Hiding In Plain Sight:  Rebecca Dunning's Awareness Story

Pattaya, Thailand 2001

I’d never heard the term human trafficking. Few talked about modern-day slavery and certainly not in ways that displayed the underbelly of such a practice. I had no idea that it involves 27 million souls worldwide, more than the entire 400 years of the transatlantic slave trade combined, if you can believe it. 

It was July 2001 and my husband, Clint, and I were invited to be part of a team to serve the missionaries our church had sent out to various places in the world. Scores of us descended on Pattaya, Thailand, which is an hour bus ride north of Bangkok, to stay at a four-star resort on the Gulf of Thailand. We were there to love on friends, serving in hard places and debrief from our 10-day trip to Delhi, India. After enjoying the luxuries offered at the buffets, beach, and swimming pools, we decided to catch a taxi and do some shopping in the markets downtown.

While walking around haggling for knock-off products and other touristy items, we grew tired of being assaulted on all sides by young women urging us to come in for massages. We commented in passing to each other that perhaps the women were really selling sexual favors, but still had no idea that we were in a red light district famous for offering young women for sexual exploration. 

Yet we began to clue in when we saw American and European men, two or three times the age of these young, beautiful women, out and about shopping as if they were on a date. 

After asking a few missionaries about it, we were filled in on the horrendous activity going on. Both of us were appalled that America – in all of her wealth – was heaping depravity on the shores of a nation with so much poverty. Little did we know that it was happening in our very own city back home every single day. 

It was on that day an image was forevermore frozen in our minds. We took our two young children to a McDonalds to check out how the Thai would serve up a Big Mac and some fries. Across the restaurant, we saw a young girl receiving her lunch in the form of a happy meal from her “date.” This young girl was so excited about the toy prize inside that she was jumping up and down in her provocative woman’s gown, giggling with delight.

Healing the Heart

It took all I had to restrain myself from physically attacking the man who had purchased that precious girl and her meal. 

I knew the stereotypes and what media had taught me, even though I’d been raised among women and a couple of men who had been “living the life,” some of them close friends. At the time, I thought that people chose prostitution through a series of unfortunate events, bad choices, and horrible taste in men. Sure, I thought that poverty and bad childhoods had something to do with it for many.

However, all of the women I’d known in the US in the sex industry growing up (ex-porn stars, and women who had been prostituted via escort services and working the street) seemed to be independent and willing, seemingly enjoying it or at least doing it to feed their drug habit. I didn’t realize that almost every single person being prostituted had been abused at young ages; many being in the foster care system and lured by “Daddy-Boyfriends” into a world that devoured them the second they slipped a toe into its murky waters.

I’m ashamed to admit I knew so little of what was going on when it had been hiding in plain sight my entire life.

I didn’t see the false bravado that was necessary just to get through another day or that the boyfriend was acting as both the abusive and “loving” pimp.  The fact is that as many as 2.8 million children run away (or are lured) each year in the US. Within 48 hours of hitting the streets, one-third are lured or recruited into the underground world of prostitution and pornography, with the average age being 12-14 for girls and 11-13 for boys.

Breaking Through My Stereotypes

Despite my naivety in 2001, that McDonalds experience was a moment of awakening where I was forever changed. By 2004 terms like ‘social justice’ and ‘human trafficking’ began to swirl in the conversations of all of us 20-somethings. Statistics rolled off people’s tongues in almost any conversation as awareness campaigns began.

Various organizations like Love146 and Stop the Traffic were beginning to bring awareness, and Clint and I began to devour the materials, watch the documentaries, and read books. Bono became our hero and we began to pray.

I had always prayed about injustice from my youngest memories. Before I began to follow Jesus, I would weep and cry out for God to help people that I saw on television or read about. I’d always felt I’d been born in the wrong time period, fantasizing about being involved in women’s suffrage, marching peacefully with Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights movement or acting as a conductor in the Underground Railroad in the original abolitionist movement.

I was unaware that I would be presented with my own opportunity to be a voice for those who cannot speak for themselves right now in modern history.

We were involved in different awareness campaigns; selling goods made by people who’d formally been exploited and hosted events called Justice Speaks: Artists Collaborating to End Modern Day Slavery. We held them in public forums and they had a mishmash of art, music, spoken word, and other entertainment all focused around awareness about the atrocities of slavery, with the proceeds going to anti-human trafficking work.

Getting Trained

I trained in a few healing modalities, received certifications, and entered into an internship with a women with 20-plus years of experience, to learn about ministering to survivors of complex trauma. 

When I first began to meet with women, both to facilitate healing and learn from my mentor, I had to choke back sobs as I heard the details of their stories. One woman was owned by a biker gang and had been branded and tattooed as their property.

It’s an honor to be a safe place for them to share – sometimes for the first time – the details of their captivity and enslavement. 

This post was written by Rebecca Dunning, an Area Director with N2 Publishing. Stay tuned for more about Rebecca's work with exploited women.