By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — Jenny Almquist never thought she would be a public speaker.
She never thought she would go to Thailand, either, to see firsthand the brothels where eight-year-old girls are kept as prostitutes.
But the Colfax resident now finds herself doing both.
Almquist, along with eight other Fierce Freedom team members, left for ten-day journey to Thailand December 31.
Almquist is the founder of Fierce Freedom, an organization that educates people about the sex-slave trade, human trafficking, and the exploitation of women, men and children abroad and in the United States.
Almquist’s team will be working with the Thrive Rescue Home in Pattaya, Thailand.
“(Rescued children) can live (at Thrive Rescue Home) forever, if they want to. We will be doing slum outreach and working with the children to bridge the gap between the rescue home. Those kids are at such high risk for trafficking. We want to let them know there is someplace to go if they want to escape. That will be a big piece of what we do,” Almquist said.
“Everybody who is going has been doing this for a while. We educate. It’s not like we go in and rescue. We educate,” she said.
But why Thailand? And why that particular city?
Pattaya, Thailand, is the sex industry capital of the world, Almquist said.
“The reason why, from what we’ve heard on this end, is because of American businessmen. They go over there with the intention of buying sex from eight and ten-year-old little girls. It’s a part of the business culture. All of these men meet up there to do business, and it’s just what they do. I want to say to them, ‘look into the eyes of that little eight-year-old girl,’” she said.
“The people we have been talking to at the rescue home are amazing. They do this every day of their lives. The youngest that they rescued just came to them, and she is five. She was sold into the sex trade by her parents,” Almquist said.
So how did a young woman from Colfax become involved in fighting against human sex trafficking?
Almquist attended a presentation a few years ago, and once she came to terms with the shock that slavery is alive and well in this day and age, she started a retail business called Fierce Beauty.
The business sold scarves to raise money for organizations that rescue men, women and children from the human sex trafficking trade.
“The scarves were really great. It was an easy way that made it comfortable for people. It was an easy way for us to talk about it,” Almquist said.
“Somewhere in there (Fierce Beauty) morphed and turned up-side-down. As of December 31, we are done with Fierce Beauty, just because it has become too time-consuming. It was a good avenue to get us started. But now we’re talking to legislators. We’re at the state level. We’re at schools and college campuses. It takes a lot of time to run a business like Fierce Beauty. We’ve really been doing it since 2007. We got our non-profit status in 2012,” she said.
Fierce Freedom has office space in Eau Claire and has two full-time employees and ten volunteers. “We have a really great board of directors. We’re moving forward,” Almquist said.
“We are getting telephone calls now from the Attorney General’s office in Wisconsin. People will call from a school district or a college campus and say we are the experts, and they want us to come and talk. (In the beginning) it was kind of laughable that we were the experts, but no one else was talking about it,” she said.
Almquist was featured on Wisconsin Public Radio in December speaking about a fund raiser for Fierce Freedom.
“It was one thing I said I would never do — I would never speak in public. I would never do media,” Almquist said with a wry smile.
The truth of the matter is — Almquist comes across as polished, knowledgeable, and professional, as if she has been doing radio shows her entire life.
“When people started calling us and said we needed to speak to their group, I thought, ‘I don’t speak in public!’ But nobody else was doing it. And you try to fill the need in your community. As long as there is an issue, and as long as people keep asking, we will keep talking about it,” Almquist said.
“That’s what really got me. This is an issue on a global level. There are more slaves today than ever in history. Why haven’t I heard about this? My children were little then. It was very emotional for me. It was a mom’s thing. And then people saw the need, and they were asking us to come and talk to them. But there was nobody else talking about it,” she said.
“The community has been very generous. This year, it feels like the wheels took traction. A couple of organizations did fund-raisers for us. We moved our offices and doubled our space. It feels like instead of us just talking, it feels like people have jumped on board with us. People in very public positions. It’s very satisfying,” Almquist said.
But surely sex trafficking does not happen in West Central Wisconsin.
“We raise awareness right here. We are not Thailand. We are not Cambodia … But the more I am reading, you cannot focus on it locally without taking a global look at it. What happens in Amsterdam affects what happens in Eau Claire and Colfax. It sounds really crazy, but it just does,” Almquist said.
Fierce Freedom has been working with a young man in the Eau Claire area who was addicted to child pornography, served time in jail, and is now on the sexual predator list.
“He talks about the best day of his life being when he was arrested. He was so addicted and so caught up, that he couldn’t stop. It isn’t like going for help for alcoholism or nicotine addiction,” Almquist said.
