I was driving on I-94 headed home to Eau Claire from Milwaukee Sunday morning when a man waved at me furiously from the right hand driving lane. Not sure of his intention, so I did my open hand in the air signal. He then very slowly mouthed the word hood. I looked at the hood of my car and it was moving up and down. I could not stop safely as traffic was heavy in both lanes so I slowed my vehicle and exited at the busiest exit in WI Dells; and in the direction that I thought was going to be a gas station but turned out to be the unlabeled exit back on the interstate going east. I endured a very dicey ten mile drive to the nearest exit all the while trying to find a good time to pull over with my fingers hovering over the emergency flash signal in the event the hood flew open. I made it to the exit and to a small gas station. Should I go right to see if someone could help or go left to a group of motorcycle riders taking a break? I chose the bikers. I got out of the car, said I figured someone here could help me when a tall biker guy stepped forward and walked to my car. Before I could get any kind of explanation out, he said, hey, your hood is a problem. He opened it up, slammed it shut. It took him two seconds, if that. I walked him back to his group when a tall, substantially-sized women dressed in leathers stepped forward and asked me if I was trying to steal her boyfriend. Then she laughed. I put both of my arms up in the you never know position, said nothing, smiled, and drove away.
The Daily Beast noted that the last time a PBS show was at the center of national conversation was when Ken Burns’ The Civil War documentary aired in 1990. Masterpiece’s Downton Abbey has generated critical acclaim, audience enthusiasm, and enviable ratings. The final episode was both celebrated and mourned in England and the United States and across the globe.
I confess I was captivated after viewing the first episode. I have been an ardent reader and viewer of British novels and programs including the collection of Masterpiece classics. But I was not prepared for the immediate hold that Downton Abbey had on me. What was the glue that caught the eyes of curious viewers including me and addicted us like loyal soccer or football fans to PBS each Sunday evening for six years?
I have distilled the epic program down to three themes that resonate and stay with me as I walk through my ordinary days: the only certainty in life is change, democracy lifts women up but ever so slowly and life begets loss.
Oh my, how things changed from the opening of the first season with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 to the last episode on New Year’s Eve of 1925. The automobile had replaced the stable of horses, electricity lit up the estate and the telephone invaded the cloistered world of Downton Abbey. Music became a pleasure to be enjoyed at the touch of a radio dial regardless of class or wealth. Health care practices modernized and saved lives in contrast to the former archaic methods that hurt more than helped already sick patients. Women cut their hair short and raised the hems on their skirts, discarded the layers of heavy fabrics for lighter, body skimming designs and adapted the male trouser to a woman’s body; all styles that remain with us today. The Downton downstairs team of servants grew smaller in number requiring them to become generalists rather than specialists; the cook had more of her own prep work to do. Housemaids, under butlers and footmen left the estate for jobs that paid more and provided free time on weekends and in the evening.
We watched the girls and women who lived upstairs at Downton Abbey in awe of their transformation and we sympathized with the downstairs girls and women who kept the Abbey going. We cheered for the young housemaid who aspired to be a secretary and secretly completed a correspondence course in typing and shorthand. But we were equally satisfied by watching the 18 year old Lady Sybil’s efforts at advocating for the housemaid’s aspirations and success. We watched Lady Sybil become actively involved in canvassing for the labor movement against her father’s wishes and applauded her interest in securing a larger role for women in society. We watched Sybil defy convention and her father by choosing a man she loved (one of the downstairs contingent) for a husband as opposed to a man of wealth and rank. We wondered how Lady Mary stayed on her horse riding sidesaddle on hunts in seasons two and five. We were relieved when we saw her riding full seat in season six, but we did not take seriously her father’s advice when he noted that it might be unladylike. We didn’t need Julian Fellowes, the writer of Downton, to include a line for Lady Mary to ask for anyone’s permission; we had watched the “Blessed Lady Mary”, what Mrs. Hughes the housekeeper called her, long enough to know she was her own person and we delighted in her strength of mind. Lady’s maid, Anna, taught us that violence against women was something to be ashamed of for the victim and should be hidden. Unfortunately, that notion remains with us today. We watched one season run one into the next as the legal system ground out slowly to bring Anna justice and some semblance of healing and acceptance although we remained convinced that she still believed that she was “spoiled” by her experience. The law and rights by which English girls and women lived were improving but at a snail’s pace.
