There is a singing feeling in your chest when the sun breaks gold over the ocean and the air is clean and tastes of promise and hope and renewal. Your soul bursts with gratitude and joy; you cannot wait to greet the day. You are not merely living; you are alive.
Those times keep most of us going when life is hard, giving us something to look forward to. We hear the music of the moment, enthralled and amazed by beauty we have overlooked, and we take a deep breath to congratulate ourselves for paying attention, because at least we have that moment, and we can look back on it, certain we will feel that way again.
It’s in that symphony of the soul that we smile and believe. This is hope. The idea that life will get better.
But what if you knew hope was dead?
What if your body was battered and violated and your soul crushed and you could no longer hear the music of a sunrise or taste the magic in a smile or feel a genuine touch without gasping for air and wishing that you were not you? What if you were sold, traded and monetized?
What if evil people destroyed you and murdered your song?
Thousands of women in our area, right now, scream in silence, their lights extinguished, their voices stolen against their wills.
Her Song is a light against that darkness.
Founded in 2013 by Rachel White, Her Song provides shelter and services to survivors of human trafficking, and is the only organization of its kind in Northeast Florida.
One of Her Song’s earliest clients, Olga (not her real name), was a young mother when she answered an ad in her local paper in Honduras for an opportunity to work short-term in the United States. She and some friends traveled to the U.S. with high hopes of earning money to send back to their families. Although she was educated and employed, in Honduras she lived in poverty, and her husband had deserted her. She left her children in the care of their grandparents, intending to return soon with enough money to change their lives.
But the minute she set foot on U.S. soil, she was separated from her best friend and sold into a sex-trafficking ring in South Florida. The perpetrators moved her around constantly, finally to the West Coast of Florida, where she was sold for $25 per sex act. One of the drivers for the sex ring eventually took pity and helped her to escape. She fled to Miami, but was further exploited as a sex slave, locked in a room and forced to work all day with little food and no pay. She eventually escaped and made it to Jacksonville, where she found legal help.
She was severely traumatized and in need of care. Her Song began helping Olga work through the trauma and begin the process of recovery. Five years later, Olga is doing well and has found happiness again. She is married, and reunited with her children. She is learning English, and hopes to one day become an advocate for women like her.
THE DEVIL’S DOMAIN
It's easy to overlook this problem, easier still to blame the victims. But human trafficking is going on here in our own backyard. From backpage advertisements offering sex for money, to sex workers on Philips Highway and Sin City, it’s not hard to see. The problem goes deeper than that, though, reaching agricultural areas where trafficked victims are forced to work, unpaid, in a field all day long only to be assaulted throughout the night. Victims may be employed in massage parlors, restaurants, strip clubs and in the hotel industry.
There is voracious demand, and terrible people are more than happy to meet that demand for profit. Predators seek out their victims, many of them runaways and underage girls, at bus stops, rehab centers, halfway houses, and strip clubs. They lure the girls with promises of security, drugs, clothing, shelter and affection, grooming them for what comes next.
The girls and women are stripped of their identities, isolated, and then subjected to unimaginable degradation of the mind, body and spirit. They are held in bondage, not necessarily physical, as chains of addition, servitude and utter desolation imprison them in a cycle of misery.
Society stigmatizes these women, insisting that they should have made better choices. People turn a blind eye and shun them, complacent in their moral superiority, rather than wonder about the back-story, the reason that this woman or that girl wound up without any good choices. Many trafficking victims were abused from a young age, fled one hell and found another. What choice did she really have? How can she extricate herself without help? For this woman, and others, the future is brutish and dark and hopeless.
I had the privilege to sit down with Rachel White, the founder and director of Her Song, at the newly renovated Freedom Cottage. There are certain people who seem to shine, imbued with an inner light that can only come from essential goodness and a passion to do what’s right. White is one of those rare people, gifted with the empathy, intelligence and heart required to work seven days a week in the tireless pursuit of helping those whom society has left by the wayside.
White’s nonprofit seeks to help women break free of the cycle of abuse by providing a home with services built in. Survivors get therapy, are taught coping skills and have a roof over their heads.
“Our goal is to help these women achieve independence,” White says. “We focus on a holistic approach of body, mind and spirit … they’re all connected. We are all about helping these women to heal.” It takes a lot of work to heal survivors of human trafficking, for the hurt runs deep.
Her Song teaches essential living skills, from cooking and cleaning to personal health and fitness because, White says, “Most of these women come from broken homes and never learned the basics.” Women are also coached on getting jobs, budgeting their finances and going back to school.
Freedom Cottage features quiet spaces for reading and meditation and a lovely screened-in porch surrounded by trees. White hopes to plant a garden, where survivors can get dirt on their hands and help things grow.
