Not For Sale

Sex Trafficking Happens Close to Home


Artists’ statement:

“Sex trafficking is a prevalent issue occurring all over Colorado, America, and the world. Our project aims to disturb and also to educate. Proverbs 31:8-9 says: ‘Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.’ In the photo series, the girls wore white shirts and the men wore red shirts to exemplify the contrast between purity and evil. The black paint symbolizes the permanent damage (physical and emotional) the men cause to the girls victimized by this terrible crime. The scenes were photographed in a motel room off Broadway. Motels are where sex trafficking takes place most often in America. We want to sincerely thank the models who brought the project to life: Amanda Brenner, Dani Comstock, DJ DeBonis, Jillian Johnson, Ian Macllwaine, Cyrus Pischel, and Arianna Young.”

–Ashton Phelps & Jordan Petteys 

There are more slaves in the world today than at any other time in human history. After drug trafficking, human trafficking ties with the illegal arms industry as the second largest criminal industry in the world. According to, a human trafficking prevention organization and website, human trafficking generates $32 billion annually, which is $7 billion more than McDonald’s revenue last year. Trafficking women and children for sexual exploitation is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world, despite the fact that slavery is entirely illegal in 134 out of the 196 countries across the globe. At least 27 million adults and 13 million children are bought and sold worldwide into commercial sexual servitude. 98% of all sex trafficking victims are women and girls. People hear about sex trafficking in impoverished nations around the world, but sex trafficking often goes unnoticed in the United States. Citizens are oblivious to its prevalence in their own community. However, sex trafficking has been reported in all 50 states and there are 300,000 exploited victims in the U.S. every year. According to ABC 7 News, Denver is among the top four cities in the nation for sex trafficking because of major highways I-25 and I-70, which grant traffickers direct access to the entire country. This organized crime is drastically increasing with little opposition from the community. It thrives underground, so those affected by the trade have no voice.

Sex trafficking is forced prostitution. A vulnerable person of any age is forced or lured by false promises into exchanging sex for money, cash which the victims rarely get to keep for themselves. The man in control of the prostitute’s arrangements and clients is called a pimp or trafficker. The pimp is the person who actually sees the profit of the trade, not the slave. Devastatingly enough, the victim may not even recognize they are a part of the trade until it is too late to escape. Victims are abducted or lured by traffickers and routinely raped by 15-20 men a night. They are beaten into submission by their pimp and often drugged to the point of having no control over their body or mind.

Many of these young girls are seduced into the trade because they are vulnerable and willing to open up to anyone offering jobs or love. Traffickers, at first, shower the girls with affection, making them feel wanted and loved. After earning the trust of these young girls, pimps force them into the trade, taking advantage of how defenseless and lonely they are. They are kidnapped and transported to different locations, therefore being robbed of all that is familiar to them, and left confused and powerless. Some are even sold into the trade by their own family members or significant other. A recent study found that 54% of the recruiters, men who abduct the girls, are strangers. 46%of the recruiters are known to the victims. Many times the victims are explicitly photographed and linked to sex trafficking websites on the “dark web” to be sold based on age, virginity and attractiveness. This emergence of the Internet allows the sale of the slave to be executed with ease, discretion, and convenience for the buyer. Unlike selling a drug, the girl or boy is “reusable.” According to a website called Think Progress, the U.S. government spends 300 times more money each year to fight drug trafficking than it does to fight human trafficking.

There are very few organizations dedicated to rehabilitation for sex trafficking victims. In the event that girls are rescued from the trade in Colorado, they are sometimes referred to Hope Academy by the FBI Innocence Lost Task Force. Hope Academy was created due to the recognition that sex trafficking was prevalent in Denver and to provide treatment and care to the girls and facilitate their restoration. The director of Hope Academy, Sara Bratton, said that the school provides girls an individualized education based on academic need and teaches skills to assist them in re- entering an independent, healthy life. The girls also receive long-term mentors who continually support them in healing. Hope Academy emphasizes therapeutic activities, life skills, and Bible studies, all led by experienced volunteers and advocates.

The following is a combination of stories from the experiences of  Hope Academy students, which illustrate the tragedy of the trade. The names in the story have been changed to protect their identities.

“I became one of the countless numbers of girls who have been in the clutches of sex trafficking…and it’s forever changed my life. You see, I thought he really loved me. He told me how beautiful I was. He was attentive and always made me feel important. He bought me gifts — beautiful clothes and jewelry. And when he told me we’d be together forever, I believed him. Funny thing, I was raised in Highlands Ranch. This doesn’t happen to girls like me. We lived in a safe, pretty cul-de-sac. My dad works in the Tech Center. My mom stays at home with us. My family is the perfect Christmas card family.

When I met him at Starbucks, he said he was on summer break from college. He was doing an internship with a Fortune 500 Company. It was exciting. I just had finished my sophomore year in high school and I was 16. And here he was. An older guy, here for the summer from college…and he thought I was pretty. He went to church with us. He came over for birthday dinners. He went to my little sister’s soccer games. We dated for almost a year. Until one day, he took me to see his ‘cousins’ who had just moved into town. I didn’t know that they weren’t his cousins. We went into the house and were just hanging out. Then he took me into his ‘cousin’s’ bedroom. We were just making out like we did sometimes. He was my greatest love. Nothing major. He told me that now we were going to solidify our relationship. It was time and I needed to stop being an innocent baby. 

The next thing I knew, he was raping me. I tried to fight back. And then his ‘cousins’ raped me. They had videotaped all of it, and he told me that now I was ‘HIS’. He told me that now I was going to earn back all of the money he spent dating me. And if I didn’t, he was going to show the video to my parents. He knew they’d be disappointed in me. And, if I told anyone about it, he would rape my sisters.

And so it began. After school, I told my parents that I was at my best friend Katie’s house, studying or working on projects. My parents trusted me. But I was never doing that. Instead, I was having sex with guys who were my dad’s age. Guys who were married. They had good jobs. They showed up in suits and they had kids. Daughters and sons who are my age. Sometimes, I would see one of them at church. I wanted to throw up. But I couldn’t do anything, because I knew he would show my parents the video. Or worse, he would hurt my sisters. And so, I stayed. Because I loved him. Because I feared him. Because I was ashamed and humiliated.

That’s when my friend Katie told my parents that she was worried about me. They didn’t know exactly what to do, but they knew they had to do something. They called the FBI and somebody there started looking online at a website called Backpage and they found my ‘ads’. They set up a date with me and when the undercover agent came in, they rescued me.”

 Photos by Jordan Petteys