We’ve got a huge story to finish. I’d like each one of you to remember those words as you leave here tonight. No matter who you are, each one of you can join the true story against modern slavery. You can become either part of the solution or part of the problem. The only question is, what will be your role in that story?
The evening featured readings from The Black Lens novel, which takes place in Bend and was recently reviewed by two Oregon papers in light of the recent prostitution sting that took place there. The event also included talks by Deschutes County Sheriff L. Shane Nelson and representatives of Guardian Group.
“This fictional account of sex trafficking was a fast paced page turner,” wrote Julianne Safir Tiegs of The Guardian Group in a review of The Black Lens. “It also has an important message regarding the horrors of this heinous growing industry. It takes brave people like C Stollar to help draw out an intolerance in our society for a crime that goes on under our noses.”
Here is a full copy of my speech:
Good evening. Thank you all so much for coming here tonight. Sex trafficking is such a dark topic, but it’s nights like these that I see a small glimpse of light, because each one of you gave up an evening to learn more about this issue.
You could’ve stayed home and spent time with your families. You could’ve grabbed a beer at Deschutes. Or gone for a hike on the river trail. But you decided to come here to learn. And ultimately, learning is the first step in eradicating any form of slavery. So again, thank you.
Now, before I talk about my new novel and why I decided to write it, I want to talk about the heart of this problem on a hyperlocal level.
As many of you know, just two weeks ago law enforcement from several agencies in Deschutes County arrested two Portland residents and cited two others, one of whom is from Bend, after a sex-trafficking investigation.
The investigation also resulted in freedom for a 19-year-old Portland woman who had been forced into prostitution at age 13. Think about that for a moment — this girl had barely become a teenager before strangers started to rape her for money.
A few months ago, reporter Peter Madsen wrote a great piece in The Bulletin, where I also worked as a reporter from 2006-2009. His reporting found that this is not an isolated issue. In fact, since January 2015, nine people in Deschutes County have been arrested on charges related to prostitution and human trafficking, according to the Deschutes County District Attorney’s office. Here’s what Madsen wrote about the root cause of this problem:
This is the picture that Bend Police Sgt. Devin Lewis paints. It’s a problem in Bend because sex traffickers have spread the word that this city is a place where they can make money and not get in trouble, according to Lewis. “We’re going to see an increase in the problem here,” he said.
There are commonalities among some of the recent sex trafficking arrests. Lewis breaks them down like this: Sex traffickers post advertisements on Backpage.com under the escort section. Would-be customers click through salacious yet carefully worded listings that advertise “full service” or “100-rose special.”
Phone numbers are listed and plans are made over a quick phone call or a series of texts. Many of the escorts mention they’re “new in town” or it’s their “last night in Bend” — a status attractive to sex buyers who live in a town lacking larger cities’ anonymity. Traffickers typically make arrangements to meet sex buyers at local motels.
Now, in case you don’t know, Backpage is a website for classified ads, just like Craigslist. But Backpage also has an adult section and has become notorious as a sales tool for traffickers.
In fact, it’s a key cause of the problem and is one of many sophisticated tools pimps are using to fuel the demand for paid sex. They can post nearly pornographic pictures of underage girls, but conceal their real age.
Just out of curiosity, I went to your local Backpage site on Saturday. Here are a few examples of what I found:
- Last night in Bend????Seexxyyy young wild Redhead???? – 20 (Outcall anywhere?Incall in Bend??)
- Sexy playmate visiting for 1 night ? Busty & beautiful ? Latina mix ?OUtCalls? – 22 (bend , Redmond, prineville , madras)
- ??Young Hot??…. SeXxy Ebony ?Goddess? – 25 (Bend surrounding areas)
- ???SeXxy????Dominican ?Princess ? ?Hot Slippery?&Tight – 25 (Bend surrounding areas)
- ??Bite Sized Caramel treat, perfect smile 5’2 115lbs even better b?bs come meet SONYA – 23 (bend)
Again, this is Bend, people. Not Portland. Not Seattle. Not New York or L.A. But Bend, Oregon.
And that’s exactly why I decided to write The Black Lens. I wanted tell a great story that also sheds light on the existence of this dark underworld and shows how it can happen to anybody. Anywhere. At any point in time.
So, let’s start with the facts. While it’s hard to quantify this problem, here’s what we do know.
