Susan Norris speaking with teens

Susan Norris, founder and executive director of Rescuing Hope, a Marietta organization that targets sex trafficking, speaks with students during a panel discussion Congregation Etz Chaim in Marietta on Jan. 31. Staff-Lauren Leathers

MARIETTA — The FBI includes Atlanta among the top 14 cities in the U.S. for the sex trafficking of minors. With this crime occurring in our backyard, several metro Atlanta organizations that fight sex trafficking recently held a panel at Congregation Etz Chaim to bring attention to the topic.

“It’s a crime hidden in plain sight,” said Susan Norris, founder and executive director of Rescuing Hope, a Marietta organization that targets sex trafficking.

Various representatives from the organizations against sex trafficking gathered with the community to not only discuss the definition of sex trafficking, but how sexting, social media and pornography are used as tools by sexual predators to entice victims. By informing young people of the devices sexual predators use, the organizations believe teens will be more aware when in dangerous situations.

Rescuing Hope focuses on raising awareness of sex trafficking, educating victims and first responders and empowering those who have survived. Norris says 99 percent of the trafficking victims the organization serves are female. Norris defines sex trafficking as “commodification of sex, the buying and selling of an individual for someone’s sexual pleasure and another’s financial gain,” she said. “The person being bought and sold is not having a say in it.”

Sex traffickers do not fall under any specific “type,” so to speak. A predator does not look a specific way and is not easily distinguished by gender, race or age.

“(Sexual predators) look so ordinary, and it’s very difficult to see if you don’t know what you’re looking for,” Norris said.

Furthermore, Norris stressed the importance of understanding social media and not being afraid of the internet. If used effectively, social media can make a positive impact on teenagers.

“They have the greatest platform in history to share a message today than in any other time with social media out there,” she said. “So we want to leverage all of the resources that we have as adults and use it to fight this issue.”

Norris said they are currently working to expand their program to middle schools in the form of digital curriculum, which they hope to pilot in 2019.

Out of Darkness — the anti-trafficking ministry of the Atlanta Dream Center, a nonprofit Christian organization that fights sex trafficking — has helped more than 1,200 women and 12 men come out of the sex trafficking industry. Jeff Shaw, founder and director of Out of Darkness, said there are ways to teach teenagers to be aware of sexual predators, and one step is talking with youth about their bodies. It is up to parents and guardians to inform youth of the changes puberty brings, rather than a predator using a teenager’s curiosity and questions to their advantage.

“If not us, who is going to help them understand their bodies?” he said. “You can be the ones steering your children to safety.”

Sexting, a fairly new form of sexual communication, involves sending explicit photographs or messages via mobile device. According to Shaw, the average age that children are targeted by predators to be exposed to pornography is 8 years old.

Rescuing Hope, Out of Darkness and several other organizations in the Atlanta area dedicate their time and resources to fighting the battle of sex trafficking. It is their hope to not only bring awareness to the issue, but to educate communities teaching youth awareness of the tools predators use to draw in victims and to prevent further incidents from occurring. The national trafficking hotline number is 888-373-7888.

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