The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

October 13, 2012

Fight against sex slavery began with a walk down street

The Back Porch

By Nerissa Young

FOREST HILL — She walked the streets so women and girls wouldn’t have to.

“What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” is often the first question international human trafficking consultant Lauran Bethell gets asked.

Her answer is long, spread across two decades and most continents of the world. It’s traveling 100,000 to 110,000 miles a year. But it began simple enough when she was a reluctant young missionary attending language school in Thailand.

Bethell grew up the oldest child and only daughter of a Baptist minister in the lush San Joaquin Valley of central California. She went to college and got her degree in education and began a career teaching school.

But those exotic locales she’d read about in National Geographic drew her away from the U.S.

She felt called to be a missionary. “I didn’t have any peace doing anything else.” So she attended seminary and left for China to teach English. When she recovered from an unexpected health crisis, the door had closed to China.

Instead, she was sent to Bangkok, Thailand, to teach in a boarding school. But first, she had to attend language school. And that, she said, is where her story really began.

She walked Patpong Avenue to get to language classes. This infamous red light district gained prominence during the Vietnam War when American GIs patronized the businesses. While on her way, Bethell said, she told God that he should do something about the rampant exploitation she witnessed on a daily basis.

“I was listening for the answer to the question of why are you here?” she said, referring to the women working as prostitutes.

Deciding that she was far more interested in what anyone was doing about Patpong Avenue instead of language school, she cut class once a week and built a network of people who shared her vision of eliminating sex slavery.

Bethell’s experiences include working with young girls to give them educational and vocational skills so they don’t have to enter prostitution to support their families. They include working with families and police officers to get women and children out of brothels. They include meeting women in bars to pray with them and offering hot coffee in midwinter to scantily clad women of the streets.

Human trafficking is the exploitation of vulnerability, she said, and the three main vulnerabilities are economic, sexual victimization and grooming.

In some cultures, women are taught that it is their duty to sacrifice themselves and their lives to provide for their families. The women use the resource of their bodies to send money home to care for parents and siblings.

Two-thirds to 90 percent of women who are trafficked were victims of childhood sexual abuse.

“Women sometimes do become addicted to a man,” Bethell said of the grooming vulnerability. A man showers a woman with attention and promises, and she becomes willing to leave everything to follow him.

She said Sweden has the lowest rate of human trafficking of any country because its authorities prosecute the pimps and johns, not the prostitutes. Swedish opinions are mixed on the laws, according to an article posted at

That approach certainly seems to warrant further study. It is redundant and inappropriate to punish the victims of a crime instead of the perpetrators.

A person doesn’t need religious convictions to know that enslaving another human being — for whatever reason — is wrong. Nor does a person have to become a missionary to change the world.

All it takes is a walk down the street and an open mind to wonder what if.

— Young is a Register-Herald columnist. E-mail:

© 2012 by Nerissa Young