BRADENTON -- One of the largest crowds of the year to attend a League of Women Voters Manatee meeting got a glimpse Monday into the disturbing world of the sex trafficking trade in Manatee County.
Sex trafficking, or the sexual exploitation of people for profit, is growing in Manatee and Sarasota counties, three speakers told the crowd of roughly 30 at the Bradenton Women's Club.
Typically, victims of this illegal trade are abused by family members as youngsters and run away by the time they are teens. Abuse follows them from family to predators, including beatings from pimps, said Kindsey Neeson with Selah Freedom, a nonprofit organization that works with sexually exploited women.
"When they are 3 or 4, the abuse starts and by the time they are 12 they no longer own their own sexual identity," Neeson said, speaking of young women she has worked with in Sarasota and Bradenton.
Neeson described one woman in the program.
"When we took her into the home we have for victims, you could see she was awed," Neeson said. "She said, 'This is so nice.' She didn't think she was worthy of a nice place to live. Then when we made her a sandwich, she couldn't get over the lettuce. She said, 'I can't remember the last time I had something green to eat.' She just sat there and stared at the sandwich."
Audience members included Manatee County Commissioners Robin DiSabatino and John Chappie and Karen Carpenter of the Manatee County School Board.
Neeson painted a bleak picture of the everyday lives of sex-trafficking victims.
She said they are often locked in homes in Manatee or Sarasota with no furniture, spending the day watching movies on TV while waiting to work in the sex trade at night.
"They have told me they would be 'sold' 15 to 40 times during a night shift," Neeson said. "If they are late
coming home, they are beaten by their pimp. This is not the glamorous picture of a prostitute we got from Julia Roberts in 'Pretty Woman.' These women work in jeans and hoodies and their bodies are run down from drugs and alcohol."
She said many women she has worked with have had multiple children taken away by the state.
"They cry their eyes out over the kids they have lost," Neeson said.
Detective Theron Robinson of the Manatee County Sheriff's Office held up a piece of paper with the word "Slavery" printed on it.
"When someone asks what human trafficking is, it is slavery," Robinson said. "It's taking a human and selling them over and over."
Robinson told the crowd most every sexual-trafficking arrest comes from tips.
"We need tips from concerned neighbors," Robinson said.
Detective Kevin Bunch, who spent 15 years at the Bradenton Police Department and is on a Crimes Against Children Task Force, told the audience rehabilitation of the victims goes slowly.
"Once we discover the victims, the work begins," Bunch said. "These victims are usually addicted to cocaine or prescription drugs. They are often homeless. Their self-worth is low. They've been in a situation where they were beaten if they come home late. We try to create a safety plan, a way for them to move forward."
The speakers could not give statistics as to how much sex trafficking is occurring in Manatee County. They said the statistics are hard to calculate because girls and boys in the business are often shuttled by their "owners" through Manatee as a stop on a sex trade business trail between Tampa and Miami and along the Interstate 4 corridor from Tampa to Orlando, Robinson said.
Neeson said one out of four men look at porn, which is part of the sex trafficking issue. Without demand, sex trafficking would cease to grow, she said.
"If we don't want to just keep replacing the girls, we have to get at the root cause," Neeson said.
Addiction to drugs, missed school, involvement with strange adults and neck tattoos that could show "ownership" by a pimp, are outward signs of a child possibly ensnared in sex trafficking, Bunch said.
DiSabatino said she is looking into the operation of sex shops, massage parlors and spas in Manatee County.
"I didn't believe at first it was here," DiSabatino said.
Other audience members also expressed surprise the problem was in Manatee.
"I thought it was something in metropolitan areas like New York and Miami, but I learned today it's a significant problem in our area," said Rosalie Shaffer, president of the League of Women Voters Manatee.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter@RichardDymond.of