Most people assume sex-trafficking victims come from poverty-stricken foreign countries, but Rebekah Charleston’s story begins just north of Fort Worth and isn’t unusual. The brown-eyed, blond-haired Caucasian beauty was sex trafficked when she was 17 years old, and she’s the girl next door.
She remembers the day her life would forever be changed. Her family had just moved into a new house. The youngest of six children, she was only 5 years old when she learned her oldest brother had purposefully overdosed. It was a pivotal moment in their lives. Then there were the secrets and disillusionment.
“It became a culture of secrecy in our household. It became easier not to talk about what really happened,” Rebekah said.
She felt misunderstood at home. Depression set in, and she tried to hang herself at 10 years old. Friends taught her that if she took eight Coricidin, a cold and flu medicine for people with high blood pressure, she would get high as a kite and numb the pain. Then she started smoking marijuana. By time she was 16, her drug use increased. She moved out, and she dropped out of school. Her parents, frustrated and scared, called one day to tell her they were going to take her to buy a dress because she was to be a bridesmaid in her brother’s wedding.
When they pulled up to a warehouse-type facility, she knew it wasn’t a dress shop. There was no wedding. It was called Holy Highway, which is a lockdown facility otherwise misnomered as a girls’ Christian private school. There she was institutionalized and abused. They did manual labor in the fields, cleaned churches and ate old donated food with bugs in them.
But at two months, she was ready to change and accept this new role. Her parents came to visit, and she begged them to let her out of Holy Highway because she had accepted Jesus in her life and acknowledged her faults. They said ‘no.’ Her trust in them was then destroyed. It was yet another pivotal moment in her life. On a home visit six months after her parents dropped her off, she ran away and started living on the streets.
A tattoo on Rebekah’s arm reads Unity, Loyalty, Brotherhood, Sacrifice and Love means Family. That’s all she ever wanted. She couldn’t seem to find it at home.
“If you don’t know your value, then anyone can dictate it to you,” Rebekah said.
That’s when she moved into a two-bedroom apartment with five “low-level” drug dealers. She felt like family. She was the cool girl until one of them tried to strangle her while holding a gun up to her head in a paranoid moment. She moved out and started dealing drugs in Fort Worth, but business was slow at first. Her friend talked her into stripping to pull her own weight. She was 17 and sitting on 50-year-old men’s laps accepting shots of Hennessy. That’s where she met her first trafficker. The “aspiring rapper” had cornrows and gold teeth. She soon after moved in with who she thought was her boyfriend and didn’t ask any questions. The other girls in his apartment started telling her she was going to have sex for money. Scared and desperate, she did what she was told.
“In that situation, we don’t really ask a lot of questions because questions get you killed,” Rebekah said.
In the middle of the night, she and her friends were looking for men in a strip club parking lot. That’s when she met the man who would become her next trafficker for 10 years. Rebekah was already unwittingly a slave. He immediately started the “grooming process” by asking her tons of questions about her life and family. He made her feel special. He taught her how to quit smoking and drinking and took her to the gym and taught her to eat well.
“He was making me a better person,” Rebekah thought.
The isolation started before he began hitting her. Fear allowed him absolute control. Soon enough he would hit her so hard she remembered the inside of her cheeks bleeding. If she tried to block him in self-defense, he would hit harder. She believed he loved her and was pulling her out of the sex-trafficking life. He had different plans for her.
“He took me from a streetwalking, drug-using, $50-prostitute to a high-class call girl,” Rebekah said.
It looked just like love, but she thanks God for the day nearly 10 years later when federal agents busted down her door. She served 13 months in federal prison for “tax evasion.” The agents never could get her to talk or prove they were running a prostitution ring. Once it was her trafficker’s turn to serve his 18 months, Rebekah got a tiny taste of freedom. She started working an honest job at a bar. After living the way she had for so long, she had forgotten what normal life was like.
“It is hard to fathom the amount of control. I really thought we were this family or this unit. It felt like he was everywhere. He would follow us…I still hear his voice in my head telling me what I should do,” Rebekah said.
She sent him an email while he was in prison saying she was going to leave, and he never wrote back. She still didn’t know she was a victim of sex trafficking when she left. He had made her believe it was her choice, her fault, and she deserved whatever bad happened to her.
Rebekah is 33 years old now. She found out she was pregnant nearly four years ago and completely reformed her life. Her son has saved her. She is in the last semester of her junior year at a private university in Fort Worth making a 4.0 in criminal justice and has made the dean’s list every semester. She plans to go to law school and work in civil justice. She even works with law enforcement officers and the FBI to train them to understand there is a difference between prostitution and sex trafficking. There isn’t a choice in trafficking.
Years ago one of her traffickers branded her on her back with a tattoo. She later covered it up with a devil tattoo in a dark moment. Now it is the tree of life with her son’s initials in it. As far as she is concerned, the brand and the devil are far behind her.
MORE STORIES ON SURVIVAL: