Heather Evans discusses her coalition to bring an end to sex trafficking in the Lehigh Valley on Jan. 30, 2017 in Maginnes Hall. She firmly believes in the importance of having critical minds and holding conversations about this issue. (Grace Rountry/B&W Staff)

Raising sex trafficking awareness on college campuses

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“You can sell a bag of drugs one time, but you can sell a human being more than once.”

Heather Evans, a social worker in private practice and co-founder and chair of survival services at the Valley Against Sex Trafficking (VAST), an organization based in the Lehigh Valley, held a talk in Maginnes on Monday.

Evans talked about the dangers, prevention and reality of sex trafficking. It is a covert and active industry that is silently taking place in the community, Evans said. She spoke to a full room, with barely any standing room for latecomers. Through a PowerPoint presentation, Evans shared facts, figures, quotes and stories to educate the Lehigh community of the realities of sex trafficking.

“I can’t speak for everyone, but I personally had no idea how local the issue was, how close it is, so I don’t think many that didn’t attend know either,” Cynthia Gatua, ’20, said. “I attended because I always felt sex trafficking was one of those issues in the background of society that sounded way more important than how people treated it.”

Evans said nearly 100 percent of the girls that are helped by VAST are from the United States, and 90 percent of them have been exposed to sexual abuse as a child. Though human trafficking is not as easy or obvious to spot as someone involved in an illegal drug trade, chances are the practice is just as common, according to VAST.

“Human trafficking is not a new issue, but it is a relatively young field in terms of identifying victims and restoring them,” Evans said.

Most prostitution and trafficking is set up online through websites like Backpage.com. Evans emphasized the exploitation involved in sex trafficking and that the people involved are victims. She said 13 is the average age of entry into the industry, and there are cases of girls as young as the age of four. Evans said most underage girls are being sold from family members.

According to VAST, between 85 and 95 percent of prostitution is pimp controlled, and it often leads to drug and alcohol addiction. Trafficked men and women may be forced to service as many as 110 customers in one day. One in four women in the United States will have been abused sexually before the age of 18.

Kiera Kehoe, ’19, attended the event and said immediate action needs to be taken. She suggested more talks like the one on Monday and increased media coverage to make college students more aware of the issue.

VAST held its first community meeting in 2011 to begin working to combat sex trafficking in the Lehigh Valley. It became an official non-profit organization in June 2015. The organization uses a community-based model of care, boasting a “victim-centered approach.” Members are working on a curriculum to be implemented into schools that extends from Kindergarten to the 12th grade to educate students on the issue and increase awareness among children.

Joshua Finkelstein, ’18, was involved in the event’s planning and marketing.

“If Lehigh students truly care about this issue, the next step is for them to organize to take action,” he said.

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