In the near decade since Rebecca Bender freed herself from a six-year nightmare involving sex trafficking, she’s devoted her life to educating Americans about the dangers of a sordid industry that can enslave young people. The 36-year-old Oregonian, founder and CEO of the Rebecca Bender Initiative shared her story with Connect, as well as what people don’t know about human trafficking.
How did you become a victim of sex trafficking?
I was 18, almost 19 and a single mom when I met a guy on the University of Oregon campus. I wasn’t a student, but I had friends there and hung out. We exchanged phone numbers; it got serious; and I thought it was normal dating.
Six months later, I moved in with him to Las Vegas where I was forced into sex trafficking the day that I arrived.
You hadn’t realized what was happening before then?
I wasn’t aware of the signs of coercion and fraud played out in everyday life. No one taught me what to look for to see if a trafficker was “grooming” me. I had a small daughter that he used against me and eventually I got addicted to drugs. Over nearly six years, I was traded between three different traffickers.
What about your family?
They knew something was wrong but didn’t realize what was happening. They thought I was in an abusive relationship and had gotten strung out on drugs.
What kept you going?
I had a personal encounter with Jesus while at a faith-based women’s home in Portland. What kept me [going] was my daughter and my faith in God.
Did you grow up in a particularly religious environment?
My parents were believers but did not practice. My grandparents went to a community Bible church and took me to Sunday school.
How did you finally get free?
I attempted four escapes in the near six years, but it’s like being in a gang—you can’t just walk away. In 2007, the feds raided one of the homes, and the trafficker took a plea deal on a tax evasion charge. When he was out of town, I packed everything in one suitcase, grabbed my daughter and ran. I knew he’d be in prison for a while and that it would give me time to start over.
Is trafficking as sensational as it seems on TV and in the movies?
The media creates images of blue-eyed 5-year-olds kidnapped and tied up with duct tape on their mouths. But most kids are lured by someone they know and trust, be it a family member or someone they met online. NCMEC (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children) has great stats on kids being lured off the internet and being groomed by someone they know vs. abductions, which is actually much more rare here in America.
How challenging is it to educate the faith-based community on trafficking?
The church has a hard time talking about sex, about pornography – the gateway “drug” to buying prostitution, let alone sex for sale and the root causes of supply and demand.
How do you get through?
Jesus cared about people and is calling us to care about those same people today. The vulnerabilities that get young women trafficked are the same ones that make young men traffickers or make others buy: living in poverty, desensitization to abuse, etc. We can’t put our heads in the sand, we must have spirit led, difficult conversations, if we are truly going to impact our culture.