She Was Trafficked for Sex. Now, She’s Sharing Her Story.

May 28, 2019
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by Patrice Taddonio Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist

For almost four years, Marriah dreaded her phone ringing. 

“I remember putting my phone on airplane mode sometimes,” she says. “I would take the beating that came for that. I just couldn’t … I couldn’t do it again.”

Marriah is one of the sexual exploitation survivors featured in Sex Trafficking in America, a FRONTLINE documentary premiering May 28. Through the stories of young American women who have been coerced into prostitution and a police unit that’s fighting back, the film shows that sex trafficking isn’t just a problem in other countries — and that often, sexual exploitation is a crime that’s hidden in plain sight. 

In the above scene, Marriah describes the power that her traffickers had over her.

“They mentally trap you way more than physically,” Marriah says as she braids the hair of another young woman at the Phoenix Dream Center in Arizona, which specializes in caring for survivors of sex trafficking. “Physically I could have gotten away if I wanted to, because I was out on the track and in the room by myself sometimes … but it’s like emotionally and mentally like they have you, like, in handcuffs.”

It all started with big promises: she would travel, be able to take care of her family, and she was assured she’d be kept safe. 

“It’s like they pick the most insecure or … damaged in some kind of emotional way, like, female, and they take them and … fill up their head with — if you don’t know what love is — what you might perceive as love,” she says. “Then, once they get you that way, they flip the script.”

And when your trafficker tells you you’ll never amount to anything else, and that if you try to run away they’ll track you down, Marriah says you believe it. 

“In that moment, like, it sounds believable … ‘Nobody will love you past this. Nobody will see past this.’” she says. “You just believe it, and then … you think and you hope that things will get better, and they never do. You’re just there and one day you wake up and it’s years later and you’re not even the same person.”

Ultimately, Marriah would escape the cycle. Her story sheds light on sex trafficking in America — a hidden reality that FRONTLINE explores in the film. For two-and-a-half years, director Jezza Neumann and producer Lauren Mucciolo followed a special police unit in Phoenix, Arizona, that’s taking a new approach to fighting sexual exploitation. The film team also chronicled the stories of sex trafficking survivors like Marriah.

The documentary is an eye-opening look at sexual exploitation — and the battle against it — in one American city. 

Sex Trafficking in America premieres Tuesday, May 28, 2019 on PBS (check local listings), PBS.org/frontline, and the PBS Video App.

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