The International Labour Organization estimates that there are 20.9 million victims of forced labor and human trafficking, including 5.5 million children.
In the United States alone, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline has received reports of at least 14,588 sex trafficking cases since 2007. And just in Oregon, the Center has received 1,506 calls and addressed 321 cases.
Now, those are the official stats. But if you’re like me, it’s hard to digest them.
So, when I first discovered this issue as a Bend Bulletin reporter more than 10 years ago, I knew I needed to interview people first hand. That’s why I spent more than three years researching trafficking, interviewing survivors, social workers and police officers.
I met one woman who told me she got enslaved in an upper-middle class suburb of Detroit at age 15. Fifteen! Another said she got blackmailed through a neighbor. Still another got recruited through an ex-boyfriend.
I could go on and on, but all of those women put faces to the facts and helped me understand how easily it is to get sucked into this world – and just how hard it is to escape.
As a former reporter with a master’s degree in journalism, I’ve been trained to stick with the facts and not get involved with my stories.
But after spending so much time with these women, I had to something. I had to use the writing skills God has given me to tell their stories so that others might have eyes to see.
So, after five years of research, writing and editing, I finished The Black Lens. Independent publisher Boyle & Dalton just released my debut novel in January.
It’s a dark literary thriller about a teenage girl and her sister who fight back at the pimp that blackmails them into sex trafficking in both Bend and La Pine. While this book is fiction, I based the main character, Zoey James, on many of the women I interviewed.
Now, some of you might be thinking, why fiction? How could that possibly help solve this problem?
That’s a great question. It’s one I’ve thought about for years. First of all, I’m donating 10 percent of my personal profits from the books sales to anti-trafficking organizations like The Guardian Group that are actually making a difference, so my novel is already helping at least on a financial level. Each one of you should consider donating to Guardian as well.
But ultimately, I chose fiction as my genre because I love the art of storytelling and its power to change hearts and minds.
British author C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Art … has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”
Fiction is a form of art, so it too has no inherent survival value. But novels can give value to survival in unique and powerful ways.
Think of the impact behind books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or To Kill a Mockingbird. Those novels affected so many people’s views of race and slavery in ways that no other medium could.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I would never think of comparing The Black Lens to those literary masterpieces. But while a few recent books and movies have drawn attention to this crime, no popular fiction so far has focused solely on trafficking in rural America.
So, my hope is that those who read The Black Lens will be changed. They will want to do something. They will want to join the fight to end modern slavery.
Now, I don’t want to give too much of my book away, so I’m just going to read you two of my favorite excerpts. The first occurs after the pimp forces Zoey and her sister Camille to turn their first tricks:
Hours later, Zoey awoke and retched all over her bedspread.
Racing to the bathroom, she collapsed to the ground as a sharp pain stabbed between her legs. She crawled the remaining feet to the tub and threw herself in. As the water began to pour over her limp body, she saw it turn crimson beneath her crotch. Zoey sobbed for more than five minutes and then closed her eyes.
She could still see their faces. Not one. Or two. But 14. She remembered every one of them. The old man’s wet, sweaty skin. The young man’s dull, drunken eyes. And the girl’s breath that smelled like shellfish. There could have been more. But after that fourteenth man with the whips, Zoey passed out.
Despite what had happened last night, the shower was still her sanctuary. Nobody could touch her here. She lay down on her back and stared into the mist of the water that sprinkled her body, but didn’t make her feel clean.
In fact, Zoey had never felt so dirty in her life. She had always wanted her first time to be special, with someone she loved. Now that would never happen. More than a dozen men had stolen that special part from her.
An hour later, Zoey dried off. She stared into the bathroom mirror and recoiled at the stranger. This person appeared old and haggard. The face was so thin, and the arms were now covered in scratch marks from craving more crystal. Even the scar beneath her left eye appeared extra raw this morning, as if the sex last night had somehow deepened the wound. It looked like she was already becoming more like Iris and less like Zoey.
As she started to put her clothes back on, Zoey remembered the razor she had put in her backpack. Just in case. Her whole body was in pain, but maybe it would give her some relief again. So she grabbed the blade and touched it to her wrist.
Zoey started to make a cut, but then remembered Camille.
She couldn’t believe she had forgotten about her. Gabriel must have taken Camille to her own room last night. After Zoey wrapped a towel around her wrist to stop the bleeding, she raced back into the bedroom and stared in disbelief at the alarm clock. It was almost time for school.
