The problem is getting worse as traffickers bring in immigrants to this country to work in brothels. Often, these women from Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries are brought here under false pretenses -- they are told they will be nannies or housekeepers. But when they get to the United States, they are forced into the sex trade and feel trapped. After all, they are in a foreign country where they have no contacts, don't speak the language and are broke.
When Raleigh police busted a brothel off of Lake Wheeler Road two weeks ago, they charged two Hispanic women with prostitution. But often women in these situations are victims who were forced into the sex trade.
"They come here, and they are tricked," said Annalisa Enrile of the USC School of Social Work. "Their papers are taken. They are told they must pay back money before they are given freedom."
The UNC Women's Center is hosting a conference on human trafficking. It's estimated that as many as 800,000 women and children are sold into sex slavery every year around the world. The U.S. State Department estimates that 17,000 of those victims cross American borders.
"I don't think the average person knows what a big problem it is," said Norma Hotalling, with the SAGE Project. "I don't think we know."
Norma Hotalling was bought and sold for sex starting at age 5. She finally got help and got out at 41. Now she runs a program in San Francisco to help other victims.
"That's when I changed," said Hotalling. "I was not going to be identified as just a prostitute, a dope fiend, just a criminal."
"Imagine having 20-30 men a day, what that does to your self-esteem and your spirit.," said Marisa Ugarte, of the Bilateral Safety Corrider Coalition.
Advocates say key is to make the victims feel like they can make the transition out of sex slavery safely.
"The mafia of traffickers bringing these women in is very violent," said Ugarte. "They don't care if a person dies."
Advocates for the women also say that the men who run these brothels need to be charged with federal crimes like human trafficking and racketeering. Otherwise, they get just a slap on the wrist in the state court system and simply move their operation somewhere else.
Under a law passed in 2000, the U.S. offers special protection to victims in these crimes, giving them help in everything from housing and employment to their immigration status.
Copyright 2023 by Capitol Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.