WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Annie Lobert loved the glitz, the glamour, and the money of working on the Las Vegas strip where she charged $1,000 for a massage and more for extra services as a high-class escort.
Las Vegas was a long way from her tumultuous childhood in rural Wisconsin, or her life in Minneapolis, the Midwestern city where she worked at an insurance firm while pole dancing at night for extra cash.
It was there that she met Julian, who bought her red roses and diamonds, sang her love songs and said he would protect her forever before whisking her off to a new life in Las Vegas.
“I had never had money like that before. It was fascinating, exhilarating and exciting. It was like my whole world became powerful. I was in control,” said Lobert in a telephone interview.
But in her book “Fallen”, released this year, 47-year-old Lobert describes how her dream life quickly turned into a nightmare as Julian started to beat her and forced her to work for more and more clients, becoming her pimp.
Lobert had unwittingly become another statistic in the sex trafficking industry and spent about 16 years trapped in the commercial sex industry before breaking free, now dedicating her life to helping other victims of exploitation.
There are no official estimates of the number of people trapped in slavery in the United States - whether sold for sex, forced to work in factories and fields, or born into servitude.
But in 2014, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline, operated by anti-slavery organisation Polaris, received reports of 3,598 sex trafficking cases inside the United States.
Lobert describes in her book the psychological hold that sex traffickers exert, exploiting low self esteem, a troubled family background and a gnawing hunger for love and affection to capture their victims in a destructive dependency.
“My greed, my lust and my need to be loved. That is how trafficking caught me,” Lobert said.
The violence was continual.
“This is domestic violence with a twist. You sell your body to guarantee that your boyfriend won’t beat you or treat you like a slave, but ironically you become a slave in the long run,” she writes in “Fallen”.
“I never knew about trafficking. Slavery was something bad in our past, something embarassing in our heritage and gone. But right up my nose, I was becoming the iconic American sex trafficked slave,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Lobert escaped from Julian twice, only to return. When she finally made the break she ended up with another man, who locked her up, put bars on her windows, and became her second pimp.
Her climb out of the sex trafficking industry was long and arduous.
She was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma, cancer of the lymph nodes, and underwent surgery and chemotherapy. Her eldest sister died of a heart attack. She became addicted to cocaine and an accidental overdose in 2003 almost claimed her life.
It was at that point that spirituality entered her life. Visiting Catholic churches in Italy and a Buddhist temple Lobert prayed for the courage to break free and turned her life around, aided by a former client who had fallen in love with her.
Today Lobert, who lives in Las Vegas with her guitarist husband Oz Fox from the rock band Stryper, runs an outreach service and safe house for women seeking to leave the commercial sex industry in Las Vegas.
She estimates she has reached 1,000s of women and girls in the sex trade and gives refuge to about a dozen each year.
She calls her work Hookers for Jesus, a name she knows many will disagree with and dislike.
“Why hookers? I say we are fishers of people who are enslaved, and we are willing to take your hand and walk you out. It is a rescuing hand from where you are drowning,” she said.
“Sex trafficking survivors are a beacon of hope for each other. We need survivor-led help, but we also need doctors, lawyers psychiatrists, entrepreneurial philanthropists to get involved.”
Reporting by Stella Dawson; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org