INTERVIEW - Think about the prostitute: She could be your sister, says trafficking victim

by Stella Dawson | | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 4 October 2013 10:54 GMT

In a file photo from 2009, a prostitute waits for clients on a street in the outskirts of Moscow. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

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Sophie Hayes wants to stop the demand for prostitution by raising the awareness of men about sex trafficking, and making it a crime to pay for sex

WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Sophie Hayes has a question for men who pay for sex. “The girl who smiles at you in the brothel or on the street, do you know what lies behind that smile?”

The 24-year-old British woman knows the prostitute’s side of the story. She was trafficked into sex and brutalised mentally and physically by a man she had trusted and thought was her best friend.

Hayes said she had spent an idyllic weekend in Italy with the man - her best friend of five years. When she was preparing to fly home to her office job in Leeds, he seized her passport and threatened to track down her family and kill her younger brothers unless she sold her body for sex to pay off his drug debts.

Terrified, Hayes stood under a streetlight from 8 at night until 5 each morning, wearing cheap white  boots, short skirts or whatever skimpy costume her best friend-turned-pimp handed her that evening. He hit her if she protested. He taunted her for having sex with strangers. He hit her if her takings were too scant. He beat her, shoved a gun in her mouth and called her stupid if the police picked her up or if a client turned violent.

Worse than the physical violence was the mental torture, Hayes said in an interview. It might be hard to understand why an educated young woman from a prosperous country would not escape, but his subtle destruction of her independent will overwhelmed her.

“It was the change that came over him that was so shocking and terrifying, and the psychological mind games that were the worst. It was the way that he spoke, the way that he made me feel that he is everywhere, he knows everyone, in the police, the immigration, they are watching me.  A life really did mean nothing to him, and if I do something wrong, what are the consequences?” Hayes said.

For six months, seven days a week, Hayes said she was forced to solicit sex in Italy and France, too terrified to disobey the Albanian man whom she had met at a discotheque in the north of England and thought so charming and worldly. He spoke five languages was studying law, they had corresponded for years and she had confided in him.

Instead he was grooming her, finding details of her troubled relations with her father and her longing for security that he would use to mentally manipulate and control her - a technique of psychological intimidation to strip victims of independent volition that human trafficking experts say is common to force someone into the sex trade.

The International Labor Organization estimates that 20.9 million women, men and children - or three in every 1,000 persons worldwide - are trapped in forced labour and sexual exploitation in what some call modern day slavery. Law enforcement officials said that organised crime gangs increasingly are turning to prostitution as an easier way to make money than drugs or gun running.

The case of Sophie Hayes - not her real name because she wants to protect her privacy in the life she has rebuilt in London since 2007- shows how easily anyone can fall victim to sex trafficking, she said. It is a crime that has an exotic otherness, she said. In fact it touches every nationality, ethnicity, gender, age and class, and happens everywhere.

“This is a global crime,” Hayes said.

“It could be your sister, it could be your girlfriend, your aunty. Everybody has a relative who could have been affected.” She told this to a corporate business meeting in Mexico City recently, and she said they were shocked.

Middle class and educated from a prosperous country, Hayes would never have imagined slipping into the Albanian underworld of drug dealing, guns and sex trade in Italy.

Equally shocking, Hayes said, was the men who were willing to pay her 20 to 30 euros ($27 to $40) for sex. Doctors, lawyers, police officers, businessmen would line up five or six deep on weekend nights at the street corner where she worked, waiting to pay for a 10- to 15-minute sexual encounter in their cars, she said. “I would hop out of one and into the next.”

At times Hayes was visibly sick with pneumonia, faint from hunger, bruised from the beatings her pimp meted out, sunken eyed from lack of sleep. Yet she said these respectable pillars of society would solicit her.

“It’s ironic how they could pay for sex as easily as going to Starbucks and paying for a cappuccino,” Hayes said.


After six months, Hayes collapsed from exhaustion and staggered into an Italian hospital.  She summoned the courage to call her mother, who drove from England to rescue her. Meanwhile her pimp arrived at the hospital and while stroking her hair gently for hospital staff to see, he dug his nails into her scalp and he jabbed his keys deep into her leg and threatened to drive a hole into her if she dared to expose him.

Five years later, Hayes has rebuilt her life and formed the Sophie Hayes Foundation to reach out to other victims of sex trafficking, offering them a lifeline and a message of hope from someone who has been there. It was a difficult road of recovery she faced, and very few professionals or law enforcement officials knew how to help her in what was a transnational crime that they were unsure how to prosecute. Hayes was very alone.

“Girls are so overwhelmed. Sometimes all you want is a friend, to know you are not on your own, that there is hope, there is a future,” she said.

The foundation has just received a 10,000 euro grant ($13,543) and hired its first counselor to work with trafficked victims. Hayes wants to expand the foundation and hire a team of counselors to work with victims, and is using a speaking tour for her book “Trafficked: My Story”, recounting her ordeal, to raise awareness.

She also is educating young men about the crime, working with law enforcement officials, and lobbying governments to criminalise the act of soliciting sex for money.

“If you don’t have demand, there won’t be supply. If men really knew that every time they pay for sex they fuel this chain of exploitation, would they make different choices?”

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