in the shadows
Too young to be so knowledgeable
about this topic; about the abuse,
the pain, the stolen innocence and
the degradation that they express.
Yet they do know.
They know of an unspeakable problem that lurks in
many American communities, not just San Antonio. "I’m
just scared all the time," a female voice says, while images
of dolls, playgrounds and other symbols of innocence flash
on the screen.
"I just want to take a bath and rub myself, rub all the
shame off myself," another young voice tells an interviewer.
The video, produced by social work students at UTSA,
sheds light on the sex trafficking of minors that goes on almost
unseen in San Antonio and throughout the country.
Children, some as young as middle school-aged, are coerced
into providing sexual favors in exchange for money,
illegal drugs or things as basic as food and shelter. Sometimes
it begins at the hands of an abusive parent or guardian,
sometimes of a so-called "friend." Once the pattern begins, it
often persists into adulthood, setting the stage for a difficult
The legal term for this practice is domestic minor sex
trafficking. Finding it is hard. Stopping it is harder. The behavior
is secretive. Laws are inconsistent; social welfare and
law enforcement agencies have conflicting
policies and objectives. By the time the legal
system encounters its victims, they usually
are teens or young adults arrested on prostitution
charges. Even then, they are reluctant
to speak out about how the abuse began or
to bring charges against their abusers. They
are wrapped up in low self-esteem and battered
psyches and afraid of losing the only
relationships they know.
Public awareness is the first step toward
a community solution. That step is now being
advanced by a group of UTSA master’s
degree students in the Department of Social
Work. These students took on the topic of
domestic minor sex trafficking last summer
during an advanced policy course with
Robert Ambrosino, an instructor in the College of Public
Policy. The course curriculum required them to produce a
public awareness campaign around a local social issue.
After discussing the complex and tangled world of domestic
minor sex trafficking, the group decided to produce a
documentary video as a way to launch a community discussion
on the problem.
Behind Closed Doors, Voices from the Inside features interviews
with victims themselves as well as with community
stakeholders, drawn from the political leadership, criminal
justice system and social service agencies.
"She would hit me when I didn’t want to go out with these
guys," a young victim says, recalling how the abuse started
at the hands of her mother.
"It started when I was 16," another victim says.
Joe Raymond Vega, a San Antonio filmmaker, directed
and edited the video for the project. Ambrosino’s students,
although their summer course has ended, are continuing
their involvement by taking the video to groups that want to
learn about the issue and join the dialogue for change.
"There are some horrible stories out there about young
women—and men, because it happens to boys, too—being
introduced to sex trafficking when they are 8 or 9 years old,"
He said the abuse sometimes starts in the custody of a
parent, who may be a prostitute or have drug addiction problems.
Sometimes it is a male relative who pressures the child
to begin sexual activity. Or it might be someone who offers
friendship to a runaway or a child from a troubled home.
The abuse becomes a trafficking offense when there is
the exchange of sex for something of value, which could
include money, food, gifts or drugs. There’s also a phenomenon
called "survival sex," when a minor agrees to
have sex in exchange for basic human needs like food and
shelter. The victims bond emotionally with their abusers,
Ambrosino said; they believe that the adult abusers care
about them and keep them safe.
"What you have is an incredibly unreported crime," he
said. "What you are seeing in the film is the tip of the iceberg."
The first shock of awareness came among the students
themselves. Most of them, Ambrosino said, are non-traditional
students who came back to school for advanced degrees
after working in a social service field. Several were like
Rene Esquivel, a 45-year-old former chef pursuing a career
"You see what you perceive as prostitution and people
making these choices," said Esquivel. "As we were doing
these interviews and talking to these young
women and men, it became clear that they
were victims of sex trafficking. They didn’t
really have a choice."
Early in their project, the students made
a connection with an outreach worker who
was able to help them meet young victims.
Esquivel said the students were able to
interview 10 people—minors and adults,
women and men—who were coerced or
manipulated into the sex trade as children
or teens. Sometimes the students met them
in safe locations for video recordings that
shrouded their faces and protected their
identities. Many of the interviews were
just with tape recorders, conducted on the
street while the victims plied their trade. It is the only life they
have known and one they are afraid to leave, Esquivel said.
"This project was a transformative experience for my
perception of things," Esquivel said. "I’ll never look at it the
same way—that this was some choice that they made."
"A lot of them don’t realize they are being trafficked," said
Jenna Rothrock, who worked for Child Protective Services
before returning to UTSA for a master’s degree. "They will
look at you in a confused way. They say, ‘I’m not being trafficked. I love this man.’"
Rothrock led the student team that interviewed state
agency officials and community leaders for their take on the
problem. "A few people were oblivious to it," she said. "Others
were aware to a certain extent."
Change begins with knowledge, Ambrosino and his students
said. That is the driving purpose of their film project.
One of their connections was with state Sen. Leticia Van de
Putte, who has worked to get state laws more in line with federal
statutes, which provide for stiffer penalties for the adults
who promote sex trafficking. The students also connected
with Shared Hope International, an organization that seeks
to eliminate sex trafficking worldwide. The organization
wants to link with UTSA for other projects to raise awareness
and change public policies.
"People need to be aware," said Rothrock. "They have to
understand it first before anything else can happen."