Between local computers and hotel rooms exists a clandestine subculture of sex sold through the Internet. And Tulsans are buying.
Kristin and Jason Weis are the co-founders of The Demand Project, which works to protect children from sexual exploitation.
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NEW Girl in Town to Rock Your World.
I am a Married Man’s Best-Kept Secret!
New, Young, Hot ‘n’ Sexy.
At the end of a typical Thursday, these are a few of the tamest headlines of about 30 local ads for Tulsa-based escorts. The ads are marketed on Backpage, a free classified website that looks nearly identical to Craigslist.
The escorts are marketed as 18 and older, and their heavily made-up faces and mature figures might seem to corroborate that story.
But the reality is, according to Sgt. Todd Evans of the Tulsa Police Department’s Vice Unit, some of the scantily clad young women advertised for “donations” of $200-$400 an hour, may be children.
While both are illegal, soliciting sex online is different from the age-old practice of street prostitution. That’s because law enforcement has discovered many of the young women turning tricks booked online are victims of sex trafficking, meaning they have been exploited through fraud, force or coercion to perform commercial sex acts.
According to federal and Oklahoma law, individuals under age 18 involved in the commercial sex trade are automatically considered victims of trafficking.
Thanks to the anonymity of the Internet, while the girls are positioned as online merchandise, the pimps marketing them are seldom seen by the public, including the local “johns” buying what is advertised.
Unlike picking up a prostitute on a street corner, Internet solicitation is more secretive and more easily accessible.
“People seem to accept it more if it’s through the Internet versus on the street,” Evans says.
And, seemingly, so do the girls being advertised online.
“These are girls who would never consider being a street prostitute, but it’s OK to do it if you’re on the Internet and you’re in a hotel,” he says.
The topic of sex trafficking — also referred to by various sources as human trafficking — is a complex one. While it is part of the national dialog perhaps now more than ever, the local crime continues to fly under the radar of most law-abiding Tulsans.
“If you’re just a person who wakes up in the morning, takes a shower, goes to work, has a family, watches a little television at night — you might not ever see this or know that this goes on,” Evans says. “But it is an organized big deal.”
‘Line in the sand’
He worked in sales and marketing. She did hair. They lived a comfortable life with their two children in the picturesque mountains of Colorado.
The lives of Jason and Kristin Weis would take a much different turn, however, after watching a story on the local news.
The bulletin they saw that night was about a father who had raped his toddler daughter, videoed his brutal crime and downloaded it to the Internet. And thousands had logged on to watch. Not one or two twisted individuals. Thousands.
“It was a line in the sand moment,” Jason recalls.
The Weises say a deep calling emerged to fight for child victims of sexual exploitation. A friend directed them to Tulsa’s Victory Bible Institute for what they call spiritual training and preparation, which prompted their move here in 2006.
“The friend had explained that it was going to be a very evil war and that we needed to be spiritually equipped and ready for what we were about to launch into,” Kristin says. “One of her lines was, ‘What you’re about to fight can kill you if you’re not prepared. The very thing that you’re fighting can destroy you, your family, your whole life if you’re not careful.’
“And it can,” Kristin says, “because it’s so heavy. This thing is so big and dark.”
In January 2013, the Weises founded a nonprofit called The Demand Project, which works to prevent child pornography and protect children from online enticement and sex trafficking. Its efforts support the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, TPD, the Jenks Police Department and the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
The group’s name stems from what Jason describes as the underlying problem driving the multi-billion dollar online sex industry: “There’s a demand for it.”
And he says the Internet is the No. 1 place to market trafficking victims, most of whom are female.
TPD Vice has encountered only female victims, says Evans, though the International Labor Organization reports that 2 percent of people trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation are men or boys.
“There are people out there who are willing to spend the money to have sex with girls, and the younger the girl, the more money that the pimps get,” Jason says.
Kristin has accompanied law enforcement to five victim rescue operations, where she is trained to question the victims and offer them help to leave the world of prostitution.
“Finesse pimps,” a term used by law enforcement to describe those who use charm and flattery to attract their victims, recruit many of the girls Kristin meets. The girls targeted often have unstable home lives or histories of abuse, she says, but some are simply dealing with low self-esteem at a vulnerable age — often 15, 16, 17 years old.