Then, there was “Matthew, Matthew, Matthew”! The relationship between Lady Mary, the eldest daughter of Lord Grantham and Matthew Crawley, her cousin many times removed and heir to the estate, captivated Downton viewers. At the height of their happiness, Matthew was killed and we watched Mary slide into a long depression. Grand wealth and privilege cannot insure against loss and unexpected death. But Lady Mary was lucky. Her family and her wealth provided a cocoon that enabled her to retreat and grieve in style for months. Many others with similar losses that lived and worked in the great house or in the village were not so lucky. They needed to limp through their lives and just get on with it. It was certainly common practice that for people in the working class, the death of a wage earner or a mother was followed by the placement of children to others. Without any safety net in place, families lost their homesteads and men abandoned their children to distant relatives. Children were farmed out to work on farms or at estates as pot scrubbers or stable boys for room and board. In subsequent episodes, we watched as Lord Grantham loses his health, a pregnant maid loses her job with no reference, and another young widowed maid nearly loses her head by encouraging the inappropriate sexual advances of Lord Grantham. We watched the young Lady Sybil die during childbirth. Life begets loss. Some are better equipped than others to ride out darkness when it appears at their doorstep.
Most Popular Character
“It’s the job of grandmothers to interfere!”
Undeniably, the most popular character in Downton Abbey was The Dowager Countess of Grantham, Lady Violet Crawley, played by British actor Dame Maggie Smith. The mother of the current master of Downton and grandmother to Mary, Edith and Sybil, Violet pushed the envelope of what was then considered to be a conventional life for women. We admired and relied upon her strength to speak her mind though delivered in a frail voice diminished by age. While outwardly she pushed back against change, when it came to family life she moved the family forward and together. She shielded Mary rather than banished her for what was then considered scandalous behavior (letting a man into her bedroom and into her bed where he died). She sent steamer tickets for granddaughter Sybil and her Irish husband so they could attend Mary’s wedding knowing that Lord Robert Grantham, her son, still resented having a liberal Irish chauffeur in the family and preferred them both to remain in Ireland. She nudged Mary out of her depression by quietly challenging her; “You must chose life or death.” And later, in an attempt to rein Lady Mary in following the untimely death of her young, handsome Matthew, she advised Mary to “get control of your emotions before they get control of you” and “to make peace with yourself.”
We loved the fact that Lady Violet Crawley had a past. No corset no matter how tightly tied could have kept Violet from enjoying the passions of life when they crossed her doorstep. And like exquisite chocolate, she did not have to confess how many she had tasted to savor the experience. We respected that she had her own independent life separate from being a mother and grandmother. She wisely laid down her outsider attitude toward Mrs. Crawley, Matthew’s mother, and developed a close relationship with her former adversary. When Violet could not contain her anger toward her daughter-in-law Cora for replacing her on the hospital board, she packed herself up and sailed away to Paris until she could control her tongue so as not to cause further disharmony with her son Lord Grantham and his family. She cleverly advised and admonished her son but she did not replace him or his wife in their important roles as parents and grandparents. We admired her wit, her determination and her strength.
Characters that Taught Deep Lessons
“I’m going upstairs to take my hat off.”
Lady Mary Grantham was born to position and wealth but she was confined to the restrictions placed on women during the Victorian era. Her job in 1912 was to wait for a suitable husband while she changed her clothes three to five times a day. We admired Mary for her beauty and designer haute couture but we may not have been as comfortable with her directness of manner. She communicated her feelings and opinions and pushed back with haughty comebacks; behavior we came to expect and admire in her grandmother, Violet but found ourselves wincing when Lady Mary dished out the same treatment. Lady Mary knew what she did not want more than she knew what she wanted. She held people accountable including herself. She sought out both comfort and advice from her loyal admirer, Head Butler Carson, even though he was a servant and not part of the proper inner circle. She was generous to herself by trying out a variety of potential husbands and not caving into pressures by them or her family to select a husband sooner than later after a proper mourning period. She was adaptable and grew through a new decade, one that seemed to match the force by which she propelled herself forward. Her father, an increasingly fragile Lord Grantham, stipulated that he could see that Downton would be secure if left in her hands; that indeed the whole county would be. Her father eventually saw in Mary what the viewers came to admire: a woman in possession of a strong sense of self including her foibles.
