March 11, 2013 10:01:17 AM
The first time 19-year-old Shamere McKenzie walked into a strip club, she made $300 within five minutes.
She didn't even have to take off her clothes. Just like that, any reservations she had quickly fell away.
All she was there to do was dance, she thought, make some money to help with her college expenses and go home.
And she did, a couple times.
McKenzie was a member of the track and field team at St. John's University in New York, lost her athletic scholarship after pulling a hamstring.
Desperate to find some way to continue her studies, the native of Jamaica turned to a friend for advice.
Although she had not known him long, she had developed a close relationship with the male friend.
McKenzie recounted her story at the Foster Ballroom on the Mississippi State University campus last week as part of a campaign on university campuses throughout the country to raise awareness of sexual slavery/human trafficking.
Although her friend wasn't quite her type, she felt he wouldn't suggest anything that would put her in danger, she said.
"He was a little flashy for me, but we had intelligent conversations," McKenzie said. "I trusted him."
Spunky and strong-willed, she stubbornly resisted the idea the first few times dancing for money was brought up, but as her funds got lower, her curiosity grew.
The money was good, really good, she had to admit. And, again, McKenzie hadn't even showed any part of her body that wouldn't be visible in a bathing suit, so despite the seediness of the strip club, McKenzie felt innocent.
Then one night, a customer asked McKenzie to perform oral sex on him.
'"Who do you think you are?' I told him. I was waving my finger all in his face and shouting," she said. "That was not what I was there for."
McKenzie's friend, the one who encouraged her to dance, was at the club that night and saw the commotion.
After McKenzie explained the situation, he told her to do what the customer asked.
McKenzie was floored. She began yelling at the man, someone she had considered a friend just moments before, and told him she was leaving.
That was the first time he hit her.
Years of bondage
What followed were several years of both mental and physical torture. Beaten to near death dozens of times, her captor would often immediately apologize and seem remorseful.
The man forced McKenzie to tell her mother that he was her boyfriend and was taking care of her.
Instead, the man was selling McKenzie and other girls -- in the strip clubs, on the streets, at private parties -- and keeping the money from the sexual services they performed on strangers.
McKenzie ran away three times and three times, she came back.
"He was controlling me through fear," she said. "When he would threaten my family, I would always come back."
McKenzie's nightmare ended with the beginning of a new one.
In 2007, McKenzie and the car full of girls she was driving was pulled over and searched. The girls were arrested on various prostitution charges. McKenzie, dubbed the head prostitute by investigators, was convicted on a charge of transferring a minor across state lines after it was revealed that one of the girls in the car was just 12 years old.
McKenzie's story is a common one, the names and places are always different but the reason is the same: Sex sells, and there are people out there profiting from it in big ways.
Human-trafficking, for labor or sex, is a booming $32 billion industry, and it is estimated that nearly 27 million people are currently enslaved worldwide.
Second only to drug trafficking, slavery is becoming an increasingly visible epidemic as the effects from its strangle hold on United States' soil become more evident with research.
It has remained hidden from public view for many years, with scant funding to fight the real perpetrators and federal and state laws -- especially in the prostitution realm -- that punish the victim.
The issue has festered long enough, many believe.
MUW joins fight
Amber Shoffner is convinced something must change.
Shoffner is a student at the Mississippi University for Women and president of the university's International Justice Mission chapter. IJM is a human rights organization that works to rescue victims of travesties such as human-trafficking and sexual exploitation.
She completed the requirements for founding the MUW chapter just a couple of weeks ago. Thursday, the chapter held its first awareness campaign, Stand for Freedom.
The organization joined 500 other university chapters across the nation and had members stand in shifts for 27 straight hours to honor the estimated 27-million people who still enslaved.
More than 100 students, faculty and staff participated in the event.
"Honestly before a couple years ago, I wasn't aware this even existed," Shoffner says. "I definitely didn't think it was as big of a problem as it is."
Shoffner thinks that is how many people think of modern-day slavery. They recognize that it's real, but assume it is a real problem only in poor foreign countries.
"For me, I could hear statistics all day long but I have to remind myself that these 27 million people are real individuals and one of them could live right here in Columbus," she says. "We aren't just doing this to help a number."
In February, Mississippi's human trafficking laws were amended, after some convincing from the state Attorney General's office and Kimberly Buck, a Democrat from Jackson, who introduced the bill in the House.
The amendments to the bill, which passed out of both the Senate and House in early February, are aimed at protecting victims by more clearly defining those involved and their roles in the act, as well as hefty fines, up to $1 million, for any businesses associated with the trade.
There was also an amendment that directs money collected from fines be moved to a victims' fund.
This move says a lot about the changing perceptions of the frighteningly common crime and how it is changing in Mississippi and across the United States. It starts with awareness.
Because of people such Shoffner and McKenzie that awareness will continue to grow.