Even though Annie Perkins, founder of Unlock Freedom, had a heart for missions work, she had no idea that God would be using her to combat the growing threat of human trafficking in the United States. Read how she began her journey to educate America’s youth (and their parents) on the dangers of sex trafficking.
4word: Why did you start Unlock Freedom? Where did your passion to educate against sex trafficking come from?
Annie: In early 2012, I was asked to participate in a mission trip to Belgium to work alongside missionaries doing work in the red-light districts. In preparation for that trip, our team began to educate ourselves on the issue of human trafficking. During that six-month period of time, God completely broke my heart about the atrocities being endured by victims of human trafficking around the globe. But it wasn’t until I began to learn that this issue was happening here in America, and affecting our children, that I was set on a mission. I am passionate about young people and have worked with youth off and on for fifteen years. As I started to understand that our youth are being purposefully targeted, manipulated, and forced into situations of sexual exploitation, I knew I had to do something. I was a stay-at-home mom at the time, doing writing on the side, and it was as if God plucked me out of the normalcy of my life and set me on a mission.
4word: Is sex trafficking something we need to worry about here in America?
Annie: I would say sex trafficking is something we need to be aware of and educated about here in America. It is the fastest-growing crime in the United States and is second only to drug smuggling in criminal activity. However, in parts of our country it has already surpassed the drug trade, because it is more profitable and less risky. When a person is trafficking human beings, as opposed to drugs, their “product” can be sold over and over again without them ever having to purchase more “product.”
The majority of trafficking reported in the United States is for commercial sexual exploitation (through prostitution, pornography, or exotic dancing), and the majority of these victims are American citizens. The average age a person in the U.S. is first trafficked is thirteen years old, and there are hundreds of thousands of American young people being trafficked for sex every year in our country. So yes, we have to raise awareness about this issue because it is hidden in plain sight of a society that doesn’t truly understand its existence, while the most vulnerable among us are being targeted – our youth.
Contrary to what many people imagine, sex trafficking in the United States most often happens through relationships. We have young people being sold for sex by guardians, siblings, or gangs in exchange for drugs. We have kids who are running away from home and ending up vulnerable to traffickers who pick them up off the streets, offer them food and shelter, and subsequently force them into prostitution to “earn their keep.” We have young people being forced and coerced into prostitution by romantic partners and young people who are recruiting and trafficking other young people. We have kids being targeted and falling in love with predators through online relationships. In fact, the internet is becoming the largest tool used in the recruitment process. Many kids in these situations are going to school during the day and going home at night and on weekends to be raped over and over again until they meet their quota. Some of them are transported around the country, and some are sold right out of their own backyards.
When we speak or train about sex trafficking, we always take a comprehensive approach. In any audience, including a school classroom, we have had to realize that we are not just talking to potential victims, but we are also talking to potential buyers and sellers of sex. If we don’t talk about the issues in our society that fuel demand as well as the issues that fuel vulnerability, then we aren’t utilizing our platform to the fullness of its potential. We live in a culture that sexualizes everything from automobiles to cheeseburgers and normalizes pornographic exploitation. So when we speak to youth about this issue, we talk about those things. We tell them they deserve to know the truth about pornography – that it is addictive and is fueling the sex industry. We tell them that we’re not just there because they’re the average age of targeted victims, but we’re there because we don’t believe we are wasting our time. We tell them we’re there because we believe in them and we believe they can change their world.
4word: What are sex trafficking warning signs parents, and children, should be on the lookout for?
Annie: I would say a few of the biggest warning signs for parents and youth are these:
- If someone is forming a relationship that seems to be pulling them away from friends and family
- If someone is forming a relationship which they are protective over and secretive about
- If someone is talking about a job opportunity, with vague details, that will require them to leave home or leave town
- If someone begins wearing expensive clothing or carrying expensive accessories that were gifts from a “friend” or “boyfriend”
- If someone begins running away from home or is planning to run away from home with someone they have formed a relationship with, either online or in-person
4word: If you think you’re a victim of sex trafficking, what should you do?