Zoey grabbed her clothes, limped out of the room and banged on her sister’s door. Nobody answered. She pounded again.
“Come on, Camille. It’s me. We’ve got to get back home.”
She knocked again, this time harder. “Look, Camille, I know those men hurt you last night. They hurt me, too. But we’ve got to get back.”
The door creaked open and Zoey could see one eye peeking out.
“It’s not OK,” Camille said. “You’re not OK.”
“I know,” Zoey replied as she opened the door and hugged her.
The sisters grabbed their clothes and started walking back in silence. They moved slowly, each step another stab between their legs from the pain of last night. The snow had finally stopped, but harsh winds from the Cascades whipped their faces raw. Zoey tried hiding in her hoodie, though she still felt the icy air cut her nose and eyes. Not even her steel-toed boots could keep out the cold.
All of a sudden, Camille dropped to the ground. Zoey tried grabbing her hand, but Camille shrieked in pain as she pulled back. Zoey looked at her hands and saw blood.
“What’s wrong, Camille? Let me see your hands.”
Camille didn’t budge.
“Come on, let me see them.”
Shaking, Camille took her hands out of her pockets and held them up. They looked like they were on fire. The skin had cracked all over, creating spider webs of blood from her fingernails to her wrists. Between her fingers, the flesh had peeled off.
“What’d you do?” Zoey asked.
“Camille tried cleaning herself with burning water,” her sister said. “But he just wouldn’t go away. He’s still on her skin. He’s all over. And Camille can’t get him off. She tried washing all night to make her skin white as snow so she could be a pure princess like Snow White. But he’s still there.”
Reaching beneath her shirt, Camille started scratching as hard as she could with her long fingernails.
“Stop it,” Zoey said. “You’re going to hurt yourself.”
“He’s everywhere. Camille can still smell him. Must cut him off.”
“No, you’re going to cut yourself even worse. Stop it, Camille. Stop!”
Zoey grabbed her sister’s hands, but she yanked them back and started screaming again in pain. Too tired to argue anymore, Zoey just sat down on the ground next to Camille and wrapped her arm around her. Camille’s disabilities already made it hard for her to deal with stress and changes in routine — let alone all of this. She didn’t know how much more her sister could take.
If Aidan couldn’t help them now, nobody could.
The final passage I’d like to read happens right after this chapter.
It’s about Aidan, the other main character in my novel. He’s been trying to help Zoey, but his past addiction to pornography comes back to haunt him as he starts researching sex trafficking and sites like Backpage.
Several readers have asked me why I included Aidan’s character, especially his porn addiction. The main reason is because good characters have flaws. They’re not perfect. They’re real. Broken. And raw.
But I also wanted to shed light on the demand side of trafficking. Human trafficking is big business. Forced labor in the private economy generates $150 billion in illegal profits per year — with $99 billion of that coming directly from commercial sexual exploitation, according to the International Labour Organization.
And like any business, trafficking relies on the law of supply and demand. While many factors fuel the demand, pornography is a key part of the problem.
During interviews with 854 women in prostitution in nine countries, 49 percent said pornography was made of them while they were in prostitution, and 47 percent were upset by tricks’ attempts to make them do what the tricks had previously seen in pornography.
So, here is the final excerpt I’m going to read:
Aidan couldn’t sleep.
As he lay in bed next to Reina, he kept thinking about his conversation with Cal the other day. He could hear Reina snoring, and Indie had fallen asleep hours ago. A sudden urge and feeling of excitement shot through his stomach.
Nobody would know.
Aidan grabbed a pair of boxers and snuck into his office to fire up the laptop. He found that site again and couldn’t believe how many options there were and what he could buy. Photos. Phone sex. Web-cam sex. Joint masturbation. Several times, he started feeling guilty when he thought of his wife. He went back to that one ad:
Barely legal lesbians!!! Just turned 18! Hot XXX young girls lick each other now!!!
His finger trembled again. That sick, nervous feeling crept back. And he decided to click on the first girl’s picture with his mouse, peering at her through his glasses.
He looked at the second girl.
He looked at two girls together.
“Daddy, what’re you watching?” someone asked.
To Aidan’s surprise, his daughter Indie stood right behind him.
