Rebecca Bender didn’t realize she’d been trafficked.
She understood she’d been forced into prostitution by her boyfriend when she was 19. That he had tricked her into believing she’d only be dancing for men. That instead the men had raped her.
It was more than two years after her escape before she realized the coercive tactics her boyfriend had used were appallingly common among traffickers.
Now, 10 years after her escape from a violent trafficker in Las Vegas, the Oregon native is running a national nonprofit (www.rebeccabender.org) to aid fellow sex trafficking survivors and train police officers to rescue victims. Bender will speak Wednesday at Oregon State University about her experiences and ensuing activism. Her presentation is free and open to the public.
Bender had been a varsity soccer player and a cheerleader at Grants Pass High School. She graduated in 1998 and had been accepted at Oregon State University.
But that summer, she got pregnant.
She considered her choices: have the baby and live with her parents in Grants Pass or have an abortion and go to college and pretend nothing had happened.
“That was a hard decision for me at 17,” Bender said last month at her office in Grants Pass. “But I chose to keep my daughter, and I’m very glad I did because she is an amazing young woman today. She is also what kept me fighting for my life when things took a tumultuous downward spiral.”
When Bender’s daughter was about 6 months old, some friends Bender had gone to high school with who were now attending the University of Oregon asked if she and the baby wanted to move in to a house with them in Eugene.
Bender relished the opportunity to still have a college experience. But she soon realized she was the “girl with the kid.” When she’d go out with guys they often wouldn’t call for a second date after finding out she had a baby. It made Bender feel unimportant and alone.
Then she met someone at Taylor’s Bar in Eugene. He was charming and funny. He drove a Denali and wore nice clothes. He told her he was a music producer in Portland and was in town visiting friends.
They started dating. Bender would drive up to Portland and stay at his townhouse. During one weekend in Portland, when the baby was with Bender’s mother, the couple went to a concert and Bender’s boyfriend walked backstage to talk with the band.
“It gave me the impression that he was this music producer,” she said. “It looked convincing. The internet wasn’t the first place you turned to back in 2000 or 2001 to do research. That’s just not what you did, you kind of just took it at face value.”
When one of Bender’s roommates started dancing at the Silver Dollar strip club in Eugene, Bender’s boyfriend pressured her to start dancing too. One of Bender’s aunts had been a dancer, so she didn’t think it was too abnormal. She started dancing on occasion to make some money. Her boyfriend pressed her to do more. He wanted her to dance at a private party for a fraternity.
“He just kept slowly pushing my boundaries and I didn’t realize that the water was heating up around me, that I was being desensitized,” Bender said.
After about six months of dating, her boyfriend said his job was relocating him to Las Vegas. He told Bender he wanted her and the baby to move with him but that he didn’t think Vegas was a good place to raise a family. Bender was excited that her boyfriend saw them as a family, so she packed her things in a U-Haul.
When they got to Vegas her boyfriend had already leased an apartment, which impressed Bender.
“I think when you’re a teenage mom you’re always trying to do it on your own and figure it out and here comes someone who’s helping …” she said. “I was a little bit not only grateful, but enamored.”
Their first night in Vegas, Bender’s boyfriend said they should leave the baby with his brother, who was living with them, so they could have a night out.
But Bender’s boyfriend didn’t take her to a nightclub like he had said he would. Instead, he drove to a dead end street near a defunct strip mall. He parked along the curb and turned to look at Bender.
“I thought we were going to have a serious conversation,” she said. “I wasn’t nervous, I was kind of excited, like he was going to tell me he loves me or something.”
He told her he had spent a lot of money to move her to Las Vegas. Bender started apologizing. She felt like a burden. She felt stupid for not realizing the expense of moving.
“He said, ‘Do you see the door with the camera over it? That’s an escort business and I’m gonna need you to go in and sign up,’” Bender said.
She told her boyfriend that sounded like prostitution. He said no, it’s just dancing, like at the Silver Dollar. He told her it was different in Vegas, that this was how they booked dancers for hotel suites.
Bender persisted. She said it sounded like prostitution.
That’s when he hit her for the first time, slapping her across the face.
“He said, ‘You’re going to go inside and you’re going to get my money back,’” Bender said.
Bender realized she didn’t know her address in Las Vegas. She didn’t know where her baby was. They were in a deserted area. Even if someone passed by, she wouldn’t know where to tell them to take her.
“So I complied out of fear,” she said.
She went inside. It was a small room with three women sitting at desks. They were smoking cigarettes. Bender saw a dry erase board on the wall with five columns: blonde, brunette, redhead, Asian and exotic. There were girls’ names under each, names like Candy and Bambi. Bender felt some reassurance. They were stage names, she thought, so maybe this was just dancing.
The women had Bender fill out forms stating she was over 18 and that she wouldn’t solicit people for sex.
“I’m like OK, maybe I can believe him,” Bender said. “It’ll be a couple dances like I did in the Silver Dollar, then things will go back to normal as soon as I make the money back. So I’m like going along with it because I’m being deceived.”
One of the women asked Bender to go buy her a pack of cigarettes, so she and her boyfriend drove to a 7-Eleven. The cashier asked Bender for her ID. He asked her, “Are all of you from Oregon?” Bender responded, “All of who?” He said, “You know.”
