Crime

Mercer anti-sex trafficking campaign expanding nationally

While growing up in Perry, Hayley Gray knew little of the sex trafficking trade now thriving along Georgia's interstate corridor.

The 21-year-old marketing student at Mercer University once thought the problem was confined to people from other countries.

After studying sex slavery and underground prostitution, she now realizes it's more prevalent than many think and that many of the victims are young women from troubled backgrounds.

"They're looking for something they didn't have in their life and so then, they're able to get that from the sex-trafficking industry," Gray said.

Mercer marketing professor Tammy Crutchfield is passionate about fighting sex trafficking in Middle Georgia. She said parents should be wary of their younger daughters' older boyfriends.

The men can shower them with gifts, profess their love and then lure the girls into prostitution.

Shame traps many of them into continuing in the sex trade which recruits patrons over the Internet, she said.

Even if they consent, anyone under 18 is considered a victim of sex trafficking.

"It's so prevalent in our hotels. All you have to do is get on Backpage and see how many young girls are offered," said Crutchfield, who teaches a yearlong capstone marketing course based on Traffick Jam, a student organization that educates local high school students about the sex trafficking industry.

The group, which created its own brand to market its efforts, self-funds by holding raffles and selling items such as T-shirts and jewelry.

Years ago, other local anti-trafficking efforts spawned on the Macon campus led to the closure of Macon's multiple massage parlors. Those closures, though, created the public's false perception there is no more trafficking here.

"There is a large segment who don't know it's a problem," Crutchfield said.

Traffick Jam will shed light on the underground sex trade by bringing the discussions into plain sight.

Thursday, some of the university's marketing students will host the second "Shine out Sex Trafficking," an event designed to recruit Middle Georgians to join the crusade to shut down the sex trafficking industry in Middle Georgia.

At Tattnall Square Park from 6-8 p.m., speakers will inform the public on how they can fight sex trafficking in their community and how to get female and male victims into long-term care.

Thursday's event will feature representatives from the International Justice Mission, Civil Lawyers against World Slavery and Mercer's spoken word collective known as Point B.L.A.N.K.

Vocal artist Lauren Tuttle will perform, and vendors will provide free food for attendees.

In the keynote address, Jeff Shaw, who founded the Atlanta-based organization Out of Darkness, will share how his volunteers made 600 rescues from Georgia streets and jails.

The effort has a Middle Georgia chapter, which has completed 30 rescues in the past year.

Traffick Jam brought its anti-trafficking message to 150 school students last year and hopes to educate more than 400 young people this year on how to protect themselves and others who are vulnerable in their community.

The effort will spread to all Bibb County high schools next year as the marketing students teach volunteers to conduct the seminars.

Their goal is to establish similar Traffick Jam groups on college campuses across the country.

Gray, recently named Mercer's outstanding marketing graduate for this year, said developing the Traffick Jam brand has taught her valuable skills and impassioned her to share a valuable message to vulnerable young people.

"Find worth in yourself," Gray said. "Really think about you and who you are and not trying to base your value on other people. ... That's going to really help them to not get involved in it."

To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303 and follow her on Twitter@liz_lines.

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