Houston has more than its share of “number ones” and “bests” and “mosts.”
Our Med Center is the largest medical complex in the world. We lead the world in space exploration. We dine out more than any other city. Houston in the most diverse city in the U.S. We have more parkland than anywhere else. And the Astros are tops in the American League West by a dozen games.
But sadly we’re also No. 1 in something disgraceful that I didn’t know about.
Houston is the main port of entry and the hub of human sex trafficking in the U.S.
Last week, I took Elijah Rising’s “Awareness Van Tour” – billed as “Human Trafficking 101 on Wheels.” Five of us got into a van at Elijah Rising headquarters and drove around the Galleria area, described as “one of the most sexualized districts of Houston.” The tour is free.
Elijah Rising is a group dedicated to “ending sex trafficking and sexual exploitation by equipping a new generation of justice warriors to confront this culture through prayer, awareness, intervention, and aftercare.”
The headquarters used to be an Asian massage parlor called Angela Day Spa. Elijah Rising took over the building in 2013 and turned it into the Museum of Modern Day Slavery – the only education center in the world dedicated to fighting human sex trafficking.
The museum is open 9 am to 5 pm on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. The exhibits are graphic and shocking, with each massage room depicting a different aspect of sex slavery. You’ll see bondage devices, sex aids, and photos that are disturbing and upsetting. The museum does not sugarcoat or pretty up the subject matter. It’s not for young visitors.
The van spun around several Galleria neighborhoods along Richmond and Westheimer. The tour guide, an Elijah Rising volunteer, pointed out strip clubs, massage parlors, and regular residential apartments where you’d never guess prostitution goes on. Clue: Look for blacked-out windows and high hedges and fences.
According to recent statistics, more than 300,000 people in Texas are victims of human trafficking, including 80,000 underage boys and girls forced into prostitution. Most of the victims come from Asia, Central America, and Mexico. The victims, as young as 12 years old, are kept from fleeing through intimidation, beatings, drugs, and threats against their families back home. The victims, who often don’t speak English, are taught to hate police and thwart anybody offering to help them escape.
Our tour guide gave five reasons why Houston is home to so much of this illicit trade:
1. Houston is close to the Mexican border, where most sex trafficking victims enter the U.S.
2. Houston is home to energy and medical industries, and hosts many conventions and sports events. Bottom line, anything that attracts men with money attracts sex trafficking.
3. Houston has one of the busiest ports in the world.
4. Houston is midway along the I-10 corridor from Florida to California.
5. Houston has many upscale strip clubs.
The tour guide said brothels often pop up near strip clubs. “A man may spend $300 to $500 in a strip club on lap dances, while he can go next door to a brothel and pay $60 for sex,” she said.
Last year, CNN’s The Hunt with John Walsh did a special program called “Inside Houston’s Sex Slave Trade.”
On the show, FBI agent Suzanne Bradley said, “People see Houston as a hub for human trafficking because of its proximity to the border. It also has access to the I-10 highway corridor, which goes across the country, so if they're smuggling people in and trying to get them into human trafficking in other areas, it's very easy to get them on that I-10 route and disperse them throughout the country."
While prosecutions are rare and difficult, last week 12 people were arrested by U.S. Justice Department agents for operating a child sex trafficking ring in the Galveston area.
Passengers on the Elijah Rising “Awareness Van Tour” stay inside the unmarked, nondescript vehicle the entire two hours. The tour starts at 7 pm, while it’s still daylight, so there isn’t much activity at the strip clubs and massage parlors. Also, the van’s windows are darkened, so the clubs and massage parlors may not know why a van is stopping out front or passing through its parking lot.
While sexually-oriented businesses in the Galleria area don’t get busy until after dark, the opposite is true in Houston’s suburbs, where strip clubs and massage parlors do brisk lunchtime business.
The tour ends back at the Museum of Modern Day Slavery, where the host answers questions and offers ways to help Elijah Rising – “just go to our website and you’ll learn more about us.”