Selling girls: Karissa WZZM
KALAMAZOO, MICH. - It’s estimated two million children are exploited every year in the global commercial sex trade. It’s a common misconception to believe these trades are limited to outside the United States.
In fact, the sex trafficking industry is prevalent in all 50 states, Michigan included.
Just ask Kalamazoo native, Karissa Wright.
At first, she lead a seemingly "normal" life.
“I grew up in a Christian school, my parents were divorced which was unheard of in a Christian school," Wright said. "Aside from that, I got good grades, I was a very affectionate kid, I wasn’t a trouble maker, I was loud I talked a lot -- so I got in trouble for that,” Wright said.
As a tomboy, Wright had a keen interest in the outdoors.
“I loved fishing, I loved worms, I loved catching fish, I loved scaling fish, I loved eating fish," she continued. "I loved anything that a boy would love.”
It was her unwavering trust for others, that made her an easy target.
“If you showed you loved me, then I loved you,” Wright remembered. “I’m a very friendly, loyal type person to the end and I think he picked up on that, even as a kid.”
"He" was a family friend she says sold her in exchange for drug money.
“It was more the emotional attachment that formed and I would do pretty much whatever he asked because I cared about him and thought he cared about me,” she said.
At the age of five, he began sexually abusing her.
“We had our massage game we would play,” Wright said. “It was ‘our game,’ like he would call it ‘our little game.’”
As Wright’s body began to develop, he saw her as profit.
“He would get beef jerky and we would drive to wherever we were going and set up the tent," she noted. "I camped with my dad when I was little, so camping to me wasn’t a bad thing."
Camping eventually became synonymous with trafficking.
“It was this weird like almost anticipated thing, but before that point you felt like a normal kid, you were doing stuff like a normal kid would do -- you’re going fishing, you’re having fun.”
By nightfall, one at a time, men would enter the tent.
“I learned quickly that like no didn’t really mean no and so if I closed my eyes and pretended I was somewhere else it would go by quicker than if I tried to make them stop,” Wright said.
One night at the beach stands out the most.
“There was actually another girl there with me, I don’t remember her name or anything, but we were at a beach then it started to get dark and it was her and me and her dad and [my trafficker] that were all in the tent together.”
The two 9-year-old girls were forced to perform oral sex on one another while the two men watched.
“A lot of what happened when I was trafficked in the woods was oral sex, or touching or fondling either people doing it to me or me doing it to men, or in this case…it was another little girl.”
It wasn’t until 11-year-old Wright was at a church group sleepover that the truth began to unravel.
“The girls decided they wanted to play hide and go seek, so we were playing hide and go seek in the church and a girl shut off the lights in the bathroom and I went into a full-fledged panic, like freaked out,” Wright recalled.
Her counselors pressed her on the freak out.
“I didn’t tell any of them," she said. "I just went and laid in my sleeping bag and curled up into a little ball which is what I did every time after I was trafficked."
While she never uttered a word to anyone, Wright began to understand that something wasn’t right.
“There was this weird shift where as I got older and I became more aware of ‘this isn’t normal, but I don’t know how you stop it, how do you make it stop?’”
She decided to stop it, the only way she knew how.
“I was in the bedroom with him and we were lying in bed and he started to like fondle me, and I told him no, and that was the first time I told him no and his whole demeanor changed.”
That moment is when she knew her life was in danger.
“It was almost like I could feel his body stiffen and go cold and he didn’t stop," Wright recalled. "He kept going and then he said to me, 'if you tell anybody' -- that’s when the threats started. He never threatened me until I said no."
He threatened her dog and her family and convinced her all her abusers would find her.
“Even if I go to jail, then all the guys who know what’s going on will come after you because they know what’s going on," she remembered him telling her. "And I completely believed him."
So, she decided to tell her mom the bare minimum, that this man was sexually abusing her.
“Never changed my story, like he’s touching me, how long has he done it, I said not very long," she said. "I lied through the whole thing out of fear."
After countless medical examinations and interviews with law enforcement, it was time to sit down with the Kalamazoo County prosecutor.
“I remember us sitting down talking to the prosecutor and she was asking me, ‘Are you sure this is all that happened?’ And I remember thinking in my mind that I wished my mom wasn’t there, I didn’t want her to hear what had actually happened.”
He was charged with unwanted sexual conduct with a minor; a misdemeanor.
“It was over and then our family just didn’t talk about it anymore,” Wright said.
The man was sentenced to six months in prison and five years of probation. In 2007, Wright learned that her trafficker died because of a drug overdose.
“It was that weird thing where I was actually like sad he died, I remember actually crying, and I’m like ‘Why am I crying, I should be happy,’ and it was that weird thing I actually cared about him, even after this bad stuff he did to me, I still cared about him as a person,” Wright said.
Only recently did her mother learn the whole truth.
“I don’t hold it against my mom, it took me a long time to get to that point because for the longest time I kind of blamed her for not protecting me," she said. "Should she have protected me? Yes, but I don’t really know that she was able to at the time with everything she was juggling as a single parent."
Wright graduated college with a degree in social work. She’s now a part of a non-profit organization with a mission to help sex trafficking survivors.
“I have this life built for myself that shows people who I really am," Wright said. "I was a kid then, I couldn’t stop it, I couldn’t make people understand then."
"I couldn’t choose whether I wanted to do it or not do it, and I get to choose now what I make of my life, and I’ve chosen to not hide this."
With counseling, a strong support system and a courageous mentality, Wright can revisit a place that was once the crux of her nightmares.
“Before, when I saw sand or woods or anything that remotely -- my trafficker wore sweat pants all the time, so if I saw a guy in sweat pants, just random things -- terror would go through my body,” Wright said. “I don’t have that anymore."
"I stand here and I feel joy, because I’m just not that same person.”
Now she chooses to spread awareness of sex trafficking and help others who have survived similar situations, come out on top.
“How did I come out on top? I have no idea, I ask myself that all the time,” Wright said. “Until you actually come out about it you can’t really move forward.”
Her story, speaks volumes.
“You’ll always be reminded of it, but it doesn’t have to be who you are, and you don’t have to live your life as a result of that, you can live your life from a place of victory over it.”
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