Annie: If you or someone you know is a victim of sex trafficking, then we would urge you to report in three different ways:
- Call your local law enforcement and state that you suspect “human trafficking.”
- If the suspected victim is a minor you can also call your local child welfare agency. In some states this is mandated. Again, be sure to state that you suspect “human trafficking.”
- Call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888. This number is housed by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, and they have relationships with the people in each state working to combat the issue and rescue victims.
We actually recommend that people report in all three ways to ensure follow-through.
4word: How can parents utilize your book “Pure and Simple: A teenager’s guide to going deeper with God” when discussing this topic with their children?
Annie: Pure and Simple came out of a project that our youth pastors asked me to work on for the youth at our church. It is a simple yet in-depth study on purity of heart, mind, speech, and body. We have a large group of kids that are bussed in to our youth group on Wednesday nights, so I wrote this study with those kids in mind. My goal was that the study would be straightforward enough for new Christians to understand, yet deep enough to challenge and enlighten kids who have grown up in the church. It is a short study which challenges young people to build their relationship with Christ from the inside out and emphasizes that each one of them was created for a purpose.
The passion within my heart is to emphatically express that each person has value and purpose. It is to challenge people to stand up against social norms that are detrimental to the health of our society and to truly grasp hold of their ability to create change and affect lives within their spheres of influence. Truly, this is our platform within a platform. When we speak to youth, as well as in our curriculum, we emphasize these things.
4word: How can 4word readers partner with and/or utilize Unlock Freedom?
Annie: We have many ways for people to get involved: getting the curriculum into your local schools, holding awareness events, spreading awareness through social media, etc. All are vital and important to combating this issue in our country. Readers can go to our website to request training, request a speaker, or to get more details about other ways they can help.
Additionally, people can partner financially with us to help further our reach. So many of the agencies and schools that need this education or training do not have extra funds in their budgets for programs like this. We go to as many places as we can and reach as many as we can reach for free, but we definitely need sponsorships and support. There is a broad spectrum of financial support opportunities listed on our website as well.
4word: Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
Annie: My view of God has grown dramatically since beginning Unlock Freedom. Never before have I experienced the fullness of His Word and the depth of who He is as I have over the past three and a half years. I have learned that He will accomplish His plans through us – we only have to be obedient and let Him take the lead. I have learned that God is absolutely in control of the Godless. I have learned that when He opens a door, no one can shut it. I am living proof of the verse written by Paul in Corinthians that says “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” (2 Co. 12:9)
If someone would have told me four years ago that I would be speaking to adults and young people about sex, pornography, abuse, etc., I would have thought you were crazy. I imagined that I would be writing and doing missions work somewhere in Africa. (It’s an amazing thing to watch God put the puzzle pieces of our lives together!) When God broke my heart for this issue and called me to start Unlock Freedom, it took me by complete surprise. A great friend at the time often said the phrase “do it afraid,” and that’s exactly what we’ve done. If God calls, then He will make the way. If God builds something, then He will sustain it. If God calls you, then He will equip you!
We hope that Annie’s interview has helped open your eyes to the increasing danger of human trafficking in the US. If you’d like more information on hosting an event, or financially supporting Unlock Freedom, please visit their website.
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Annie Perkins is a wife, mom of three, author, speaker, anti-trafficking advocate, missions fanatic, and passionate lover of Jesus. Annie is Co-Founder and CEO of Unlock Freedom, an anti-trafficking organization focused primarily on education for the sake of prevention and identification. She co-authored the nationally endorsed anti-trafficking student curriculum titled, Project #ITSTOPSWITHME. She is an active member of the Oklahoma Attorney Generals Human Trafficking Task Force, and she serves as the Co-Chair of the Education/Training subcommittee of the Tulsa Child Trafficking Task Force.
Annie is the author of Pure and Simple: A Teenager’s Guide to Going Deeper with God. She is passionate about encouraging others that there is always hope through Jesus Christ, that God loves them and desires relationship with them, and that God has purpose for their lives.