“I’m sorry,” he said, trying to click off of the screen that only produced more explicit and graphic pop ups. “What do you need, baby girl?”
“I just wanted some water.”
He didn’t know what to do.
“Indie, is that you?” he heard Reina say from the other room. “What time is it? You’re supposed to be sleeping.”
Aidan kept clicking, but the pop ups wouldn’t stop. Right as he was about to slam the computer shut, Reina walked into the room. She saw the screen.
“How could you?” his wife asked.
He didn’t know what to say.
“Ade, how could you do this?”
Aidan hung his head. He looked at Indie, who kept glancing back and forth between them with a sad and confused look on her little face.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know …”
He tried to explain. But each time, it made the situation worse. And each time, Reina grew more and more upset.
“How about I sleep at Cal’s house tonight?” Aidan finally said. “Let’s talk more tomorrow.”
He grabbed his clothes, flipped off the lights and headed out into the dark.
Aidan knocked on Cal’s door.
He must’ve been fast asleep, because it took a few more knocks before his friend appeared wearing his usual slippers, white long johns and that hideous fur coat.
“Ade, what’re you doing here?” Cal asked. “And where’s your jacket? It must be 10 degrees outside.”
“We had a fight,” Aidan said. “Can I crash here?”
Cal let him inside their house and down to his man cave. Then his friend tossed a log onto a dying fire that now only glowed with a few embers. Cal lit his briar pipe and poured a pint of beer for both of them. His fiery-red beard looked extra bright next to the flames.
“What the hell is this?” Aidan asked, taking the opportunity to whip out another cigarette.
“My home brew. It’s a winter ale. Just finished the batch.”
Aidan rolled his eyes. “Why am I not surprised?”
“There’s a smile. Come on, bro, tell me what happened with you and Reina.”
Aidan took off his glasses and hung his head in his tired hands, listening to the fire crackle as he pulled on his black hair.
“She caught me looking at porn,” he said. “Indie, too.”
Cal sighed. “I’m sorry, bro.”
“I didn’t think it’d be that big of a deal,” Aidan said. “The girls are 18, so they’re legal. And again, it’s not like I’m hurting anyone. Well, maybe Reina. Her ex had a history with child porn, so I know she hates it. And then there’s Indie. God, the way she looked at me with her little eyes still burns my head.”
For a while, Aidan just stared into the fire. Then he looked at Cal. “But you wouldn’t understand. You’re a Christian.”
Cal took another swig of beer.
“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean I’m perfect, Ade. That’s what I was trying to tell you the other day. I used to look at porn all the time. Started before we got married. At first, I thought it’d get better with marriage. And it did. For a while. But I started wanting it again. And before I knew it, I was sneaking out of bed — after we had sex — to look at porn. It’s an addiction, bro. Fucking slavery.”
Aidan shook his head. “I don’t believe you. You guys always seem so good together.”
“I’m serious, bro,” Cal said. “One day my wife actually caught me. Almost killed our marriage. I realized that it doesn’t matter if you’re a pimp selling girls or just a guy who likes to look at them. We’re all fucked up. We’re all part of this problem. The question is — do you even give a shit?”
For a while, Aidan didn’t say anything. He just stared at the embers, watching as Cal stoked the fire. Then he shook his head again.
“I don’t believe that, Cal. There’s a huge difference between me and those guys. I mean, I wasn’t out there screwing some underage girl …”
Cal stood up and interrupted him.
“You’re still missing the point, Ade. Think about those girls we tried talking to at school for our story. Most of them were 17, right? But those girls your wife caught you looking at are just 18. Why does a year somehow make it suddenly right for you to look at them, even if it is technically legal? Sure, they’re just images, but there’s a real girl behind the computer screen — somebody’s daughter.”
Aidan groaned. “I feel like shit.”
“It’s called being human bro,” Cal said. “You’re not the first person to struggle with this. In fact, you could be any guy. But I can help you. I’ve been through this before with my wife. Just give her time.”
Cal poured Aidan some more beer.
“Maybe this’ll cheer you up,” he said. “Then let’s get some sleep. We’ve got a huge story to finish.”
We’ve got a huge story to finish. I’d like each one of you to remember those words as you leave here tonight. No matter who you are, each one of you can join the true story against modern slavery. You can become either part of the solution or part of the problem.
The only question is, what will be your role in that story?