I used to live near a sex trafficker.
I didn’t realize it at the time, only being in about third grade, but the strange goings-on in the ground-level apartment that faced the pool were whispered about around the low-income complex we lived in. In the building across from me and around the other side, lived a man in his late 20s—and a constantly fluctuating number of very young girls. The fewest I can remember was four, but usually, I counted at least seven girls and women coming and going.
My mom only allowed me to swim at night, and looking back, I can see that it was probably to make me less visible to whoever was in that apartment. Just a few yards away with the door always open and neon lights in the window, I could see right into the living room. I’d heard the scandalous stories of the very young girls who all lived with him, some speculating that they’d run away, some suggesting he was some kind of cult leader. But swimming in the dark I could see right into the hub of activity, the headquarters, the room filled with couches and music and girls. So many girls.
I remember peering in and wondering why they stayed, wondering what was so great about this man that so many girls ran to live with him. He didn’t seem handsome or rich. I never spoke to him myself, but in my spying, I’d observed that he seemed quite friendly, outgoing, and relaxed. How though, I wondered, could any girl see that there were already so many other girls and want to join that? I didn’t know what “that” was, but I knew enough to see that an apartment full of girls competing for affection wouldn’t seem the least bit appealing to me. What was so special about this man in the two-bedroom, rundown apartment that brought so many girls willing to squeeze in just to live near him?
I realize now how faulty my thinking was.
It wasn’t that there was anything special or appealing about the situation that made these girls choose it, it was that they didn’t know they had a choice at all.
Sex trafficking has been heavily discussed in recent news cycles, shared on social media, and generally brought to the public’s attention on a greater scale than ever before. More and more victims are coming forward, sharing horrific stories that hurt to hear. Security footage and code words are shared in an effort to educate others on hidden dangers. Strangers carry a heavier weight now, seem a little more dangerous. The predators have always lurked and the business has always been active, but in a desire to guard our hearts against the horrors, we’ve traded information for ignorance. We are trying to catch up to an industry that has had a centuries-long head start.
While listening to some survivors of sex trafficking recently, I was struck by a theme that came up over and over in each victim’s story—they didn’t know how to say no.
We rally cry about consent, teach our kids to stop when they hear no, teach our kids to just say no, but rarely have we actually prepared them to actually say no. We’ve been so focused on learning what predators look for that we’ve failed to teach our children what no looks like.
We discuss hypothetical situations where teens are drinking and friends are offering drugs, we warn of strangers with puppies and boogeymen at the water park, we might even bring up pushy boyfriends or girlfriends who don’t take rejections as conclusions.
But in thinking we are protecting our children from fear, we are making them vulnerable to reality.
Statistically, sex traffickers and predators are much more likely to have formed a relationship with the victim. Family friends, neighbors, teachers, people who have had influence in a child’s life and whose power is used to create a situation that a child doesn’t know how to say no to. Recent news has revealed tactics that use the victims’ own friends to recruit them. Sexual predators, we’re learning, look less like a man in a trench coat and more like a soccer coach. In light of these revelations, though, we haven’t updated our education to adapt to the situation.
Yes, we must make it abundantly clear that children are allowed to say no at any point, but we have to give our kids more than a single word to use with people who don’t honor their autonomy or innocence as it is. No is a complete sentence—it does not need a justification to follow or a circumstance to be flexible. This means that we have to be willing to offend, that our children have to be told that their safety is more important than approval. Kids are natural people-pleasers, teenagers are notoriously insecure, both facts predators know and use to their advantage.
Our kids need to know if a person in power makes them uncomfortable, it is OK to say no. If a person they love asks them to do something they hate, it is OK to scream no. Kids will fear the consequences of saying no without realizing the consequences of silence are far greater.
This is not victim-blaming, this is not putting the responsibility on the victim or assigning fault to survivors silenced by fear.
I’m painfully aware that many, many victims scream no, repeatedly, and their tragic circumstances muffle the cries to concerned ears. No child is willing or responsible. But many children are groomed over a period of time, and many children are intimidated by the predator they know. This familiarity and desire to please create a gray area of discomfort, causing a child to think they must choose between being uncomfortable and being disappointing.
We must, must teach our children how to say no. In any situation, to any person. We must instill in them the fact that no is a non-starter, not up for debate or coercion. No is a stop sign, and if someone ever asks you to go past that stop sign, then they are not worried about your safety. Even if the person says they love you. Even if the person says you owe them. Even if the person threatens you. Even if the person pays you. Even if the person has known you for your entire life.
No is the period at the end of the situation, and any sentences said after it are not valid. There is nothing that someone is allowed to say to ignore your no. There is no relationship more important than your no. There is no embarrassment worth avoiding or popularity worth gaining that will cost you your no.
Practice with your kids. Give them realistic situations, persuasive lines.
I know we worry about our loves losing their innocence, but it’s much better for them to be aware than it is to have that innocence stolen.
We know how important the word no is, but our kids don’t, and when battling an industry that caters to people who say yes to more things than we can imagine, we must do all we can to prepare and strengthen our children’s no. We have to teach our kids not just to say no, but how to say it.