NASHVILLE, Tenn. - When men paid Shelia Faye Simpkins for sex, they presumably thought she was just a happy hooker engaging in a transaction among consenting adults.
It was actually more complicated than that, as it usually is. Simpkins says that her teenage mom, an alcoholic and drug addict, taught her at age 6 how to perform oral sex on men.
"Like a lollipop," she remembers her mom explaining.
Simpkins finally ran away from home at 14 and into the arms of a pimp.
"I thought he was my boyfriend," Simpkins remembers. "I didn't realize I was being pimped."
When her pimp was shot dead, she was recruited by another, Kenny, who ran a "stable" of four women and assigned each of them a daily quota of $1,000. Anyone who didn't earn that risked a beating.
There's a common belief that pimps are business partners of prostitutes, but that's a complete misunderstanding of the classic relationship. Typically, every dollar earned by the women goes to the pimp, who then doles out drugs, alcohol, clothing and food.
"He gets every penny," Simpkins explains. "If you get caught with money, you get beat."
Simpkins periodically ran away from Kenny, but each time he found her — and beat her up with sticks or iron rods. On average, she figures that Kenny beat her up about once a week, and she still carries the scars.
"I was his property," Simpkins says bluntly.
I met Simpkins here in Nashville, where my wife, Sheryl WuDunn, and I have been filming a segment about sex trafficking as part of a PBS documentary accompanying our next book. We were filming with Ashley Judd, the actress, who lives in the Nashville area and is no neophyte about these issues. Judd has traveled all around the world to understand sexual exploitation — and she was devastated by what we found virtually in her backyard.
"It's freaking me out," she told me one day after some particularly harrowing interviews. It's easier to be numbed by child prostitution abroad, but we came across online prostitution ads in Nashville for "Michelle," who looked like a young teenager. Judd had trouble sleeping that night, thinking of Michelle being raped in cheap hotels right in her hometown.
In this respect, Nashville is Everytown USA. Sex trafficking is an American universal: The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation reported in 2011 that over a two-year period, trafficking occurred in 85 percent of Tennessee's counties, including rural areas. Most are homegrown girls like Simpkins who flee troubled homes and end up controlled by pimps.
Of course, there are also women (and men) selling sex voluntarily. But the notion that the sex industry is a playground of freely consenting adults who find pleasure in their work is delusional self-flattery by johns.
Sex trafficking is one of the most severe human rights violations in America today. In some cases, it amounts to a modern form of slavery.
One reason we as a society don't try harder to uproot it is that it seems hopeless. Yet Simpkins herself is a reminder that we needn't surrender.
Simpkins says that she would be dead by now if it weren't for a remarkable initiative by the Rev. Becca Stevens, the Episcopal priest at Vanderbilt University here, to help women escape trafficking and prostitution.