“I’m not foul, Mr. Carson.”
The prime antagonist of Downton Abbey was Thomas Barrow, the under butler we loved to hate. In the beginning we saw him as a fox smart conniving man with a slippery false front. He used others with less power than he and gamed them at every corner. His need for power within the archaic structure of the servant hierarchy was palpable and he was successful at playing all the main characters. Bright, literate and looking to the next day, he was quick to see that the outbreak of war was his ticket out. Thinking he was volunteering to be a doctor’s assistant, he joined the war effort only to be assigned at the front in the trenches where he bumped into Matthew Crawley, now an officer, and served him tea in much the same way he had back at Downton Abbey. Thomas knew his odds at surviving in the trenches were slim so he closed his eyes and raised his hand with a lighted cigarette at night and was quickly shot by enemy fire. He was returned home to recuperate and then was reassigned to his preferred plan as an orderly at a military convalescent hospital.
We see Thomas open up by befriending a seriously depressed soldier who eventually takes his life and then befriending the handsome young butler, James, even when he had been set up to make a move on him believing he preferred men to women as Thomas did. The more Thomas opened up and set aside his bully behaviors the more the Downton principals rejected him. Carson encouraged him to move on and look for other employment while the shrinking roster of servants excluded him from their activities. Mrs. Hughes encouraged him to see a change in employment as a new beginning, a chance to meet new possibilities for friendship and love as a homosexual. Thomas was finally able to open up and confessed to her and to the viewers that he had a need to be needed, to be liked and to remain part of the Downton family where he was rooted.
In the end, Thomas’ redemption comes by opening up and by setting his anger aside. He learns to love in friendship and connection and to accept himself. Thomas’ story is without the glitter and romance of Lady Mary or the Chauffeur Branson who married up to a great lady upstairs. But in the end we recognized Thomas’ struggle as being like our own. While we may not have outwardly cheered for Thomas when he remained against all odds at Downton and replaced Carson as head Butler, we recognized his internal struggle and profound personal growth. We are contented that he will remain where he is safe and needed.
As the lights dim on Downton Abbey, the lesson that remains may be that we come into the world alone and that is how we all will leave. It is what one chooses to do with the time in between that matters most.
NBC Today Show in Shades of Tacky Grey
NBC’s Today Show is giving the star treatment everyday all week long to the soon to be released movie, 50 Shades of Grey. The film is based on the fiction book of the same name written by British author E.L. James.
Originally self-published, the demographic that bought the book in thousands to boost it to a number one best seller is young women between the ages of twenty and thirty. The writing itself has been critiqued by many to be unskilled violating all the principles of good writing. Jessica Reeves writing for the Chicago Tribune warns a would-be buyer and reader that the “dialogue is stilted, the descriptions of place overwrought, and the characters and plot so predictable that a reader could theoretically skip over several dozen pages of text and still be utterly unsurprised by new developments. (Hey, what do you know? They’re having violent sex again. And both appear to feel vaguely conflicted about the violence aspect, but apparently not conflicted enough to actually stop doing it).”
And that was one of the better reviews I found.
I bought the book and read to page 50 before giving it to a favorite college-aged waitress. I told her I hoped she would find it more appealing than I did as I found it trite, boring and swimming in sexual stereotypes and female abuse. I asked her to tell me what she thinks of the book. She is still trying to find the time to read it.
This week I turned on the Today Show and found that it was doing a host of activities to help launch the film including previewing short segments from the film and interviewing the author. Having made millions of dollars for its author, it no longer matters what the quality of writing is or that the message to women is one that hopefully Today Show’s starring host Savannah Guthrie along with most US women clearly reject.
To be clear, I do not advocate censoring this book or any other. What I cannot fathom is why the Today Show is investing prime time air waves for five consecutive days promoting a movie that centers on the sexual exploitation, domination and abuse of a young woman. How does 50 Shades of Grey fit into the Today Show’s corporate “brand”?
So I wrote the show and asked them. Twice. So far, no response. But the social media campaign with the hashtag #50dollarsnot50shades has responded. It asks people to donate $50 to a domestic violence shelter rather than spending it on the movie.
“People are really upset about this movie and its potential for glamorizing stalking and abusive behavior, so they’re happy to have the chance to do something positive to help offset the damage,” the organizers of the movement told the Washington Times. The National Center on Sexual Exploitation warns that “real women don’t end up like Anastasia; they often end up in a women’s shelter, on the run for years or dead.”
