Sex trafficking video premieres in La Center

High school students hear story of Brianna, one of their own

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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LA CENTER — In a detached tone, Brianna, a fresh-faced and youthful-looking student, sketched a scene of lost innocence.

She was in Seattle on a whim to party with two older guys she barely knew. She'd lied to her parents, telling them she was at a girlfriend's house for the weekend.

The guys seemed nice enough, attractive, possibly wealthy. But she soon discovered their motives weren't merely impure, they were also likely criminal.

They told Brianna, who'd just turned 18, she could make a lot more money stripping than she could working her other job, waiting tables at a La Center restaurant.

This, she thought, was what adults do.

"The strip club was really loud and really dark — it smelled," Brianna said, recalling her first moments there. "Everything there was really sticky. It had germs on it."

The guys told her she could make a lot of money with her young looks. So why not get out of La Center? Why not head down to Phoenix, Ariz., and catch some sun?

Why not empty her bank account and hand it over? They'd take care of her.

In only a few days, the requests became increasingly unreasonable, and she realized something was wrong. What she didn't know until later was that she was on the brink of entering the sex trade world.

Brianna's brush with sex trafficking two years ago is documented in a video called "Chosen," which made its premiere Friday in front of more than 100 La Center High School students.

The 20-minute video, produced by the Vancouver-based nonprofit Shared Hope International, is meant to be an educational tool warning teens and others about the dangers of the sex trade.

In the video, another young woman details how a pimp groomed her as a young teenag

er. He bought her expensive gifts before eventually setting her loose at strip clubs in Portland.

Law enforcement officials consider the Interstate 5 corridor to be a major arterial for sex-trafficking operations, especially of underage girls.

Students from teacher Heather Grotte's women's studies class, who presented the video during Friday's assembly, said it was important for young people to know where predators congregate and how they groom their victims.

"You might think pimps are cool — like, they have lots of money and cars," senior Olivia Loreth, 19, said. "They get a lot of women because they're just that cool."

But there's a catch, she said: "That perception is wrong."

Sophomore Blake Nelson, 16, said some students were already familiar with Brianna's story — she's a La Center High School graduate, after all — but it's important to keep sharing it.

Former U.S. Rep. Linda Smith, the founder of Shared Hope International, says she wants the video to be another tool in fighting the rise of human trafficking.

So far, the nonprofit organization has shipped about 2,000 copies of the videos throughout the country. It will make its community premiere at the Kiggins Theatre at 6 p.m. Thursday.

Smith said more awareness of the realities of sex trafficking needs to be coupled with stronger state laws that punish Johns and pimps but protect victims.

Washington has been a leader in this.

It's one of a handful of states that has what's known as a "Safe Harbor" law, which redefines prostituted minors as victims who need social services rather than criminal records. The law removes underage prostitutes from criminal courts and diverts them into counseling programs or, if they're emancipated, long-term housing. The diversion programs are open only to first-time offenders, however.

Smith works with the state Legislature to strengthen laws used to prosecute people who exploit minors. In February, she testified on behalf of a Senate bill aimed to fill holes in current prostitution laws. The bill, which easily passed both chambers this spring and awaits Gov. Jay Inslee's signature, will toughen the definition of sex trafficking, making every minor who participates in a sex-for-money scheme the victim of trafficking.

The bill also makes soliciting a prostitute younger than 18 a felony rather than a misdemeanor.

"It simply says you don't get one pass buying sex from a kid," Smith said. "It may be the first time you were caught, but it probably wasn't the first time you did it."

In the two years since her ordeal, Brianna has rebounded. She often joins Smith to spread the word about the realities of sex trafficking, and she's enrolled in a nursing program at Clark College.