Apr 272010
 
Authors: Maggie Canty

Up until the mid 1980s, Annie Lobert was a virgin.

The self-described “goodie two shoes” had loved school, attended church and did all the things that a blonde teenage girl from a middle-class family in Minnesota should do.
But these shoes didn’t quite fit.

Within five years she ended up bound and gagged in the trunk of her pimp’s car, not knowing whether she would live to see it opened, not knowing if she wanted to.
He had said he loved her. He had said he needed her.

But what he needed was her body.

This is how a pretty, young girl became a slave.

Lobert is a victim of sex trafficking. Working as a prostitute since she was 18 years old, the young woman has experienced horrors that would make even the most stiff of upper lips tremble. Real-life monsters that don’t stay under the bed.

Yet today, the 43-year-old stands and tells her story in an effort to bring to light an issue often shrouded in darkness. To tell the world that slavery is real, it is evil and it could happen to anyone.

Her story speaks for the millions silenced globally by the dark industry.

The sex slave trade is one that pervades every corner of the world, including Fort Collins. It is the driving force behind a number of grassroots and political initiatives to eradicate human trafficking, like the one started in part by senior construction management major Tim Hickory, or a bill sitting on Gov. Bill Ritter’s desk that will make it easier for prosecutors to pursue trafficking networks.

Sex slavery today

When she was 18 years old, Lobert broke from her traditional Christian lifestyle, losing her virginity much in the same way many high school students do –– to her sweetheart.

But from there, unlike most high school students, her life took a drastic turn.
Lobert initially got involved with the sex industry on her own terms. It may have been demeaning, but at minimum wage’s pace she would never get to music school, where she wanted to learn to sing and play guitar. Selling her body made more than retail work ever would.

The lifestyle quickly spiraled out of her control, as she became yet another face in the sea of women who are trafficked for sex, their bodies mere commodities to their employers.

Sex trafficking is the use of a person for a sexual act under fear or coercion. It is more common today than it has ever been.

It is a worldwide industry, with a total market value estimated to be in excess of $32 billion, according to International Crisis Aid. It’s expected to become the No. 1 crime worldwide this year.

To keep women –– and sometimes men –– under their control, traffickers, more widely known as pimps, threaten them physically and emotionally. Lobert was frequently beaten brutally by her pimp, who told her no one but him would ever love her. Some pimps go as far as to threaten the lives of the prostitutes’ families.

And Colorado is not exempt.

Hickory is the treasurer and one of the founding members of CSU’s chapter of Not for Sale, an international organization that aims to “equip and mobilize smart activists to deploy innovative solutions to re-abolish slavery in their own backyards and across the globe.”

“This happens in our own community, and we can’t pass this off as a problem that doesn’t directly affect us,” Hickory said. “Everyone can use what they know to help, whatever their major is.”

When Hickory joined several friends in 2008 to form the CSU chapter, it was about raising awareness of the sex industry, which has, according to anecdotes by experts and observers, boomed since the Democratic National Convention in Denver in 2008.
Amanda Finger, the executive director of the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking, said Craigslist advertisements for sex in Denver during the DNC jumped from about 350 a day to 700 a day.

Political conventions are notorious for drawing sex traffic, but even before the DNC, Colorado was known as a hotbed for trafficking because its capital city is home to one of the largest international airports in the country.

From July 2005 to 2006, according to the Human Trafficking Project, 25 sex trafficking victims were identified in the state of Colorado. But because HTP estimates found that generally only 1 percent of cases get identified, their figure of actual cases in the state are approximately 2,500.

“Slavery is everywhere. People just don’t want to look at it,” said Beth Klein, an attorney in Boulder who has worked for six years with people who have been bought and sold. “The commodity of a human being is profitable. It can be used over and over.”

Klein is the author of a current state Senate bill that would make trafficking part of Colorado’s Organized Crime Act, which would allow authorities to pursue state trafficking networks as entire organizations rather than on an individual basis.

The measure is awaiting a signature from Gov. Bill Ritter.

The U.N. International Labor Organization estimates that in 2009, 1.39 million women, men and children became victims of sex trafficking, both nationally and internationally. The U.S. Department of State blames, in part, the global financial crisis for an increased amount of trafficking around the world.

Pimps –– modern day slave traders –– are heading up the third largest organized crime industry. And Klein worries that trafficking will overtake the top two: the drug and arms trades.

Pimp

For Lobert, like most, prostitution was a short cut. It was only temporary.
Until she fell in love.

It took her several months to realize that the man she was dating was not really her boyfriend.

“He had accepted me and told me he loved me when I didn’t think anyone could,” she said. “Pimps find girls at a weak place, at a tight spot, where they’re being rejected. They say, ‘No one is going to love you but me.’”

Lobert believed him.

But he was merely a pander, a procurer.

Lobert was to give the man she loved all her money after every job, which he claimed to be saving for a home where they could eventually retire.

But Lobert’s happy ending was nowhere in sight. He started beating her, forcing her to take drugs and jobs even when she refused. And he demanded all the money.

“I figured out that if I didn’t work, he’d kill me,” she said. “I gave him every penny.”

The first time Lobert tried to escape, her pimp discovered her plans and locked her in the trunk of her own car, running in the garage.

He eventually let her out of the trunk, but the abuse only got worse.

The next time she left, he found her at a gas station, knocked her out with a pair of binoculars and took her to what she called a “pimp’s lair” where she was stripped naked, spat on, beaten with an iron poker and had her hair cut off.

He wanted Lobert to know that he was in control, and that leaving was no longer her choice.

After being saved from this dark hole that consumed her life for many years –– by a client, no less –– Lobert began an initiative with a local church that provides housing, solace and rehabilitation for former prostitutes.

