Human trafficking survivor speaks out on campus
Sex slavery survivor Shamere McKenzie came to speak at the Perkins Student Center Wednesday Nov. 18 to spread awareness of human sex trafficking in the United States.
“I was simply crossing the street, 21 years old, and I saw a car coming down that looked like a friend of mine,” McKenzie said. “My pimp stopped the car and introduced himself.”
McKenzie was a junior attending St. John’s University in New York on an athletic scholarship until she tore her hamstring. After feuding with her track coach, she gave up her scholarship and found herself short on tuition funds.
She said she had been conversing with the man who would become her pimp for several weeks, unaware of his true identity but never questioning his integrity.
“I want you guys to understand that while ‘throwaway kids’ and runaways are targets, traffickers don’t have a cookie-cutter approach to recruiting,” McKenzie said. “Pimps will recruit on Facebook nowadays. I even had a friend who was recruited at the mall.”
McKenzie recounted the details of the first of many nights during the 18-month period of her sex trafficking.
Thinking that she was being taken somewhere to “dance,” McKenzie said her pimp drove her to a house, paid the bouncers at the door and ushered her inside. After there were no takers for a lap dance, she said a man approached her for fellatio. Once McKenzie refused, she realized her life was in danger.
McKenzie said the pimp grabbed her by the throat and asked her, “You think you’re going to make it out of here alive?”
He beat her to the point of unconsciousness when they returned home—once she woke up, he apologized profusely and she believed his ploy, she said.
“When you are trafficked, you develop a compliant behavior,” McKenzie said. “Fear is what kept me enslaved for 18 months.”
She said studies have shown that the human brain doesn’t finish growing until around age 24 or 25, and therefore young people are prone to make irrational or dangerous decisions which legislators need to acknowledge.
Federal law recognized human trafficking as a problem in the year 2000, McKenzie said, and they also authorized the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which must be reauthorized every two years.
McKenzie was charged and held for three weeks in a federal prison, awaiting the allowance of help from her attorney. She is considered a felon and has to register as a sex offender considering the nature of her charges. Despite the extreme coercion she suffered at the hands of her pimp, McKenzie said the laws remain “black and white” on the matter as survivors of human trafficking are often arrested and charged.
Senior health behavioral science major Kayla Redmon said sex trafficking is not given the attention it should because it’s considered “taboo.”
“It’s something we don’t openly talk about enough,” Redmon said. “After I graduate I’d like to become a politician and change the laws behind the treatment of victims forced into sex trafficking.”
McKenzie has been working to provide educational opportunities to survivors of human trafficking as the CEO of the Sun Gate foundation since recently graduating with her degree in criminal justice.
“There’s a missing piece to the anti-sex trafficking movement,” McKenzie said. “The gap that’s missing is the access to education and employment. What’s next for survivors? To prevent re-trafficking.”
Junior Taylor Maurer, president of International Justice Mission at UD (IJM), said they were actively looking for a sex trafficking survivor when they found Shamere.
“We saw that Shamere was a college student, so we thought [her presentation] would be the most applicable to students,” Maurer said.
The event was largely successful, senior Jack McMahon, vice president of IJM, said.
“I think the event was great,” McMahon said. “We had more people than we thought. We were at 124 people after pulling out additional seats.”
McKenzie expressed her desire to help other people and students who are either currently in similar situations as hers and or to prevent others from being in her situation.
“You have the privilege and the opportunity to make changes in your community,” she said. “There is power in your voice, and you have to know that.”