Several years ago, Sierra Dawn McClain (then a high school student) wrote this insightful piece after attending a Hope Ranch event. She graciously let us post it on this website:
Oregonian woman escapes human trafficking, becomes abolitionist against modern-day slavery
“I have been a slave. But today…today I’m free.”
Jessica Richardson, formerly a teen prostitute and victim of human trafficking, paused as the audience erupted into applause.
“So many times we think of trafficking as something that only happens overseas. We think of Thailand or Cambodia. We think it can’t happen here, because this is America,” Richardson explained.
But she knew better. Her story painted a very different picture.
Now a wife, mother of five, and Oregonian businesswoman, Richardson is free from her past. In a human trafficking awareness forum, she recalled how she became a sex slave.
The trouble began at age 4, when three teenage neighbor boys began to rape her. Although they molested her and threatened to hurt her if she told anyone, they weren’t brutal or violent.
At age 5, Jessica moved away, and the abuse stopped. But life didn’t get easier. At age 10, her father was murdered, and her dearly loved uncle passed away. With her father dead, her mother worked three jobs and had no time for her. Then her mother remarried, turning Jessica’s life upside-down.
Angry, alone, and emotionally wounded, she plunged into a lifestyle of drugs, sex and alcohol—anything to ease the pain. At 13, she had her first pregnancy and miscarriage.
Dropping out of high school, she became a waitress in Portland, Oregon, where a customer became her pimp. Deceptively, he lured her with the bait of a lucrative, glamorous lifestyle where she could get paid for what she was already giving away.
She was 17 when she lost everything—her dignity, humanity, and freedom. For 14 months, she was trafficked throughout the west by her pimp, raped by force 15 to 20 times a day to fill her daily quota of $1,000. She was trafficked everywhere from hotels to houses, streets to clubs.
She was bound, not by chains, but by the shackles on her mind, subjected to threats, rapes and beatings.
“The trauma is more intense than you could ever, ever even imagine…everything from being gang raped to your face not even being recognizable because you were beaten so severely,” she described.
Eventually, Richardson escaped. But although she was free of her pimp, she was trapped in the same lifestyle. She continued prostituting, believing it was all she was good for.
Then at 20, her pregnancy test came out positive. “And I thought: maybe, just maybe, I can do something different for this child,” she recalled.
After choosing to keep her baby, she moved away and met her husband. Finally, she felt valuable, beautiful, loved.
She also became a Christian. “Because of my Creator,” she explained, “I’m free of all pain, bitterness, shame, guilt, and all the bondage of my past.”
Now, she wants girls in the sex trafficking industry to know that “…there’s hope. There’s always hope, and there’s always freedom. There are people out there that love them and care about them, and their life doesn’t have to be that way.”
Jessica’s story is not unique. An estimated 100,000 girls under 18 are exploited for commercial sex in the U.S. each year. Human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal industry in the U.S. With an estimated 27 million slaves worldwide, there are more slaves today than at the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Shockingly, Portland, Oregon, has become a hub for human trafficking, ranking second worst in the nation. But the Eugene/Springfield area is not immune to the problem.
Rescuing girls around the world for over 20 years, Dr. Cyndi Romine highlighted the fact that we have a major problem with sex slavery in the Eugene/Springfield area. “The reason we have this problem is because of the I-5 corridor, and of course the I-5 runs through Eugene and Springfield, right? So they are trafficked through here,” she said. “It’s sad,” she added, “but it’s reality. Everybody has to become aware.”
According to Romine, the demand for buying sex is huge in Oregon. “The demand side must be addressed,” she emphasized, “If there were no demand, there would be no problem.”
The victims, she explained, are hidden in plain sight. Numerous young girls are trafficked up and down Interstate 5 every day, with a single girl servicing up to 7,000 men a year. Forbidden to make eye contact with anyone but their pimp and buyers, these girls may walk the streets of Springfield and never be noticed.
The girls and boys victimized are not always homeless or runaways. Often, they are from middle-class families with broken homes. Many are lured into the sex industry from public locations such as the Eugene bus station and the Gateway Mall.
Dr. Romine trains individuals and teams to identify trafficking victims and rescue them from oppression, but it’s hard work and there is little funding available.
Yet Romine is determined to never give up. “Trafficking? We can stop it. We can stop it. Will it take every one of us working together to end slavery? Yes. But we can do it.”
By Sierra Dawn McClain