Savannah Guthrie, if you are listening to any of this blow-back, tell your viewers to skip the show on Valentine’s Day and write out a check to their local women’s shelter. Buy a box of chocolate and drop one piece at your local theater instead of buying a ticket for 50 Shades of Grey. Eat the rest yourself or even better with a friend who has done the same thing.
Claire Shipman and Katty Kay
Giving Up? Don’t You Dare!
Claire Shipman, a reporter for ABC News, and Katty Kay, the anchor of BBC World News, made a case in the May 2014 magazine, The Atlantic, that women are still their own worst enemy. Their message received a lot of play on morning news and talk shows and in the newspapers around the country. At the risk of over simplifying their argument, what I took from their well documented essay is that women are more intent at minding their manners, stepping aside from their own dreams when challenged, working hard without taking credit and hoping that someone will notice and reward them for their efforts. One could easily extrapolate that the majority of girls show the same behavioral patterns. Shipman and Kay are correct in their beliefs that women today have as good of an education, maybe better, than the majority of men do and that women hold more undergraduate and graduate degrees than do men.
All for naught. The average man still gets farther with less stellar credentials and with the same or less work experience as a woman may have when it comes to salaries, benefits and promotions. So what is the problem?
I covered much of the same ground in my book Finding Center: Strategies to Build Strong Girls and Women (2007). I provided a quiz for readers to take to measure the agentic characteristics of independent girls and young women with the hope that if more young women and their mothers and fathers were aware of them, they would be in a better position of practicing the very behaviors which lead to confidence. In another chapter that speaks to women as assets, I asked that adults tell the truth to girls and young women: that education counts, that full-time work counts more than part-time work, that women can balance full-time work and children without ruining their children, that girls/women must become financially savvy around the basics of making and handling their own money and retirement investments, and that women must simply get comfortable with and skilled in the art of negotiation.
In graduate classes of professional men and women and in workshops for women of all ages, I have found that girls and women are uncomfortable and ill-equipped to negotiate for their own needs, wants and desires to build their own lives. They are easily backed away and down when confronted with the age-old accusations that they are selfish, unrealistic, or could not possibly accomplish what they want. They are easily swayed to give up their ambitions, stay close to home if not in the home or to stay away from a path that involves the direct competition with other boys and men. What brings blood to my face when I contemplate this pattern of control is that too many girls and women throw their dreams away before they have given themselves a chance to explore how they might build those very dreams.
I maintained then as I do now that girls and women are of equal value as human capital. The society that both men and women live in today is light years away from the world of their parents and grandparents. Yet, much of the mindset and most of the policies have not changed to address the nature of today’s work place, the needs of families, and obligations tied to the care and nurturing of our young children and to the largest generation of aging adults in American history.
Confidence is grown from trying, failing, trying again and succeeding. Confidence comes from increasing one’s capacity to negotiate by understanding that negotiation does not mean getting everything you want all of the time or by getting all of the new deal without giving up some of the old ways. One cannot retreat into the past when it is comfortable when what may be necessary is to acquire new behaviors and responsibilities. A girl cannot learn to become a skilled soccer player by quitting when her knees or ego get bloodied or by choosing to sit in the stands and watch. Staying in the game is what confidence requires. Negotiation does not mean destroying another to get what you may want but rather skilled negotiation involves compromise, building new skills and patterns of behaviors to get things done whether what needs to be done is taking care of children or for competing for a coveted job opportunity.
“In studies, men overestimate their abilities and performance, and women underestimate both. Their performances do not differ in quality.”
“What doomed the women was not their actual ability to do well on the tests. They were as able as the men were. What held them back was the choice not to try.”
Claire Shipman & Katty Kay
Closing the Confidence Gap
Shipman and Kay are on the mark when they say boys and men do not hold themselves up to a perfect standard before they try: they just “do” and learn from doing. They are not more skilled or more capable than girls and women. What they do is to try, fall down, talk it through with a boy pack, get back up and get out there again. And, they are able to talk about what they learned from the process of trial and error and success.
If you are a girl or a woman thinking about giving up on your dream, I challenge you with this. Don’t you dare! Get out there. Form a team. Find a mentor. And if you don’t know where or how to start, then find a girl or woman who has done what you want to do and ask her to help you begin. And until you are able to do that, get on your computer and enter these words: how to build confidence in girls and women. Hit enter.
