HOLLAND, Mich. -- The issue of sex trafficking was in the spotlight at Hope College on Monday night as Human Trafficking Awareness Week began. Experts on the topic shined light on who is most at risk, and who is actually funding the illegal sex industry.
According to the National Trafficking Resource Center, there were more than 100 documented cases of sex trafficking in Michigan in 2014 and more than 400 cases reported over the past seven years.
The most common buyer of illegal sex is upper-middle class white men, said Andy Soper from Five Arrows Consulting.
"Not that everybody's dad and their golf buddy is out buying, that's not the point," said Soper. "But the point is that is the statistical buyer of sex. And you've got poverty, and you got people who have been abused sexually as a child, and they begin to learn that their value that they offer other people is their body and their sexuality."
Nearly 20,000 cases of sex trafficking have been reported since 2007, with more than 5,000 cases reported last year, says the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
Soper said that in West Michigan, seeking a way out of poverty typically leads a person into the illegal sex trade, "where young women report that they traded sex for a couch to sleep on, or young LGBT or young men specifically who have been kicked out of their homes for being gay and are then looking for some sort of acceptance."
"When we pick up girls from police stations, it's condoms and lubricant, baby wipes and a pack of smokes and a cell phone in their purse, and that's it," said Soper.
Last fall, Gov. Snyder signed 21 bills into law allowing for more assistance and protection for human sex trafficking victims, from clearing their criminal record of any crimes their pimps forced them to commit to creating a permanent anti-trafficking commission inside the attorney general's office.
While prosecuting the crimes are difficult, going through a trial and standing up to the person who forced a victim into sexual exploitation can be traumatizing, Soper said.
"We've worked cases where a 16-year-old girl who was pregnant with a trick baby, who was trafficked to Michigan from Florida, was out on the stand -- and didn't want to do it front of her pimp -- with pictures of her from the internet, mostly naked, up in the courtroom," Soper said. "How would you respond in that situation?"
Also, experts said, most commonly a sex trafficking victim is involved in some sort of a romantic relationship with the person who is pushing them to exploit their body.
And there's more: 30 percent of all human trafficking cases are not sexual, such as labor trafficking with migrant workers.