“He has systems in place for the rest of his life that will help him not to fall back into it. He did a video piece for us that tells his story. That it was a secret. How hard it was. How much it was exploiting someone else’s daughter. It was really good for me to meet him and hear the humanity and the addicted side of it,” she said.
The Internet has greatly contributed to the exploitation of people for sexual purposes because pornography is readily available and can easily be downloaded to a Smart phone, a home computer or a tablet.
“Pornography is so prevalent in our culture, and we think it’s our right to look at it. But we don’t think that it is somebody’s child or wife or sister. The people who did the ‘Nefarious’ documentary talk about how pornography feeds the insatiable appetite of sex trafficking. That’s why we continually link (pornography and sex trafficking),” Almquist said.
Those who are in middle school or high school seem to be particularly vulnerable to the accessibility of pornography.
“It is staggering the number of middle school boys who are addicted (to pornography). We were speaking to a youth group in Eau Claire. And during our conversation, it came up that it was a sin. And a younger girl said she had never thought about it that pornography would be sinful. We are at such a different place in our culture,” Almquist said, noting that it is not Fierce Freedom’s intent to bring religion into the discussion of human sex trafficking.
“But it was interesting to hear the younger people say they had never considered that it wouldn’t be the right thing to do (to look at pornography). They can wind up at the pornography sites (on the Internet) without even wanting to go there,” she said.
Pornography also brings with it the issue of free speech.
“You also have to consider the free speech issue, though, and that people get really worked up about free speech. That’s the tricky part (between exploitation and free speech). That’s the place where we are at in our culture,” Almquist said.
“I feel that we are in a good place where we can come in and talk about it at schools and on campuses. We can be the voice that brings it in. It doesn’t have to be a stance that a teacher takes. We can go in and talk about it,” she said.
Almquist emphasized that representatives of Fierce Freedom never speak where they are not invited.
“We don’t go anywhere without being invited. That gives us the leg up. They’ve heard of us, and they want to bring us in,” she said.
Fierce Freedom makes use of a video clip of a 17-year-old girl in the United States who did not realize she was being groomed.
“It is her true story. She talks about how she was being groomed for trafficking and didn’t know it until she was in it. It took four months of time on this person’s part. She was a waitress. This older man comes in and sits in her area for months and builds a relationship with her. What he does, he goes from there and talks to this good-looking young man who is actually the trafficker and tells him everything. That she really wants to go to Seattle. That she wants to go on vacation to Arizona,” Almquist said.
Then the younger man starts coming in where the teenager is waitressing.
“He comes in a few months later and starts talking about how he has a home in Seattle. He brings it all together. And she is thinking, ‘Wow. We have so much in common.’ It helps us get the conversation going. About how it could happen where you are working right now. Somebody could be grooming you, and this is what it could look like. It helps get the wheels turning. It looks many different ways.” Almquist said.
“Sometimes they will have a concert and want someone to come in and talk for ten minutes. And we say, ‘Here’s what it could look like. Here’s five examples in Eau Claire,’” she said.
The Altoona City Council recently discussed allowing a strip club to locate in the city.
“We went to testify about it. We’ve got the statistics that say what will happen to the community if the sex trade (sets up shop). You’re inviting them right in. Why would you want a culture of exploiting women in your community? When that first came up on the (Altoona) agenda, our phones blew up like crazy, asking us to come and testify,” Almquist said.
“We wanted to communicate in a way that would reach the city council, which was made up of all older gentlemen. It was great to hear them say that was the last thing they wanted in Altoona. Things are moving forward in a good way in that community. I am hoping that the culture of our area is that it is something we would not want,” she said.
Statistics show that a certain percentage of the girls who dance in strip clubs were sexually abused. “They say they want to do it. But statistics show they really don’t, and they feel trapped. It’s their skill set. They can’t get out. And why are we okay with that?” Almquist asked.
Another statistic that gives pause for thought is that 91 percent of prostitutes cannot get out.
“They have a pimp. They have no choice. And we think they are dirty and pathetic. That they chose to do it. But they can’t get out. It’s sex trafficking. They are being trafficked,” Almquist said.
While the Fierce Freedom team is in Thailand, the group is planning to do some filming.
“I am hoping when we are walking down the street (in the red light district) that the camera will capture a lot. I think we’ll be seeing a lot of American businessmen. That’s my piece that I want to bring back to show the reality. We’ll be gone for ten days. It will go fast. It will be hot,” Almquist said.
“I will have a better picture when we get back. I can tell you what we are going to do when we get there, but I can’t tell you what it was like until we get back,” she said.