Kristin paints the picture: “You add a guy in there that says, ‘Oh, baby, you’re so beautiful. You’re so amazing, and I’m going to do everything for you. Those parents of yours, they may be good parents, but they’re too strict. They’re not giving you what you want. You deserve to be a princess. Come with me.’”
A common recruitment strategy for a pimp is to pose as a performing artist and offer a young girl a part in his rap video, Evans says. The pimp then persuades the girl to help raise funds to make the video through posting “dates” on sites like Backpage.
Often, pimps troll social media sites such as Facebook to recruit young victims, according to the sergeant.
During the grooming process, the pimp may buy the girl he has targeted nice gifts and “make love to her — maybe for the first time,” Kristin says, making the girl believe he is simply a caring boyfriend.
But in just a short time, what seemed innocent turns pure evil. Kristin describes a shocking and violent turn of events she has seen play out many times.
“Then, the pimp takes everything away and starts raping her, and he says, ‘If you want to get back to where I just took you, you’ve got to do this, this and this,’” Kristin says. “Once a girl’s heart is given away, you’ve now got that bond and that predator knows it. And he is going to use her, sell her and get whatever he wants.
“She may every once in awhile get a gift, or he might make love to her again, but if she doesn’t do what he tells her, he is going to beat her, rape her and do all these things. But she remembers the guy that he was, and now her whole life is to get him back because girls think they can change guys — even in the worst, manipulative situation.”
Getting the real story from trafficking victims is typically a long process of working through one lie after another, Kristin says.
“It’s hard for them to turn on that person, as odd and as perverted as it is, who has become their security and their stability,” she explains.
At a recent sting, Kristin asked a trafficking victim whether she loved her pimp. The girl answered, “Yes, because he’s such a powerful and strong man,” Kristin recalls.
“I said, ‘What makes him powerful and strong when you’re the one making all the money? What does he do? He’s profiting off of you being repeatedly raped. How do you figure he loves you?’
“Just getting them to see reality is a very important thing, if they’re open to seeing it,” Kristin says. “It can go either way though.”
In the 2008 film “Taken,” actor Liam Neeson plays an ex-CIA operative whose daughter is kidnapped by sex traffickers while vacationing in France. Neeson’s character travels to Europe and makes a dramatic rescue.
Off screen, there are few such rescues from trafficking because many of the girls being trafficked do not self-identify as victims, Kristin explains.
“If a girl is in love with the pimp, she doesn’t see herself as a victim,” she says. “Her heart may be victim to him, but she’s not a victim in her mind.”
It seems inconceivable that a girl of 15 or 16 who is repeatedly raped by much older men does not seek escape, but traffickers rely on fear and manipulation to control their victims, Jason says.
Often the victim may have become addicted to drugs introduced by her trafficker, who holds the key to her next fix, according to Jason. A form of traumatic bonding, sometimes identified as Stockholm syndrome, also can emerge, a phenomenon in which victims have positive feelings toward their abusers and may seek to defend them.
In addition to suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental or medical issues, he says, a victim may have a child with her pimp, strengthening her connection to him and allowing him to use the child as a pawn.
“A lot of people ask, ‘Well, once these girls are free, aren’t they going to be screaming, ‘Yay for freedom?’“ Jason says, “but that’s typically not the case. They’ve been conditioned not to trust.”
Multiple sources say trafficking victims do not leave the commercial sex industry easily. A portion of girls recruited into trafficking eventually becomes recruiters themselves, a position called a “bottom bitch,” Jason says.
“It seems from our experiences, it takes several instances for the victims to really want to get out,” Kristin says, “and it takes hitting bottom to almost death — being brutally beaten or a trauma of some type.”
While society may perceive prostitution as a victimless crime, arguing that a victim has the opportunity to leave the lifestyle, Jason says it’s not that simple for trafficking victims.
In many cases, he says, “When you really look beneath the surface, you find that the girl had been sexually abused as a child and was groomed and lured by these predators — the pimp or the trafficker.
“Then you really start to understand the level of abuse that these girls go through,” Jason says, “and realize, ‘OK, maybe I have to look at this a little bit differently.’”