Human Trafficking Survivor and Activist on Victims of "Victimless" Prostitution

Human Trafficking Survivor and Activist on Victims of "Victimless" Prostitution
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Ask Megan Lundstrom how she reacts to those who believe prostitution is a victimless crime and her response is as fierce as it is swift.

"That's totally uninformed, and it really gets my hackles up," says Lundstrom, the executive director of Greeley-based Free Our Girls, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of women and girls being trafficked or at risk of exploitation in northern Colorado.

This reaction is based on personal experience. "As a young adult and single mom, I was trafficked for about five years," she notes, adding that "I was arrested eleven times on prostitution charges, and on the arrest sheets — I will never forget this — there's a line where the officers are supposed to fill out if there was a victim. And on one of them, it said I had victimized society."

After a pause, she says, "I remember looking at that and thinking, 'I'm a single mom, and I'm stuck in something I don't know how to get out of. I don't even know if there's an option to get out, but everyone around me thinks I'm choosing to do this or choosing to hurt other people.' So prostitution is not a victimless crime. Women in prostitution have fatality rates that are forty to fifty times higher than the average woman. That's not victimless."

Free Our Girls recently made news because of its participation on June 7 in what the Larimer County Sheriff's Office dubbed "a human trafficking demand-reduction operation along the I-25 corridor between Wellington and Loveland" during which eight men were arrested and charged with patronizing a prostitute and soliciting for prostitution, both misdemeanors. In announcing the busts, which resulted in the seizure of $1,290, the LCSO also released the names of the accused:
Brian Cartmill, 59, Cheyenne, WY
Pablo Montez, 46, Westminster, CO
Kevin Ashford, 49, Ault, CO
William Ashmore, 43, Matheson, CO
Greg Henson, 62, Greeley, CO
Rick James, 27, Windsor, CO
Ian Trestrail, 29, Loveland, CO
Ben Myers, 41, Glendo, WY 
According to the sheriff's office, "The goal of a human trafficking demand-reduction operation is to ultimately deter those who would illegally patronize a prostitute, which in turn can lessen the abundance of prostitution activity in our community. It is known that prostitutes are often engaging in illegal activity on behalf of pimps or human traffickers, frequently against their will. Human trafficking regularly victimizes underage minors."

click to enlarge Megan Lundstrom is the executive director of Free Our Girls. - COURTESY OF MEGAN LUNDSTROM
Megan Lundstrom is the executive director of Free Our Girls.
Courtesy of Megan Lundstrom
As for the decision to proactively disseminate the identities of arrestees, the practice has a lengthy history in Colorado. During the early 2000s, the Denver Police Department broadcast a program known as Johns TV on a local public-access channel and subsequently created a website of the same name (the site is now dead). The DPD has also staged high-profile johns roundups, including a pair in 2012 that resulted in 29 arrests, and the Colorado Springs Police Department utilized similar tactics in 2015 and 2016.

The latter stirred controversy online, with critics arguing that such stings waste resources on what is essentially a moral crusade, while others feel the arrests and subsequent public shaming are a worthwhile way to fight human trafficking.

Count Lundstrom, who found her freedom from human trafficking in 2012, among the second group — and she comes armed with reams of data to back up her arguments.

"I'm a researcher [her firm is called Avery Research Consulting], and I use research- and evidence-based data," she points out. For example, "There's the recent report by an organization called Demand Abolition that surveyed something like 8,000 men across the United States, and what they found is that the number-one deterrent against men purchasing sex is the fear of exposure — the fear of arrest, the fear of losing their job because their employer finds out, or the fear of losing their marriage because their wife finds out. Demand reduction can be very helpful from that perspective."

Additionally, Lundstrom goes on, "I also look at economic models, and right now, sex traffickers have a .0000027 percent chance — that's five zeros — of being arrested on any particular act of sex trafficking, because the demand for commercial sex is so high. That's why it's absolutely imperative that we go after traffic. If we're only arresting traffickers, we're not really dealing with the consumption piece, and we're not going to see the end of trafficking."

On the subject of reforming prostitution laws, Lundstrom explains that "there are three main perspectives on how we address the issue. There's full criminalization, which is basically where we're at on the federal level — that it's illegal to purchase and sell sex in the United States. You have full decriminalization, which holds no one legally accountable, but it doesn't regulate prostitution. And there's legalization, where it becomes a regulated industry. But anytime you legalize something, there's an element of social acceptance and normalization of that behavior, just like has happened in Colorado with marijuana. And if prostitution becomes socially acceptable, that will likely increase instances of trafficking within the commercial sex trade. It's not as simple as legalize prostitution and trafficking goes away. There's going to be a black market, and that brings in trafficked people, including trafficked children."

As a result, Lundstrom favors "partial decriminalization, which goes after demand reduction and also prosecutes traffickers, but allows for services to be provided to those in the commercial sex trade."

Free Our Girls has been doing just that since 2017, after being founded three years earlier as a vehicle to raise awareness about human trafficking. Since then, in conjunction with its sister site, Getting Out of the Game, the organization serves dozens of exploited women locally and sends care packages to even more across the U.S.

Lundstrom hopes to accomplish even more thanks to a new home. She explains that Free Our Girls, which has been operating out of office space gifted by Greeley Vineyard Church, recently obtained a residence located at 1513 11th Avenue in Greeley that "we have affectionately named Sparrow's Landing. All of our services will be offered out of this house — hopefully residential programming in the future, too — including an expansion of our job program for survivors into a boutique on the first floor."

Sparrow's Landing Boutique is scheduled to celebrate its grand opening on July 5 and 6; click for more details. Proceeds from sales of used furniture, clothing and household items at the store will go toward programs such as a drop-in shelter and survivor support groups.

Some funding is also contributed by Larimer County, where Lundstrom has forged partnerships with multiple agencies — among them the district attorney's office, plus the divisions of youth services and child welfare. Her professional relationship with folks from the sheriff's office and these agencies "has been a very big piece of my healing from the trauma and mistrust when I was being trafficked. During my time of exploitation, a lot of the people identified in the community as helpers in a position of authority were my buyers. This was law enforcement, this was doctors, this was officials. They were exploiting me, but I was expected to reach out to these same people for help."

Now, Lundstrom feels she's been able to help such individuals "to understand these issues better. Officers are increasingly getting training and education that has helped them realize that whenever you arrest somebody for prostitution, their ability to get a job is diminished, and that many of them are dealing with substance abuse, homelessness, mental health issues. These are people who get identified as frequent fliers and are written off by everybody. But there's more to this story than meets the eye."

Culturally, she maintains, "we have the belief that most individuals in the commercial sex trade are there by choice. And I think it's really important to understand what constitutes true choice. If somebody has no other options, it's not the same as making a choice."

Click to access the Free Our Girls documents "Supply and Demand in the Sex Trade" and "From Problem to Solution: How Reducing Demand Reduces Sex Trafficking."
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
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