IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — At a young age, Stephanie Silva found herself not only a victim of human sex trafficking, but also victim of attempted murder.
“I experienced huge amounts of trauma, violence,” Stephanie Silva, a survivor of human sex trafficking, told KID Newsradio. “It’s definitely not something any little girl dreams of being involved in…everybody thinks of, ‘Oh, maybe I want to be a veternarian or nurse when I get older,’ nobody ever thinks, ‘Oh, I’m going get pushed into human trafficking.”
Silva said her path into human sex trafficking began when someone introduced her to drugs, a path many people follow themselves.
“They are introduced to not-wonderful people and they either get in debt to drugs or their drug traffickers actually sell them to make up debts that they have” Silva said. “It’s just a vicious cycle. Women get involved in it because they’re struggling with substance abuse issues, they’re struggling with mental health, untreated mental health diagnosis, it’s just a horrible, horrible cycle. A lot of it stems from drugs though.”
It can be easy to picture something as horrific as the human sex trafficking industry happening in places like third world countries. Global operations like Operation Underground Railroad have rescued and continue to rescue children from places like Cambodia, Thailand, India, Mexico, Haiti and Guatamala. But, the issue strikes much closer to home for Silva.
“I think that there’s this huge misconception that things like this don’t happen here [in Idaho], when it’s very much prevelant,” Silva said. “The area that I was trafficked the most was actually in Idaho Falls and the surrounding area. You know, I think a lot of people, they have blinders on, they don’t want to recognize that it happens here and the men and women that are purcahsing these survivors and victims, they’re people that you would never think that would purchase sex.”
Most experts in combating human sex trafficking agree it’s difficult to track exact numbers or instances of human sex trafficking, especially since other illegal issues are often rolled into sex trafficking convictions, but Silva said it’s happening right under most people’s noses and the perpetrators walk among us.
“They’re successful people in our community and surrounding area,” Silva said. “They are people with money and they’re people with education. You know, it’s not necessarily these really low-life people. They’re people you would never even think that are involved in human trafficking.”
Many who purchase and traffick find a new ease of identifying, grooming and recruiting their victims on the Internet. While Silva said she was not personally trafficked through the internet, women are increasily exploited and purchased through the very same places people purchase a used car or television: online classifieds.
“You see women that are getting exploited on there,” Silva said. “They’re getting lured into pornography. I have had numerous women just in this area that I work with and they’re being sold on Craigslist where they’re meeting these [John Does] on Craigslist. It’s disgusting. Personal dating sites. It happens so much more than people think that it does.”
Silva said anyone struggling to understand how the Internet has boosted the human sex trafficking industry need only look to their personal lives. A report by Zenith revealed people spent an average of 140 minutes per day surfing the web. That doesn’t even take into account what people are searching and viewing. PH Analytics reports people watched over 4.5 billion hours of pornography on the world’s largest porn site in 2016, that’s equivalent to 525,000 years of straight porn. Porn isn’t the only industry getting a boost from technology; sex trafficking is moving out of the dark alley way and into the depths of the dark web.
“Times are always changing with technology, even the sex trade,” Silva said. “So, that’s how it’s evolving now and people are making a lot of money off it.”
Silva escaped the human sex trafficking industry after someone tried to kill her. Now, years later, she offers a message of hope and encouragement to people who may find themselves on the same path she walked.
“Please reach out,” Silva said. “Just know that you’re not alone, that you’re not alone in this and you’re not worthless. You’re so worth saving and there’s help out there for you. Reach out to law enforcement, reach out to our prosecutors here, reach out to anybody and just tell them. Just get a voice and tell them what’s going on. Get yourself into treatment, go to any treatment provider and you know, they, most of them, the majority of them know what this looks like and they know what to do.”
Silva will be serving on KID Newsradio’s Conversation Series panel on March 14 at 7:00 PM at the event, Emancipation: Disrupting the Modern Slave Trade. You can hear the rest of her story and other interviews about human sex trafficking in east Idaho on Apple Podcasts (formerly iTunes), Google Play, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.