Today, June 4th, would have been my mother’s 94th birthday. Her name was Helen Lorraine Windt Mack. I did not have many birthday celebrations with her, mine or hers, as she died at the age of 35. I have written extensively about her in a published essay that garnered a Pushcart Prize nomination so won’t detail in this post. She was born in Mellen, Wisconsin but moved to Ashland when her parents relocated at some point in her elementary school years. She attended and graduated from DePadua Catholic High School in Ashland. I have her school report cards, high school yearbooks with friend’s signatures and wishes and her address book with entries in her cursive handwriting that documents her interests, friends and families. My father gave me her black and white photo album that she created of photographs that she took. Years ago, I traced her path back to Madeline Island where she worked as a bookkeeper with the Russell Ferry Business and where many of the pictures were taken. She was one of many who roomed at Gram’s Johnson’s boarding house although I did not find that out until two years ago after I saw her name included in the on line census of La Pointe,WI.
Many of the artifacts and most of her story came to me by others during a ten year active process of finding out who my mother had been, how she came to be on Madeline Island, what her favorite colors were and what had caused such an early death. When I began the search, I had no idea of the people who would step up to fill in part of her story or who would send a letter, photographs, and original records to my house. But the jewel I obtained from the process I could have never predicted: I got back a mother. And I got back a major part of myself.
I find it so sad when someone tells me that their life story is too painful to investigate and who refuse to revisit the places of their childhood or family so they do not have to confront the pain that discovering part of their story may require. We have all seen the stories on television of people finding their roots back through the generations and how significantly their lives are impacted by such discovery. But what I have found to be the richest reward is the connection to others who were also on the same stage at a particular point in time, in history and who connect back to the loved one whose story is being searched.
Maybe that is why our mother’s birthdays tug at us so strongly even when we try our hardest to ignore them. The beginning of each of our stories begins with a mother.
Maren and Tina: Gone Too Soon
Tina Livernash Heins
It was the morning of Friday, April 25, 2014, the day of her junior prom. Sixteen year-old Maren Sanchez arrived at Jonathan Law High School in Milford, Connecticut and had taken the back stairs down to a lower level of the school. She and her girlfriends had been hard at work making all of the usual preparations for the prom season. All she had to do was get through her Friday school schedule before she could go home and slip her floor-length cobalt dress over her head and step into Cinderella style shoes.
Maren did not make it to her first hour class. She was fatally stabbed in her face, neck and torso in that back stairwell. The accused, Chris Plaskon, was her longtime friend. Plaskon, described by those who know him as congenial and respectful, is the third of five brothers. His family has deep roots in the community.
The prom was postponed. Maren Sanchez’s friends put on their gowns and tuxes and in a spontaneous tribute, they released balloons, held up her empty cobalt dress, and crowned the slaughtered 16-year-old as their prom queen. She was an honor student, class president and active in sports and theater. She had natural leadership traits but perhaps her most salient characteristic was her natural inclination to reach out to others and offer kindness and support. It would appear her family had done all of the right things in raising a wholesome girl who was on the peripheral of womanhood.
Chris Plaskon is a reserved boy. He struggled with depression and attention deficit disorder and had been taking medication not at extraordinary event as The Center for Disease Control reports that six to ten percent of US teens use mediations for ADHD and /or depression. One friend shared with a reporter that Plaskon had been attached to Maren since middle school but the attachment was one way. Friends and one teacher indicated that Plaskon had asked Maren to the prom and she had turned him down.
I watched a network tape of a professional yet troubled Milford Chief of Police Keith Mello at a press conference. He was asked why students were not screened for guns and weapons. Online writers were quick to blame single parents, uninvolved fathers, Facebook and other technologies that are constant companions of teens which spread emotional fire quicker than a desert sand storm. One feminist writer predicted that given enough time people would begin to blame the murdered victim herself perhaps for outperforming Plaskon and taking the role from what was once considered male privilege: high school president, leader and scholar.
Maybe it was the picture of that empty dress that made me shudder and remind me of another young woman in Wisconsin.
On the night of April 17, 1994 twenty year old Tina Heins arrived at her apartment late after working at a Jacksonville, Florida beach hotel. No doubt she would have been tired as she was four months pregnant with her first child. Tina was a small woman in stature. But what she lacked in height, she made up for in her beauty and lively personality.
