Rachel Thomas said she was just 20 years old when she was forced into sex work.
A native of Pasadena, she lived a happy childhood with supportive, loving parents. Her father was a church deacon, and Thomas was in the Rose Parade court and voted prom queen at her high school. In other words, she was a fairly normal, happy teenager. She certainly wasn’t what most people would think of when picturing a victim of sex trafficking.
It was in her junior year of college in Atlanta when an older man in a three-piece suit approached her while she was out with some friends, she said. He gave her his business card, with promises of a famous modeling career. Thomas agreed to give it a try, and that was that.
- PHOTO BY RACHEL THOMAS
- REBEL GIRL: Rachel Thomas, a survivor of sex trafficking, will come to Cal Poly to share her story for Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
Five weeks later, she remembers now, she was forced into human trafficking.
Her story is a dark one: Over the next 10 months, Thomas endured the horrors of being treated like a piece of property, a commodity used for others to make money. She said she was told repeatedly that harm would come to her or her parents if she ever tried to get away, or if she refused have sex with a client. And for 10 months she believed them. It was only when a fellow victim managed to go to the police that Thomas finally worked to get out. She explained how she worked undercover with the FBI, testifying against those who held her captive. Then she returned home and told her parents what she’d lived through.
Now, Thomas works as the director of the Sowers Education Group, an organization she co-founded that works to eradicate human trafficking. Thomas travels to colleges and various events sharing her story and urging others to get involved. She’ll be at Cal Poly on April 22 to tell her story following a screening of the documentary In Plain Sight, as a part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
“College students are in a unique position to save lives,” Thomas told New Times. “I mean college students are at risk. You never know who is a victim of trafficking, even on a college campus.”
Thomas was initially majoring in education before she was trafficked, harboring dreams of becoming an English teacher. After she escaped, she went back to school, getting her master’s in education from UCLA and working as a high school English teacher for three years.
“I started seeing that my students were vulnerable by trafficking, and being preyed upon, and that’s what got me started in speaking out against it,” Thomas said. “Now I’m still kind of a teacher, but I don’t work in a school, I work all over. And I’m not teaching English, I’m talking about trafficking.”
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act in the United States defines sex trafficking as the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act through the use of force, fraud, or coercion. The law also recognizes the use of psychological manipulation—something Thomas herself suffered from—by the trafficker as a use of force. According the Sowers Education Group, human trafficking is the fastest growing crime in the world, and the second fastest growing crime in America—the first being identity theft.
“It is indisputably a revolutionized crime,” Thomas said. “The Internet has made it easier to facilitate and harder to catch the perpetrators, easier to prey upon victims, and easier to lure a child away from home.”
Because of the organization of traffickers, as well as the difficulty of tracing and catching them, human trafficking seems like an insurmountable problem, but that’s exactly what Thomas is trying to counter.
“This is such a huge issue, but there’s so many facets of it that need to be attacked by all angles,” she said. “And on my website, there’s a tab that says ‘8 Things that You Can Do’ … . There’s really a way for everyone to get involved; it’s just a matter of figuring out what your part is.”
Thomas said she hopes that students will realize the very real threat of trafficking: That it doesn’t just happen in Third World countries, but can happen anywhere, even in happy little San Luis Obispo.
For more information about Sexual Assault Awareness Month at Cal Poly, visit deanofstudents.calpoly.edu, or call 756-2282. For more information about Sowers Education Group, visit sowerseducationgroup.com.
St. Patrick Catholic School’s first grade class has teamed up with Transitions Mental Health Association (TMHA) to help collect items for youths with mental illness. The assignment is part of the three “Mercy Projects” the class must complete throughout the year. Students brought in toiletries, sheets, towels, kitchen items, and art supplies to help the youth in Robust Art Therapy. For more information about St. Patrick’s program, call 489-1210, or visit stpatschoolag.com. For information about Transitions Mental Health Association, call 540-6500, or visit t-mha.org.
Intern Adriana Catanzarite wrote this week’s Strokes and Plugs. Send your business and nonprofit news to firstname.lastname@example.org.