PORTLAND, Maine (NEWS CENTER) -- When you look at sex trafficking in Maine by the numbers, it doesn't seem like that big an issue. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center reports getting 180 calls from Maine in the past 5 years. 25 of those are known cases of sex trafficking. That is, officials can prove the crime.
But just like other sex crimes, experts say sex trafficking is woefully under-reported. The more state and local officials have investigated, the more they feel that out-of-state pimps are looking to Maine as an untapped resource of victims. And they say trafficking needs to be addressed in this state now.
dee Clarke was just 12 years old when she was forced into prostitution in Boston by a man she met at a party.
"At that age, for some reason, I was so needy, and so damaged, so hurt, had been abused so much, that this grownup was flirting with me, being nice to me, and he was taking me to breakfast. And I didn't see the danger in that," Clarke said.
That is, until he took her to his apartment and they had sex.
"He just turned into really evil, and dragged me down the hall, and that guy kept yelling and yelling, telling me what I was gonna do," Clarke said. "He consistently called me dirty names because I was bloody and a mess."
Within weeks, Clarke was working the streets of Boston.
30-plus years later, she works for Preble Street, helping Maine's victims of sex trafficking see that there is a way out.
Clarke said, "It's great news and rewarding, but it's really difficult. And it's really sad at the same time."
Sad because Maine's sex trade appears to be on the rise. Portland Police Chief Mike Sauschuck said, "I think the scary part is that it's an unknown. It seems like once you start scratching at the surface, it gets deeper and deeper and deeper"
Sex trafficking does not mean a victim is being transported out of the country or across state lines.
Under the federal definition, sex trafficking "is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act, in which the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age." (22 USC § 7102; 8 CFR § 214.11(a)).
And in Maine, as with much of the country, trafficking and the drug trade are going hand in hand. Destie Hohman Sprague has been working on the problem for 5 years with the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault. "As it gets harder to sell drugs, it seems to be that traffickers are looking for other means of making money... It's more lucrative because you can sell a person multiple times," she said.
And sadly, johns looking for a prostitute can find one in an instant online. Experts say most of the young women supposedly advertising their services are being pimped out.
Sauschuck said, "When you talk about volume over the past 30 years or so, it's at a different level now when everyone's operating off the internet."
And the chief acknowledges that victims are often addicted to drugs, or ashamed to admit what happened to them, making prosecution a challenge. "You're talking about extreme trauma, so the victims in this case have experienced extreme trauma. So they're scared to death. They really are."
Much like Clarke, trafficking victims usually have been abused as children, physically, sexually or emotionally. There's often substance abuse in the family. And the pimps take advantage, sometimes even pretending to be a boyfriend.
Sprague says that's why victims often go back to their pimp, even when they've managed to escape. "It might be a sense of emotional stability. Very often individuals feel like they have a partnership or relationship with their trafficker. That's not unusual at all."
Clarke now does street outreach and runs programs for at-risk youth. She tells them her story, and how another prostitute helped her run away from her first pimp. And how she cut her wrist to escape another. She says more and more young women are telling her their stories these days.
Clarke said, "I grew up learning to be powerless. I didn't have any power, and I feel like I have a lot of power right now."
She doesn't care how big the problem of sex trafficking is in Maine. The fact is -- it's here. "If you want to count numbers... If one girl is being sold, that's... you know! Or 5 or 10 or 15 or 20 or 30, but... just one. Don't tolerate one."
If you or someone you know may be the victim of trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. Or text HELP or INFO to BeFree (233733)
Monday on NEWS CENTER, we'll examine some of the things Maine is doing to fight the problem.
You can learn more about trafficking in Maine by clicking here.
Click here for more information about the national problem.