She had moved from Menomonie, WI where she was a college student majoring in the restaurant tourism program at UW Stout. She had married Jeremy Heins who was from the same area of Wisconsin Rapids as she was. She had some reservations about moving from the small rural towns of Wisconsin Rapids and Menomonie, Wisconsin to live in the sprawling metropolis of Jacksonville, Florida particularly since she knew her new husband would be on regular 24 hour multiple week rotations in his job as a Navy seaman with the Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville. She and Jeremy were newlyweds and she wanted to be with him so she overcame her jitters and made the move.
Within hours of arriving home that night, Tina Heins was brutally stabbed 27 times to death in her bed. A close friend of Tina’s said that her throat was sliced as well. Jeremy was on ship that night or so he said. His nineteen year old brother, Chad Heins, was sleeping on their living room coach. He had moved to Jacksonville to pursue opportunities that he did not have back home in Wisconsin Rapids. Chad had returned home at 12:30 a.m. after a heavy night of partying. He had a history of blackout drinking. He woke up just before 6 a.m. to find fires burning in the living room and kitchen including one on the sofa where he slept. He found Tina with a pillow over her face in her bed.
Four years later, Chad Heins was convicted of murder and sentenced to a life sentence in Florida. Tina’s husband turned state witness against his brother to the horror of the father of both Jeremy and Chad. The father severed his relationship with Jeremy. Rumors flew around the young people’s home town that Jeremy was the murderer as he was seen openly dating another women in Wisconsin Rapids just two weeks after Tina’s death.
After serving years in prison, Chad sought help from the Innocence Project. The Project used tissue samples collected from the murder scene as well as from both Jeremy and Chad and concluded that neither Jeremy nor Chad was a match to the DNA left behind by the perpetrator. Thirteen and a half years later, Chad Heins was released from the Florida prison and returned home to the small town area of Wisconsin Rapids where his brother, mother and father and Tina’s parents still lived.
In recalling these horrible events, I remembered that I never attended Tina’s funeral. I don’t recall even sending a card to her family. I confessed this to a friend of mine over a recent lunch and she reminded me that I was in the middle of a health crisis myself and that I was focused on taking care of my daughter who was one of Tina’s best friends. My daughter had made a road trip to Jacksonville to help Tina move a carload of personal possessions a month before she was murdered. Tina had tried hard to convince my daughter to stay with her in Florida but after a week-long visit, my then 19 year old daughter had returned home. The death of Tina unraveled her.
I have never forgotten Tina. My first grandchild, Lauren, now 17, carries Tina’s name as one of two of her middle names: Christina Maureen. Every time I write out a birthday card for her or when she signs her name in a swirly signature on the wall size white board in her designated room at my house, I am reminded. Occasionally, my daughter will tell me that she was contacted by someone investigating Tina’s murder. It was only in the week of Maren’s death when I was making inquiries to my daughter about Tina that she told me she still hears from Tina’s mother.
Twenty years have passed by all too quickly since Tina’s life and the life of her unborn child was taken. It has been a brutal Wisconsin winter but the earth warms with each new day. Somewhere between the towns of Junction City and Wisconsin Rapids in a small cemetery lies Christina.
Down the road from the cemetery in Junction City both of Tina’s parents still carry on with their lives without her. I am overdue to visit her grave and her parents. Hopefully, I will have the company of my daughter and her daughter so all of us can learn more about Tina and moving forward from tragedy together.
Modern Day Slavery
I read President Jimmy Carter’s recent book A CALL TO ACTION Women, Religion, Violence and Power (2014) over the weekend. He articulates in a direct and clear voice about subject matter that is difficult yet pervasive across the planet: genocide of girls, “honor” killings, child marriage and dowry to name just a few. But he is at his most compelling in his discussion of modern-day slavery and prostitution of children and women.
Carter reminds us that while slavery is illegal all over the world today sources such as the Global Slavery Index and the UN International Labor Organization estimate there are just under 30 million people trapped and transported against their will and enslaved today. It is likely that more people are being trafficked over borders against their will than at any previous point in our history. Add to that the hundreds perhaps thousands of children and women who are coerced by family members, boyfriends or “friends” into the commercial sex trade within their own state and it is easy to understand why the trafficking of humans of which over 80 percent are children and women is an underground multi-billion dollar business. Many of these children and women are drugged and transported to “brothels” in motels, private homes and condos. The primary advertising tool of the human traffick business is the internet.
