The global sex industry generates over $30 billion a year, which is why Kristin Keen is often on the side of the highway in Jacksonville, Fla. She routinely walks a section called Philips Highway to meet and talk with prostitutes working on the street. These women wonder why she cares, especially in a place where most transactions are strictly business.
But Keen is not discouraged. Instead, her experiences have pushed her to start a business to give these women a different kind of job.
She is the founder of Rethreaded, a nonprofit organization in Jacksonville, with the goal of fighting "business with business." Keen told her story at North Carolina's Davidson College last week during a human trafficking awareness night in partnership with the campus chapter of the International Justice Mission.
According to The Polaris Project, an organization that fights trafficking, the legal definition of sex trafficking in the U.S. is any commercial sex act "induced by force, fraud, or coercion or commercial sex acts in which the individual induced to perform commercial sex has not attained 18 years of age."
The average age of entry for women into the commercial sex industry in the U.S. is between 12 to 14 years old. The Polaris Project also estimates that there are 100,000 children in the sex trade in the United States each year.
Rethreaded works with women and children to pull them out of the sex industry. According to its website, most of the women involved in sex trafficking and prostitution come out of jail with felonies and need a safe place to find work and get training, since they have no job skills or education.
The goal of Rethreaded is to teach women how to make fashionable products like scarves, purses and blankets out of old t-shirts so they can sell them and earn a living.
By giving them a new trade, Keen said it breaks the cycle of recidivism, where these women become prostitutes, are arrested, and when released from jail have no job skills or a place to turn and thus forced back into prostitution.
Rethreaded grew out of a movement Keen helped found in India called Sari-Bari which now employs 80 women who were formerly in the sex trade. They make blankets and products that they can sell to make a living.
One of the leaders in the organization was sold into the sex trade at age 14 by her uncle. When she escaped and went back to her village, her uncle turned on her saying that she had chosen to become a prostitute. Because of this, the village kicked her out and she was forced back into the red-light district in India.
Keen and those at Sari-Bari met the young girl in this district and helped her leave the sex trade and start a new life through Sari-Bari. A few years later at a Thanksgiving celebration, this young girl said, "I am so thankful for Sari Bari. I've been waiting for you. For the first time in my life I can stand on my own two feet and I have respect," Keen recalled.
For Keen, and those at Rethreaded, that's what their organization is all about – giving women hope and respect, and a new lease on life.
And while the numbers are daunting, human-trafficking awareness and businesses like Rethreaded are growing. Organizations are emerging across the U.S. to fight sex trafficking and prostitution in some of America's largest cities.
Streetlight USA in Phoenix, Ariz., pioneered a safe house for girls who were victims of sex trafficking. They can come and receive a room, faith-based counseling, a mentor mother in a family setting, professional health care, food, clothing, educational and career bases counseling, and healing.
Keen said it's important to get involved on a local level, like what Streetlight is doing, because even things "done on a global level ties in with the community." She told those at Davidson, "Awareness is spreading, it's another social movement, and your generation is going to change trafficking."