Little girls do not grow up wanting to be prostitutes. And yet, that is what we call them. Please don’t use that label. Say they are trafficked or prostituted, but if you don’t know their story, don’t define them.

In 17 years of working with prostituted women, Reaching Above Hopelessness and Brokenness, Inc. (RAHAB Ministries) has seen that many of those who come into our programs were first sold for sex at around 12 to 14 years old. And nearly all, if not all, of the sex trafficking survivors RAHAB serves were sexually abused as children.

Children who are taught from a young age that their bodies are commodities grow up to be adults who don’t see themselves as anything more than something to be sold.

Sometimes I’m asked what is the difference between prostitution and sex trafficking. When I worked in law enforcement, I’d be asked how someone was “held against their will,” as if that were the standard for determining the difference between whether someone is a prostitute or a sex trafficking victim.

But that is neither the legal definition, nor the reality.

Under federal law, any child engaged in a commercial sex act is a victim of sex trafficking, and any adult induced through force, fraud or coercion is a victim.

Traffickers rarely hold someone “against their will.” Instead, they conform the will of those they traffic to their own. If traffickers snatched children from shopping carts and women from the street, they’d be much easier to catch. Do not succumb to those viral social media myths. In 10 years as an FBI agent, I never saw a single one of them pan out as truth.

Sex traffickers rarely kidnap victims and smuggle them off to faraway places. Movement is not even part of the definition of trafficking.

The truth is that people are both recruited and sold right in our midst, in their home communities. Sometimes traffickers move those under their control to other places, and sometimes they remain right under our noses.

Traffickers methodically groom those who are susceptible. They identify vulnerabilities and wield evil’s primary weapon — deception — to gradually take children, women and sometimes even men, captive to their whims. They pretend to be a savior, a solution to a need in a vulnerable person’s life.

Bonding with trafficker

For someone who already has been taught their worth lies in their sexuality, for someone who became sexualized at too early of an age by a type of touching that shouldn’t have been, for someone who longs for someone to simply see them, a trafficker simply needs to pay them attention, to offer a counterfeit version of love, to lavish gifts and attention.

By the time that relationship degrades to the violence and physical restraint that typifies stereotypes about trafficking, the person being trafficked has trauma bonded to the trafficker and been trained that those who can help are the enemy. No one is calling 911 in those instances, and there is no easy evidence trail that allows law enforcement to take out the traffickers.

Only one thing can counteract the traffickers’ false version of love. It’s the real thing. Consistent love that asks for nothing in return, gradually and routinely provided over the course of time, eventually can trump the traffickers’ counterfeit version. Even more than convictions of traffickers in the judicial system, this brings the freedom survivors of sex trafficking desire.

At RAHAB, I say our people are our programming. We have drop-in centers and safe houses. Those structures are important, but it is our people, our staff and more than 100 key volunteers, who make all the difference. By truly seeing people, by recognizing someone is not “just a prostitute” but a unique person with more potential than they know, and offering authentic love, they are helping people realize the truth of their value.

Join them.

Don’t label. See the people around you. Something as simple as a smile, without judgment of circumstances you don’t understand, could be all someone needs to live another day. And tomorrow, if we all act in this way, maybe they will encounter another kindness, until eventually they see the truth of their value and find the strength to fulfill their own calling and destiny.

No little girl grows up wanting to be a prostitute. Together, we can ensure each of them has hope of something different.