At the age of 18, Kimberly Benson was kidnapped and forced to engage in sex acts for money. Years after escaping that life, Benson now runs A Bridge of Hope Ministries, an organization that provides resources to help restore the lives of adult victims of human trafficking.
In light of National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, which was declared for January by President Barack Obama in 2010, Benson is visiting churches and social organizations to inform people about the problem of human trafficking in the Mid-South and ways they can identify and report it.
"I want people to start a dialogue," Benson said. "The best way to combat a problem of this magnitude is to bring awareness. And the only way to bring awareness is to start talking about it, because most people correlate human trafficking with sex trafficking, but that's taboo. Human trafficking is broader than just sex trafficking and people need to start learning what it is [and] where it is."
Human trafficking is the second-largest criminal enterprise in the world, behind illegal drug distribution, and also the fastest-growing. The trade of humans for sexual slavery or forced labor generates up to $32 billion in annual profits, according to the National Association of Attorneys General.
According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation's 2011 Tennessee Human Sex Trafficking Study, 78 out of 95 counties in the state reported at least one case of human sex trafficking over a 24-month period. Shelby County was among four counties, including Davidson, Coffee, and Knox, that reported more than 100 cases of both adult and minor sex trafficking.
Last April, Osbie Antonio Sea, better known by his rap alias, Mr. Money, was arrested for allegedly trafficking a 14-year-old girl he met in a Raleigh Kmart. Sea will report to federal court in February. If convicted, he faces a minimum of 15 years.
Millington resident Michael Lilley was recently indicted for trafficking teens for commercial sex at his home and other locations. If convicted, he faces a minimum sentence of 10 years for each child sex trafficking charge. He also faces additional charges for child pornography production and distribution.
Benson said she's thankful that there's more attention being placed on combatting human trafficking and providing resources to victims.
"There was nobody there to tell me, 'It's going to be okay. I can help you get out of this mess'," Benson said. "Going through it was pure hell, but I'm a person of faith. It was because of people surrounding me and actually loving me for me that I was able to get out. And that's the reason that our organization was birthed, to be able to help people who didn't have help and give hope to the hopeless. People need to know that they are not alone, that there are people out there who won't revictimize you, who will stand there and fight with you."
Those who suspect human trafficking can contact the national human trafficking resource center hotline at 888-3737-888. They can also text HELP or INFO to BeFree (233733).
For more information on A Bridge of Hope Ministries' upcoming events, visit