'We're just now pulling back the curtain'
Jerome Elam understands how, for most people, the idea of sex trafficking is such an alien concept to their experiences that they struggle to imagine such things happening in their communities.
Yet Elam knows differently. It is everywhere — yes, in Rochester and Austin. He notes that one of the most prolific sex child sex trafficking rings in U.S. history was once run out of Minneapolis.
Wherever Elam speaks, inevitably someone will approach him afterward to talk to him in private about their own experiences as a sex trafficking survivor.
Elam's own life is a searing example of how a young child can be dragged into the shadows, through coercion and threats, into a life of sex trafficking — an experience that nearly killed him.
"It's really a substantial problem that we're just now pulling back the curtain on," Elam said.
Elam will be the featured speaker at a trio of events in Rochester and Austin aimed at shedding light on the problem of human trafficking. His program will focus on a perspective that rarely gets any attention at all due to the stigma and shame that surrounds the subject: the trafficking of boys.
The program, "Trafficked Boys: Bringing Male Victims of Sex Trafficking Out of the Shadows," will be presented at 6:30 p.m. Monday at the Frank W. Bridges Theatre, East Building, at Riverland Community College in Austin.
On Tuesday, two presentations will be held in Rochester. One will be a noon program in the auditorium of Rochester Public Library, the other at 7 p.m. in the Heintz Center at Rochester Community and Technical College.
The events are sponsored by the Sisters of Saint Francis, Mission 21 and Rochester Public Library.
Elam said that it's difficult to quantify how pervasive the problem is. Studies that have attempted to measure child sex trafficking all underreport it, he's convinced. But there is no doubt that "there are huge numbers of people who right now who are being trafficked."
Elam's own exposure to its horrors revealed to him how the problem crossed all socio-economic, gender and racial barriers. Beginning at age 5, Elam was forced to take part in a sex trafficking ring whose patrons included doctors, lawyers and judges, he said.
Elam says the conditions of his life that preceded his coercion into sex trafficking were common ones among trafficking survivors. Elam was being raised by a single alcoholic mother when a man entered their lives that his mother thought was "the answer to our prayers."
He turned out to be a pedophile who was targeting Elam through his mother. For the next seven years until age 12, Elam was forced into living a double life. Yet, anyone observing the veneer of his life probably would not have imagined anything amiss. It was only after school and on holidays that Elam was trafficked.
This was during the 1970s, when few people were aware of child sex trafficking. And that lack of awareness made it nearly impossible for a young boy caught up in its snares to get people to listen to him. Every time he told an adult, his complaints were dismissed either as the product of a vivid imagination or attention-seeking.
"People didn't listen to kids, and we're barely to the point now," Elam said. "Because in this country, research says that a child has to tell an average of nine people before they are believed, that they're being abused or trafficked."
'Become part of this fight'
Elam said he had lost all hope when he went to his mom's medicine cabinet and downed a bottle sleeping pills and a bottle of vodka. He fell asleep and woke up in an hospital emergency room. His cry for help had finally been heeded, and it began a new, more positive trajectory of his life.
Today, Elam, husband and family man, devotes his life to saving innocent children from predators.
His one overriding goal in telling people about his experiences is to motivate people "to become a part of this fight."
"I want people to know that they can make a difference as individuals," Elam said. "The primary goal is to get people motivated — not so much to scare them but to make them aware of this problem and to give them the tools they need to help protect their own kids."