What I Experienced Was Sex Trafficking
As a young runaway in the midwest region of the country, Windie Lazenko was vulnerable on a number of levels.
“I had all the red flags that would leave me open to predators,” she said. “But, at that time, we were barely dealing with the idea of sexual abuse, let alone the issue of human trafficking. There was just no awareness at all.”
Lazenko recalls being approached by an older girl — who, she realizes now, could not have been older than 16 — and being introduced to that girl’s “boyfriend.”
“I always put the term ‘boyfriend’ in quotation marks,” she said. “I don’t think that she would have even identified him as a pimp, but that’s what he was.”
One night, the man sold Lazenko to an older couple at a party.
“Because of the trauma that I had experienced as a child, I was sitting there thinking that I actually had a friend who would keep me safe,” she said. “Instead, it was like the cycle was just being repeated. For this to happen at a point in my life when I thought that I was getting out of my bad situation and that my life was going to be good, I thought, ‘I guess this is what’s going to happen to me. This is what I’m good for.’”
Lazenko says that night began a long cycle and that, in a way, she gave up for a while.
“In that moment, I gave up power and control over my body,” she said. “Even as a child, I knew that it wasn’t okay, that it hurt, that it was scary.”
Lazenko was officially on a long, rough journey, which thrust her into years of working in strip clubs and even dabbling in pornography.
“I was really thrown into the lifestyle,” she said. “I spent almost my entire early adulthood suffering from PTSD, suffering all the signs that someone would exhibit as a trauma victim. But no one understood it.”
After escaping the life she was still stuck in her 30s, Lazenko began working with the anti-trafficking movement. She has now spent about six years working with the movement and, while her work has healed others, it has also helped Lazenko heal herself.
“For the first years of my work, I didn’t even identify as a victim,” she said. “I didn’t realize that there were other people who had experienced what I did. I started to hear my story — girls who were getting ready to run away, had already runaway, were involved with older men and online pornography.”
As Lazenko researched and learned more about sexual exploitation and sex trafficking, she began to accept what had happened to her.
“What I experienced wasn’t just a really messed up situation. It’s not something I asked for. It’s not something that I wanted,” she said. “What I experienced was sex trafficking.”
We Help Girls Who are Interested in Exiting the Life
About two years ago, Lazenko says that she began hearing reports about the amount of trafficking that was supposedly happening in the North Dakota oil fields.
“It seemed a little too sensationalized,” she said, “but it sparked my interest in wanting to understand what was going on over here.” After working briefly in Miami, Lazenko decided that the time was right to make the long trip to North Dakota. “I realized that it would be a perfect time to move because I was in transition,” she said. “I expected to be here for a couple of weeks, just to do some investigating. I wanted to see if the issue of human trafficking was as bad as I was hearing.” What Lazenko found was, in fact, as bad as she had heard. She said that she was able to identify human trafficking signs almost immediately and found that the rate of trafficking in the area was incredibly high. “I went further into my investigation to find resources and found that there were absolutely no resources available,” she said. “So, I connected immediately with law enforcement and community members and just really felt like it was my time to leave everything behind and come invest in North Dakota.”
“They come in as this knight in shining armor, this Prince Charming, and then you wake up one day and, all of a sudden, they’re a monster,” Lazenko said. “If you think it’s too good to be true, it probably is. So walk away if a person is not healthy for you. Walk away.”
About five months ago, Lazenko established 4her North Dakota, the only provider of services for victims of sex trafficking in the entire state.
“We do outreach on all different levels,” she said. “We provide crisis response. Basically, what we do is meet girls with immediate needs, which might involve law enforcement or a hospital. We help girls who are interested in exiting the life of prostitution and sexual exploitation.”
The organization, which is currently based out of a church, provides hope to victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking while simultaneously empowering such victims and educating the community.
“The community shouldn’t treat those involved in trafficking as criminals, but as victims,” Lazenko said. “We need to increase awareness because we do have controlled prostitution — in other words, sex trafficking — here.”
Although there is no surefire answer, Lazenko believes that the money and number of men drawn to North Dakota by the Williston oil fields is partially to blame for the increase in sex trafficking in the area.
“I know that there are men here who are buying sex who never thought that they would, men who are vulnerable themselves, who are beaten down, who are away from their families and facing extreme living situations and loneliness. I’m not excusing it, but these pimps are smart,” she said. “They aren’t hoodlums coming in to make a little bit of money. This is organized crime. These are very intelligent people coming in and selling human beings.”
These Girls are Dealing with Human Brokenness
One of the most important things in the fight to end sex trafficking — in addition to education — is the empowerment of young women and girls.
“Young women need to know that posting half-naked photos of yourself on Facebook is not okay,” she said. “It’s not who you are and it’s not going to serve you in life. You’re inviting destruction and danger.”
According to Lazenko, the issue of pornography and the over-sexualization of women in society contributes to the rise in sex trafficking.
“It’s an irresponsible way to meet a need — a normal need for sex. But, when that’s been distorted and perverted, it’s just going to create a demand for people to meet that need,” she said. “Men have been brought into the lie that it’s okay or that these girls enjoy what they do, that they like it. We need to take that fantasy away.”
Victims of sex trafficking are able to recover and heal with the help of the community. For this reason, Lazenko typically focuses on her future instead of her tattered past.
“I focus on the ability to recover and thrive and succeed. It gives the girls that I work with hope and the community hope that, if they invest in the lives of these girls, recovery is possible,” she said. “Whether you want to call it a feminist movement or a women’s rights movement or a female empowerment movement, it’s about women understanding that they’re worth more than their bodies and their looks.”
Lazenko said that society also needs to realize who these girls are and what they have been through leading up to their experience in sex trafficking.
“These girls are dealing with human brokenness and trauma and drug addiction and all sorts of other things that put a girl into the position to have her mind and body victimized,” she said. “It’s so important to raise that awareness. All of the girls that I work with are somebody’s daughter, somebody’s sister.”
If you or someone you know is seeking refuge from sex trafficking in North Dakota, please contact: 4her North Dakota 406-844-0377
The National Human Trafficking Hotline 888-383-7888
For more information, visit: humantrafficking.org