So what is trafficking? Sex trafficking is a commercial sex act that is induced by force, fraud or coercion. If a child in under the age of 18 and is engaged in prostitution, that child is considered to be a trafficked victim under the law as no child is able to give legal consent to such abuse. Domestic Servitude (Labor) Trafficking involves the transportation, harboring, and recruitment by means of fraud or force for unpaid work. One might think trapping and forcing a child or grown women into the role of a sex or domestic slave is rare, particularly in the United States. It is not.
A Sex trafficker’s tool kit includes trapping by false pretense, victim starvation, confinement, beatings, physical abuse, rape including gang rape, threats of violence to them or to their families, forced drug use and shaming; that is revealing their activities to their family and friends. Sex trafficking does not have to involve the movement of its victims from one city or country to another; it occurs within family units where family members force children or women into trafficking for money.
If lucky enough to be rescued from the conditions of modern-day slavery, victims are left with physical and psychological effects that last a lifetime: drug and alcohol addiction, broken bones, vaginal and anal tearing, post-traumatic stress syndrome, sexually transmitted diseases, forced abortions, suicidal thoughts, shame, mistrust, intense fear to name just a few of the most common.
The most common age of entry into the commercial sex industry is 12 to 14 years of age. The FBI has identified Atlanta as one of 14 cities in the US with the highest incidence of children exploited in prostitution. Each month, just in Georgia alone, 300-500 girls are commercially sexually exploited throughout the state of Georgia and on average 7,200 men pay for sex with adolescent girls in Georgia each month. And that is just Georgia.
Wisconsin, the state in which I live, is not innocent of modern-day slavery. Wisconsin is home to both international and domestic trafficking. According to the Wisconsin Office of Justice Assistance, the majority of Wisconsin citizens do not believe that human trafficking is a Wisconsin problem but they are wrong. Human trafficking has been reported in both rural and urban cities within the state. Sadly, Wisconsin research data report that the majority of victims are forced into commercial sex exploitation by those who have the primary responsibility for them: family members. Incredible as it may be, there are reports of high school boyfriends who sell their girlfriends for money for sex to friends and acquaintances. Such behavior is illegal, immoral and repulsive.
So what can be done? Take the time to educate yourself and your family about the real and present danger of child and human trafficking. Education is power. The topic is unpleasant and upsetting; but the consequences of becoming informed on child and female trafficking by way of having a loved one trafficked is catastrophic.
Acquire an in-depth understanding of the link between drug addiction, pornography and child and adult prostitution as a multi-billion dollar industry; an industry that acquires its “product”, children and adult victims, by way of entrapment, coercion and violence. Pay attention and believe information that local law enforcement professionals present in the media and in local presentation programs.
If you see any signs that a child or adult you know may be a victim of trafficking, reach out for assistance in making a contact with that individual. Many victims are unaware that the kind of life they have been subjected to is illegal. Most are fearful that their lives will become worse or they will be killed if they ask for help. Professional training is a must in approaching a suspected victim; don’t go it alone.
Finally, take an active step in your own community and state by demanding laws that support violence against women and children. Ask what is being done in your community and state to support child and adult victims of domestic violence, commercial sex trafficking, domestic trafficking and child violence in the way of health programs and a host of related services for its victims. Put organized pressure on state and national politicians to attend to the serious business of passing strong anti-human and child trafficking laws. Demand legislative results, not lip service or endless games of denial, of politicians who are paid to ensure the protection of its citizens’ civil rights. Ask for strong laws to be enacted which will protect undocumented immigrants and to expose and hold legally accountable wealthy corporate farm owners who force farm workers in involuntary servitude, a practice that has close similarity to the practice of slave holding on southern plantation farms before the American Civil War.
Jimmy Carter warns that prejudice, discrimination, violence, physical and mental abuse fall disproportionately on women and girls and that holds particularly true in the case of modern-day slavery. The solutions are multifaceted but one thing is clear: unless and until women stand up, organize and demand the stop of modern-day human trafficking, just a drop out of the immense billion dollar modern-day slavery profit bucket will be enough to entice otherwise good men to do nothing.