His first exposure to prostitution came at the age of 18, as he helped a friend minister to women in a Mexican red-light district. Later, in Nepal, he observed a brothel owner negotiate a price for two girls. “It was a powerful experience,” says Ryan Dalton, “to see women my age, who should have been in college or pursuing their careers, traded for the profit of another.”
Those life-changing moments led Dalton to learn all he could about modern slavery and human trafficking, and to write an undergraduate thesis on the topic. Today, while a second-year student at the University of Memphis Law School, Dalton serves as the unpaid director of anti-trafficking for a group called Operation Broken Silence (OBS).
The group was formed in 2007 by Mark Hackett (nephew of former Memphis mayor Dick Hackett) as a response to the genocide in Sudan. It has since grown to raise awareness of other global issues, and the 25-year-old Dalton is helping keep the spotlight on trafficking. “I’m young,” he acknowledges, “but I have made the most of learning about this illicit trade. Once, you had to convince people that slavery is immoral. Now you have to convince them that slavery exists.”
He explains that traffickers lure victims in several ways: A Mexican smuggler sneaks an undocumented worker across the border for employment and delivers him or her into enslavement. Pimps or traffickers prey on vulnerable youth; they instill trust, then subtly manipulate the victim with “the boyfriend approach.” Perpetrators hook their victims on drugs so that the person will keep prostituting herself for the next high.
Although many victims are runaway or “throwaway” youths, or immigrants seeking work, “they can come from anywhere,” says Dalton. “I’ve seen girls from white upper-class neighborhoods caught up in the sex trade.”
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation reports that more than 100 cases of sex trafficking of minors have been documented in Shelby County over the last two years. Victims as young as 13 have been beaten, raped, and tortured into submission. The same number of adult cases have been documented. “But many more cases go undocumented and without rescue,” emphasizes Dalton.
Early this year, to demonstrate how the classified advertising website, Backpage.com, facilitates the commercial sex trade, Dalton led OBS volunteers on a study of local adult ads placed for “escorts” on the site. During the last three months of 2010, the group counted 1,952 ads they believed were selling sex, and Dalton calls that figure “conservative.” In September 2010, 21 state attorneys general urged that Backpage.com remove its “adult services” section, just as Craigslist.com agreed to do earlier. Although Backpage.com’s owner, Village Voice Media Holdings, has not yielded to such pressure, they’ve agreed to monitor the site for misuse.
Prosecutors across the nation are taking a more aggressive stance toward the sex trade. Recently here in Memphis, U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton launched a Civil Rights division, which includes human trafficking. The head of that division is training agents how to investigate this crime, and several traffickers have been convicted and sentenced, one for up to 50 years.
“I am very grateful for [Stanton’s] approach to this problem. He’s an excellent example for other U.S. attorneys and is a great ally in abolition,” says Dalton.
Meanwhile, Dalton and other OBS workers are pursuing ways to help victims. They lobbied for a Tennessee anti-trafficking hotline: 1-855-55TNHTH, which can be used by people to report the crime or by victims who want to escape their enslavement.
The group has also created the Community Aftercare and Restoration Endeavor (CARE) that brings together personnel from law enforcement, medicine, social services, and the faith community to help the victims recover. Within the next year, OBS plans to open a safe house, staffed with professionals, that will accommodate up to 12 individuals.
With unflinching vision, the native Memphian is determined to break the silence about the sex trade and to fix the “brokenness” he sees — in the victims and in the way the traffickers view others. “Those views trickle throughout society,” says Dalton. “That’s really compelling to me. That’s how I got here. I’m in law school, and working with [OBS] to fight slavery, I will continue the fight as long as it takes to end it.”
For more information, go to obsilence.org. Lindsay Jones contributed to this story.