The home provides a stable, nurturing environment, where survivors learn to feel safe and to trust, often for the first time in many years. Volunteer counselors work with the women in both group and individual settings on a daily basis. These survivors have gone through hell, yet are still able to find the strength to hope and the will to keep moving forward. The therapy, like everything else in Her Song, is about healing.
NOT ALL ROSES
Restoration and healing take time, and because the shelter is located within the city, danger lurks close by. Some of the women take buses to work, passing by homes where they were trafficked. There are triggers and pitfalls, temptations and fears.
White would like to open a facility in the country with up to 12 beds that would serve as a retreat from the city itself.
“Who knows?” White says. “Maybe a couple of horses? Wouldn’t that be amazing?”
Florida ranks third in the nation for human trafficking, behind only California and Texas. Duval County ranks No. 5 for sex trafficking cases in Florida, and Jacksonville ranks 42nd in the nation in human trafficking cases. Roughly seven out of 10 victims are female.
Contrary to what some may believe, the majority of the women with whom Her Song works grew up right here in Jacksonville and were trafficked here. It happens in gated neighborhoods, it happens during football games and big events. It happens every day. Many are juveniles when it begins.
There is a thin veil between the evil in our city and the reality most of us inhabit. We drive Philips Highway and don’t see tragedy, the truth that people are suffering and dying on our streets. We look away, cover our children’s eyes and squirm when things get too close and mean. The homeless veteran asking for money at the intersection of I-295 and Blanding Boulevard and the streetwalker down the road are all part of the urban landscape. Yet for many, they aren’t people with hopes and dreams and families, because seeing them that way is too sad, too hard. This shroud shields us from our good intentions, and we reinforce it for self-preservation. We give money to a church, a charity at the grocery store checkout, and drive blithely past the suffering, still convinced of our innate goodness.
Once the veil is lifted, it’s hard to see our city the same way. If silence is compliance, then what have we become? When does inaction become complicity? When does that click on a website, that patronage to a club, the grotesque locker-laugh, become a look in the mirror, a tearing of the veil?
THE BELLY OF THE BEAST
Websites like Backpage.com and Craigslist are Ground Zero for sex trafficking locally. There, women and girls are advertised and sold, rates advertised for all to see, along with nude and semi-nude pictures. Men call in, set appointments, go to a local hotel for sex, or have the women come to them. Pimps are often close by, monitoring how long the men stay. Some of these women are trafficked, but some are not. It’s impossible for law enforcement to keep up, based on sheer numbers. Sting operations routinely net arrests, but the problem persists. And the arrests skew strongly toward charging the women with prostitution, rather than the men with solicitation.
Another site, usasexguide.info, goes even further. This site provides “street-walker reports,” massage parlor reports, and strip-club updates. The site has open threads where men exchange information on police activity in areas known for prostitution, and which dancers perform “extras” during private dances. The men use code words like “BBJTC” (bareback blowjob to completion) to describe what is on “the menu.” They use words like “mic-check” and openly discuss the best spots to find a “SW.” (That’s ‘sex-worker’ in scumbag-ese.) They warn one another about sting operations and undercover police officers, right down to hotels and street locations.
This is a national site, and in Jacksonville, it’s updated ’round the clock. The self-described “whore mongers” exchange phone numbers and advice.
Following up on a thread I’d seen on that website, I went to local strip joint on a Saturday afternoon. The club was fairly crowded, the air thick with smoke and perfume. An obnoxious DJ spun songs and called out stage names, as the women climbed onto three different stages.
“Nichole” sat down beside me at the bar; after a few minutes of small talk, I told her I was working on a story about local sex trafficking. She was pretty, and easy-going. She let me buy her a burger and a drink, and was willing to talk, though she was a little afraid.
“Aren’t you worried about writing this stuff?” she said. “Bad stuff happens.”
She had no hard evidence, but she used phrases like “everybody knows.” She talked about “the Cubans,” a clique that sounded a lot like a group of trafficked women.
“They get dropped off two or three at a time,” she said. “They will do anything in the back for $200. Their pimps come in and watch to see how many dances they are doing. The girls keep to themselves, and only speak Spanish. They don’t talk to any of us. But they’re doing more than just dancing. It happens in all the clubs. For a while, there were a bunch of girls from Serbia.” Dancers make most of their money from doing “private dances,” which typically cost about $30 per song.
“Do the owners know?”
Nichole grinned and walked away.
The next woman who sat down beside me looked offended and afraid when I broached the question. About two minutes after she excused herself, a bouncer with tree trunks for arms politely asked me to leave.
The veil torn, I saw prostitutes shivering in front of a store on Philips Highway on the way home. I wondered what happened to bring them to that point on a freezing Saturday.
Human beings are precious. There are no throwaways.
On the verge of tears at the end of our interview, I asked Rachel White what she needed.
“We need support from the community. Prayers, but also funding.”
More information about Her Song is at hersongjax.org. To report a suspected case of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888.
Read our cover story's companion piece, the personal account of one survivor of human trafficking.