Sex Trafficking in South Central Wisconsin — What Does it Look Like and How to Help Stop It

January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, and Hope House would like to take the opportunity to discuss sex trafficking and the fact that occurs not only in all 5 counties we serve, but throughout Wisconsin.

What is sex trafficking and what does it look like in Wisconsin?

Sex trafficking is different from sex work. Sex workers enter the industry willingly. However, sex trafficking involves force, coercion, or deceit — it affects the victim’s human rights. Sex work is criminalized in all but one state, so both sex workers and trafficking victims can be arrested and prosecuted; even when participating in an act against their will. Some states have laws to try and prevent that from happening, but the truth is that the stigma around sex trafficking can often make the situation seem like more “grey area” than it is.

This isn’t just a big city problem. Hope House’s service area covers a heavily-utilized sex trafficking corridor: the I90/I94 interstate that connects Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison-Minneapolis. This area is ripe for trafficking involvement, with its proximity to the corridor, the seasonal workers, J1 students, and the large hospitality and tourism industry. While you may hear about major busts on the news, trafficking is an everyday occurrence, and to be “successful” it is often small. The perpetrator is likely someone the victim trusted: a friend, a partner, or a family member. They can also be a person who gained control over the victim by using their citizenship status, their finances, a physical dependency, or an addiction.

The signs someone is being trafficked are not always obvious. While occasionally people are physically abused or branded, more often the victims won’t have ID, personal items, money, or access to money. Victims are often with someone who is controlling the situation, including where they go or who they talk to; they might appear to be homeless or not have a permanent residence. Not all these signs are present in every trafficking situation, and the presence or absence of any of these signs is not necessarily proof of trafficking — which is one of the many reasons it is so difficult to prosecute.

Please remember to never attempt to confront a suspected trafficker directly or alert a victim to your suspicions. Safety is most important. If you suspect trafficking is taking place, call your local law enforcement.

What is Hope House Doing to Help?

Anyone who is a victim of trafficking is welcome to call Hope House to receive free and confidential services. Though services look a little different during the pandemic, they can range from supportive counseling to legal advocacy to connection to community resources or emergency housing, and more.

Not every county, much less every city, has a trafficking taskforce but Hope House has a dedicated Human Trafficking Advocate. In our area, Hope House is able to work with local law enforcement to help them identify trafficking victims, so that these victims can be helped rather than arrested and prosecuted when law enforcement encounters them.

If you need help please contact Hope House toll free: 800–584–6790, or call the National Human Trafficking Hotline: 888–373–7888. If it is safer for you to text, that number is 233733.

Additional information and facts on this topic can be found on the Wisconsin Department of Justice website: doj.state.wi.us/ocvs/human-trafficking and the Human Trafficking Hotline website: humantraffickinghotline.org

Sarah Yanke
Human Trafficking Advocate
Hope House of South Central Wisconsin

Hope House of South Central Wisconsin’s mission is to prevent abuse and provide support ​to victims of domestic and sexual violence.