Savannah Sanders had the full attention of law enforcement and victims’ advocates at the Northern Arizona Anti-Sex Trafficking Summit in Flagstaff on Wednesday.
“I was groomed for trafficking when I was 6-years-old,” she said.
The event, which continues today at the Museum of Northern Arizona, brought experts and survivors seeking to educate people on the signs and prevalence of sex trafficking in Arizona.
Sanders shared her personal experience dealing with sex trafficking, which started when she was raped by a family member at 6. She said the sexual assault groomed her to be a victim of sex-trafficking by the time she was 16.
“I was broken down by sexual abuse so by the time I was 16 I didn’t need anyone to beat me up or drug me to make me a victim of sex trafficking.”
Sanders was then sold to a pimp, where she was forced into multiple abusive situations for eight months. She said that by the time she was 18 she had “17 different abusers.”
Since 2007, there have been more than 2,000 calls to Arizona authorities reporting victims of human trafficking. Of those, 621 are categorized as high-risk victims of sex trafficking, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
The majority of sex trafficking victims are addicts, homeless and young, with most victims being forced into sex trafficking at the median age of 14, according to Arizona State University sex traffic intervention research.
Sanders was no exception as she was a teenager who had started using meth and was living with a friend.
Michael Russo, Chandler police detective for the department’s Vice and Human Trafficking Unit, said that human trafficking occurs every day in Arizona and affects everyone.
“This is one of the most underreported crimes in Arizona. It is happening here in northern Arizona and the rest of the state every single day,” Russo said. “It affects all races and socioeconomic classes.”
Sanders said that years of sexual abuse made her unable to distinguish dangerous people in her life. She referred to a person’s ability to understand bad situations as a “creeper box,” which she said would have helped her avoid the people who sold her into sex trafficking.
“When you are born you have a creeper box or an instinct that tells you when someone is bad,” Sanders said. “When you experience abuse like I did that box gets broken.”
Sarah Way, a social worker for the Family Advocacy Center, said most sex trafficking victims don’t identify as such.
“We serve a large population of victims that don’t want to be served,” Way said. “I hate the idea of the ‘rescue myth’ -- a lot of these women don’t want to be rescued because years of abuse have put them in a situation where they have a sense of loyalty and love for their abuser.”
Way described a toxic cocktail of emotions and experiences for a victim’s abuser that makes the victim stay.
“Stockholm Syndrome is a real phenomenon here,” Way said. “They use emotions like fear, trauma and shame to pervert a relationship and create a perfect storm for loyalty.”
Despite years of childhood abuse, Sander’s parents were never abusive to her. She said her parents trusted the wrong people and were uneducated about the signs.
“My mother was fearful of people hurting me so she relied on her family, not knowing that it was her family that was abusing me,” Sanders said. “She didn’t know the signs of abuse and I was not in the place to tell her I was being abused.”
She also stated that if her father had been educated on the signs of abuse he would have been her champion.
Sanders said the key to preventing sex trafficking is families catching early signs of any kind of abuse because traffickers and victims deal with abuses that create their situations.
“We can prevent trafficking by creating healthy families that prevent buyers from becoming buyers, traffickers from becoming traffickers and victims from becoming victims,” Sanders said.
She went on to say that you can do this by tracking signs of sexual abuse in friends and family.
According to the Arizona Governor’s Office of Youth, Faith and Family, indicators of possible prostitution or sex trafficking are couch surfing, changes in dress, uncharacteristically promiscuous behavior, physical abuse, diagnosed sexually transmitted diseases, gang affiliation and presence or reference to a much older boyfriend.
The Flagstaff Summit continues today at the Museum of Northern Arizona from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.