Downstairs in the dressing room of one of University City’s two strip clubs last November, a Thanksgiving feast lay spread across a table that’s usually reserved for pasties and body glitter.
Roast turkey, sweet potato pie, stuffing and green beans – prepared by local caterers – were brought to the ladies by members of Rise Up, an organization based in Charlotte that fights human trafficking.
Its founder, Aimee Johnson launched the ministry 14 months ago to help women out of what is known as “The Game:” legal and illegal adult entertainment.
Sex trafficking in North Carolina has followed the national trend in recent years. It’s become such a concern that the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of North Carolina now considers the fight against the crime one of its highest priorities.
“We are committed to preventing human trafficking and bringing traffickers to justice so we can eradicate this form of modern-day slavery that is becoming more prevalent and more frequent,” said Lia Bantavani, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney.
Separate factors have turned the Charlotte region into a hotspot for sex trafficking, Bantavani said. Its major sports franchises attract potential customers; its larger size makes it easier for traffickers to blend in unnoticed; and because sex trafficking is considered a mobile crime, its close proximity to highways makes it easier to rotate sex workers quickly between cities.
“Often times traffickers and their victims do not stay in one location long enough for law enforcement to identify them and ultimately bring the perpetrators to justice,” said Bantavani.
A few sex trafficking-related arrests have come from the University City area, said a Charlotte Mecklenburg police officer within the division, but for every person caught, several are undetected.
In the strip clubs, pimps posing as customers frequently approach the women with promises of more money.
“I’ve had it happen over and over and over again,” said Heather, 21, who works at one of the clubs in University City and prefers her real name not be published. “We have $50, $30, $20 nights, where you are there for nine hours and you make a few dollars,” she said. “Girls will start getting fed up, and pimps will come in, and the girls are easily swayed.”
Once a month, Rise Up teams – usually consisting of two women and one man – stop into one of 14 strip clubs in Charlotte. The man stays outside for security while the women take goody bags filled with cupcakes, lip gloss and shampoo to the entertainers in the dressing room.
“We try not to take too long, because we realize that this is their way of making money,” said Johnson. “To a certain point, we respect that they need to make that money, and not take up all of that time.”
The owner of the clubs the ministry visits has given his consent.
“I think he sees it as a service to them as well, because if we’re helping these girls, getting them to doctor appointments, helping them go to crisis assistance, figuring out food and clothing, it keeps them out of their pockets,” said Johnson. “They’re not going to them for loans or other things.”
At first, the women meet the Rise Up members with suspicion, but after a few visits the skepticism fades away.
“Some of the other girls come running up. They really realize we’re not there to judge them. We love them. We care for them,” said Johnson. “We’ll offer GED classes, life skill classes, life coaches to mentor them. We’ll help them with whatever they need.”
The organization is helping Heather transition out of the game.
“I think of her like a little sister,” said Karen Mundy, 36, a member of the outreach program and a mentor to Heather. Mundy, who lives off Back Creek Church Road, helps babysit Heather’s 5-month-old baby and drives her to doctor’s appointments and job interviews.
“It’s a really hard thing to get out of,” said Heather. “It’s such fast money. I can make a $100 and do what I have to do with it, like pay rent.”
Since it began 14 months earlier, Johnson said, they have helped six women leave their traffickers, and helped five leave the club scene altogether.
Heather, she said, is on the verge of becoming the sixth person.
“Through this, she has just blossomed and changed,” said Johnson. “It’s been amazing to see her walk into motherhood.
“Every life is beautiful, and no one is broken beyond repair.”