Her project lies in the same vein of advocacy. Hickory, CSU’s Not For Sale chapter treasurer, wants to get involved in, building rehabilitation housing for victims.

Fort friendly

When Choice Tan, a brothel in north Fort Collins posing as a tanning salon, was closed in 2003, prostitution became a local public reality for the first time in the memory of local police officials.

But just because it was labeled as prostitution, doesn’t necessarily mean it was consensual. Trafficking victims are mislabeled, often by authorities, experts say.

“When you’re someone’s bread and butter, they will do crazy things to make sure you don’t leave,” Lobert wrote in an entry on her Web site.

Pimps will use fear to manipulate women into staying with them. This often makes cases of trafficking and prostitution hard to differentiate, and one of the reasons trafficking statistics in Northern Colorado remain sparse.

Fort Collins Police Services, FCPS, has no officer who specializes in prostitution. Victims must volunteer that they have been held against their will for the case to be classified as one of trafficking, said Russell Reed, the sergeant in charge of crimes against persons for the FCPS.

Threatened women are unlikely to seek the law’s assistance.

“It doesn’t usually lend itself to reporting,” said Lori Frank, a crime analyst for the department. “Both sides of the equation usually won’t turn themselves in. We’d have to actively and covertly investigate it, so the numbers aren’t real high.”
But for Hickory, who works without the aid of police resources, the active and covert investigation is not out of reach.

Since working and training with Not For Sale, Hickory has discovered brothels operating in Colorado Springs and Denver, and was also hired by another anti-trafficking organization to investigate a brothel in South Dakota with two other CSU students.

“The front is a strip club, so it’s easy to get away with,” said Hickory of the brothel in the small town in South Dakota. “Trafficking rings take advantage of the hunters that come through during pheasant season.”

While posing as customers, Hickory and his teammates discovered a brothel in the back of the club, and reported their findings to be used to petition for anti trafficking legislation.

Hickory looks for several indicators when he suspects a place to be something other than a massage parlor, tanning salon, strip club or other front. These include being open later then normal hours, keeping the door locked and being surrounded by a barbed wire fence.

“If you post out at these places all night, you’ll see customers go in and out but never see workers leave,” he said. “As a business, you don’t keep your door locked unless you’ve got something to hide.”

FCPS doesn’t pursue cases on Craigslist or other Web sites that pimps frequent to market their product unless it believes a child is involved. Trafficking cases are recorded simply as cases of pimps and prostitution.

Frank said this is because it is not a major issue in Fort Collins.

But the numbers can be deceiving.

“Law statistics don’t tell us everything because not everyone who has been trafficked will work with law enforcement,” said A.J. Steele, a professor at Metro State College on the issue since 2000. “Some women want to work with a victim’s advocacy group, or to just go home. We honor that.”

Your average ‘John’

Like any market, the sex industry wouldn’t exist without a demand. And the consumers could be uncomfortably close to home.

Lobert’s clients ranged widely in race, economic standing and profession. They cannot be identified by any one descriptor or stereotype.

“What’s really unfortunate is that most people don’t recognize that the consumers don’t just look like criminals,” said Kristiana Berger, a spokesperson for LCHT. “They’re often high profile, successful people. In many cases, they look like your dad, your uncle, people who have it all together.”

Experts agree.

“The market steeps to the culture where demand for sex is there,” Steele said. “The consumers are predominantly male, but run across ages and ethnicities. There is no single profile.”

Steele classifies the patrons, nicknamed “Johns,” into two categories: habitual users, who are often addicts, and those that have had a few sporadic interactions with the industry, like attending a bachelor party with a trafficked stripper, using a prostitute on vacation.

The addicts are simply seeking their next fix. These cases are more likely to involve violence and children.

Klein has been the prosecutor on several high profile cases of child prostitution, including a prostitution ring in Boulder. She said the fault doesn’t lie entirely with the traffickers, but with the customers and an apathetic society that enables them.
It is not an isolated problem.

“It’s happening anywhere there is a demand, and that’s everywhere. Before we can stop it, we need everyone –– and I mean everyone –– to say that this is unacceptable.”

Many of Lobert’s clients had no idea she was being trafficked, as most victims would not volunteer that information for fear of punishment or threats from their pimp.

The road to recovery

Lobert’s story is unique. A “regular” realized the reality of Lobert’s situation and was eventually able to help her escape from her pimp after she escaped and was recaptured several times.

But getting away physically was only the first step in the long process of recovery from the trauma caused by working in the forced sex industry.

After Lobert’s escape, she continued to deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, drug addiction, depression, self-hatred and alcoholism, all failed attempts to cope with her past.

It wasn’t until she experienced a renewal of her Christian faith that she felt able to move on.

“Your heart starts to break for God,” she said, her voice cracking over the telephone. “The old you starts dying, and the new you starts healing.”

Lobert is now the founder and president of Hookers For Jesus, an international organization committed to abolishing sex slavery. The network runs a home for women transitioning from sex trafficking called the Destiny Center, based in Las Vegas, which looks to become a nationwide system of safe houses.

Her recovery story, however, is the exception, not the rule.

Klein said victims need professional care and support to “feel human again.” Part of her job is fitting children who’ve been victimized with the right psychiatric care.

“People need to feel empowered, like they can do something in their way, in their own bubbles,” said Brittney Manning, Not For Sale CSU Chapter’s former president. “It’s more practical that way. It can get something done.”

Not For Sale is currently accepting any students interested in joining its movement. But participants must know that it’s not just a club.

“We want to give the voiceless a voice,” Manning said. “We have been blessed with privilege, and we want to use our privilege to bless others.”

Staff writer Maggie Canty can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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