.

“You’re not throwing them under the bus,” Glennon said. “You’re potentially saving their lives.”

The girls listened quietly to the presentation, then grabbed a bag lunch and headed back to the schools armed with a new level of knowledge about hard-to-hear realities of today’s world.

“What these people are doing is just nasty,” said Allison Tennant, a seventh-grader at Onaway Middle School

Her classmate, Madalynn Sheehan, said she felt better knowing about the problem, so she can stay away from it.

“We’ve never really had that kind of thing in our area … that we know of,” Tennant said.

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or jriddle@thealpenanews.com.