By: Rachel O’Brien
Human trafficking is not what you imagine when you picture your college experience. Yet, this is the tragic reality that comes to life for some students.
In 2008, Samantha Wells* began dating a man she met in college. For a while, Wells said, everything was going just fine. He didn’t share much about himself, but he often asked about her, getting to know Wells very thoroughly.
Then, the relationship began to get violent.
The abuse began to escalate. He took control of her debit and credit cards. Wells then needed her “boyfriend” when she wanted to buy anything. Soon after this, Wells began to be trafficked by this man that had come into her life so innocently.
According to Alissa Stoehr, the interim director of the Margaret Sloss Women’s Center, human trafficking is defined as the illegal movement of people, typically for the purposes of forced labor or commercial sex exploitation.
“I found myself in an unknown area, stripped down, on a table,” Wells said. Wells found herself in this situation and was then raped by multiple men. This was the first time she was trafficked, but this continued for years to come.
Wells was trafficked from 2008 to 2017. A total of nine years that she was enslaved by a man she used to call her boyfriend. A man that she met on her college campus.
She used to attend class, go to work, and by night was trafficked and sold to men. She began drinking all of the time to cope with the pain.
“It was like eating breakfast with the lord and dinner with the devil,” Wells said.
She began not showing up to work and not going to class. After being sold all night, she was too tired to do what she needed to do.
Wells said there is a period of time that she is unable to recall anything from her memory.
Anyone can be trafficked — it happens everywhere all the time, Stoehr says the stereotype is that this only happens in third world countries. But, the fact of the matter is that this happens in Ames, Iowa and at Iowa State University.
When Wells was in the sex ring that she got pulled into, she had multiple incidents happen at Iowa State.
“I personally know of 45 students at ISU being trafficked,” Wells said.
This is what Wells has seen first-hand at Iowa State University. Just as in cases of sexual assault, the number of occurrences of trafficking and the number of reports will never be the same.
“It’s extremely prevalent, however some people will still call it prostitution,” Stoehr said.
The issue with getting all of these cases of trafficking reported is that most law enforcement does not require any human trafficking training and will not even acknowledge this issue, denoting it only as cases of prostitution.
“It’s a whole lot more common than you think,” said Ruth Buckels, the manager of Teens Against Human Trafficking.
Buckels says that she has direct knowledge of 10 to 15 people in Ames that are currently being trafficked. In Ames, the market is high for college students. Many buyers want clean, educated college girls. This puts college women especially at risk. The demand for this is due to high-end customers.
Wells says that when she was trafficked, there were buyers that were doctors, lawyers, nurses, etc. They were high profile people that were buying sex. They are not the types of people that the stereotype suggests.
Buckels says that in Ames, some students get involved in trafficking when someone offers to pay for their expenses. What will happen is a trafficker will offer to pay for things such as a student’s tuition or rent in exchange for the sale of that person’s body. It starts off simple, but will progress into so much more than a student anticipates.
“It’s pretty rapid at Iowa State,” Wells said. Now that Wells is no longer in the trafficking realm, she does work to help others in this situation.
So what can the everyday college student do to stay safe?
Buckels’ advice is to be careful who you trust. Keep an eye on your friends; and if you see something, say something.
“The most important thing is that nobody is above it,” Wells said.
This can happen to anyone. Education and outreach about these issues an important step in eradicating the problem.
Human trafficking is modern day slavery. It’s the hush hush business that no one talks about. It’s the “that would never happen to me” and “that would never happen in my town.”
At Iowa State, a human trafficking class, WS 450, taught by Alissa Stoehr, is offered to further educate students on this issue. There is also the Network Against Human Trafficking organization on campus. Becoming educated on this topic is the first step to solving this issue. The next is to start paying attention.
“The ring…they wanna play the game so well that the rest of us miss it,” Buckels said.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline has a 24 hour per day number that you can call if you need help or would like to report an incident. The number is 1(888)-373-7888.
*Names have been changed for safety purposes.