How Some Researchers Are Using Data Science To Fight Sex Trafficking

July 12, 2020

When Riana H. was 15 years old, she ran away from home. This was not a one-time incident for the willful teenager, who developed a habit of disappearing after her family moved from Austin, Tex., to California in 2010. Whenever Riana clashed with her mother over her restrictive house rules or curfew, she would take off for a few hours to hide out with her new friends.

It was not unusual, then, when Riana decided to run away one night after getting into another argument with her mother for missing curfew. This time, however, she reached out for help from the wrong person—an older man (we will call him J.) who had given her his phone number earlier that day. Though Riana was suspicious of J.’s interest in her, she felt she had run out of options: “It was cold and nighttime. I had nowhere else to go, so I ended up calling the number.”

J. offered to put Riana up in a hotel room for the night. On the way, he gave her a drug that made her feel lightheaded and woozy. Riana remembers the room being occupied by another teenage girl, who started taking pictures of her.

“It kind of felt like a dream. It was my first time doing drugs, so I was kind of out of it. I didn’t know what was going on,” Riana told me over the phone.

The next morning she woke up, disoriented, to J. knocking on her hotel room door. At first, he downplayed what had happened the previous night, refusing to answer any of Riana’s or the other girl’s questions about their current situation or their hazy memories of their encounters with J. It was not until a week and a half later that his intentions with the photographs were made clear: J. was a sex trafficker, and Riana was his next victim.

Human trafficking remains a vast yet largely hidden criminal industry that generated an estimated $32 billion annually in 2012; and sex trafficking, in particular, exploits roughly four million people around the world. Hearing people like Riana recount her own experiences as a sex-trafficking survivor in her sometimes shaky yet persistent voice can help many put a face to these numbers and ask hard questions: What will it take to end human trafficking? And how should people of faith respond to this injustice?

To read the full article by Isabelle Senchal on America Magazine: Click Here