“That really stuck with me ‘cause I ended up meeting a lot of girls from Oregon over the years,” Bender said.
That night Bender got her first call. Her boyfriend drove to a townhouse, parked the car a little ways down the street from the driveway and told Bender to walk to the house. He told her the man should pay her a dancing fee and a tip.
“It was all happening so fast,” Bender said.
She knocked on the front door and was surprised by the man who answered. He was young and attractive with wavy black hair. He reminded Bender of a high school quarterback. She thought maybe she could trust him.
He opened his wallet and handed Bender a little over $300. She started to give him a lap dance. He looked at her quizzically and then pulled her on top of him.
“I kind of froze and before I could even think about, what do I do, it was over,” she said.
Bender walked back to the car. Her boyfriend asked, “How much did we make?” She told him and he put his hand out. She removed the money from her purse and handed it to him.
“He said, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll do better next time. You didn’t have sex for this, right?’”
Bender started crying. She wondered how she ended up in this situation. How her relationship had turned into this. How she had crossed lines in her life that she swore she’d never cross.
Bender’s boyfriend — the man who became her first trafficker — would slap her, choke her and grip her arms hard enough to leave fingerprint bruises, she said. Sometimes the cops would be called for domestic disturbances.
He isolated her in their apartment. Bender had taken her car with her to Las Vegas, but her trafficker’s brother usually drove it. Sometimes she’d take her daughter to the pool at the apartment complex or to a nearby park. Since her trafficker took all the money she earned, she couldn’t buy groceries or pay bills on her own. He would pay for everything in cash.
“For me it felt like domestic violence,” she said. “I didn’t realize, I’m being forced into prostitution.”
At night, Bender’s trafficker drove her to clients, typically in hotels. There were sometimes as many as 10 a night. It wasn’t always sex, she said. Her trafficker would wait outside the door and grab her purse as soon as she left. She said she was monitored all the time, allowing him to brainwash her. While working, her trafficker’s brother would watch her baby.
Bender’s trafficker started giving her drugs and she developed a cocaine habit, she said. She wanted to numb her brain so she didn’t have to feel what was happening to her. She felt lost and ashamed.
“It was not a proud moment for me as a mother,” Bender said.
After a year, Bender’s mom arrived in Las Vegas, suspecting that something was wrong. She asked Bender if her boyfriend was hitting her.
“Everyone just thought drugs and abuse,” she said. “No one really thought human trafficking in America. No one thinks that. I didn’t think that.”
Bender told her mom she was fine. But after seeing that the young mother was strung out on cocaine, Bender’s mom took her granddaughter back to Oregon with her. She told Bender she could have her daughter back if she turned her life around.
Losing her daughter was the motivation Bender needed to get clean. Her mom sent her a list of rehab centers and she chose the only one that could take her right away: a faith-based center in Portland.
During her year in rehab, Bender did get clean. She even started leading groups at the center, tapping into leadership abilities she didn’t know she had. But the treatment only focused on drug abuse. It didn’t address the trauma of being forced into prostitution or the capture bonding relationship she had with her boyfriend-turned-trafficker.
Bender was working part-time at a Cingular Wireless store in Portland when she called her boyfriend and told him she had gotten clean.
“He said, ‘You and the baby should come home. Things are different now, you’re different now,’” Bender said. “It was like Pavlov’s dog. He rang the bell and I just started salivating again because I never went through any treatment for brainwashing.”
He had convinced her that if she wasn’t using drugs she wouldn’t have to have sex for money. That they had gotten the money back for the move, but now all their cash was going toward cocaine.
“He was always deflecting the blame on me,” Bender said.
So she returned to Vegas, believing things would be different.
Many of the details of Bender's case are common among victims of trafficking, experts say. According to Polaris Project, a nonprofit that works to combat human trafficking, many sex trafficking victims become romantically involved with someone who then forces or manipulates them into prostitution.
Others are lured in with false promises of a job, such as modeling or dancing. Some are forced to sell sex by their parents or other family members, the nonprofit states.
According to Polaris Project, situations where traffickers kidnap their victims and force them into prostitution are rare in comparison to the number of victims recruited through other means. The Department of Homeland Security defines human trafficking as the use of force, fraud or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.
Traffickers target vulnerable populations, including undocumented immigrants, the homeless and those that are vulnerable due to economic hardship, according to Homeland Security. Traffickers prey on victims with little or no social safety net. For Bender, she felt unimportant and alone as a teenage mother.
Traffickers actively work to break down their victims’ psyche and develop control over them through manipulation, feigned affection, brutal violence, isolation and emotional abuse. Many survivors Polaris Project has worked with described being unable to leave a particular area due to their controller’s constant monitoring.
Economic abuse is frequently used by traffickers as a means of control, Polaris Project says. This forces victims to become financially dependent on their controllers. Many survivors have told Polaris Project that their traffickers required nightly quotas, so if they didn’t make at least a certain amount of money each night, there could be repercussions such as physical abuse or being denied necessities like food.
Similar to victims of domestic violence, many victims feel love or a sense of loyalty to their controller, according to Polaris Project. For Bender, this was strengthened by her romantic relationship with her trafficker and her financial reliance on him.
According to Homeland Security, victims rarely come forward to seek help. This might be due to fear of their traffickers, language barriers or fear of law enforcement. The trauma can be so great that many may not identify themselves as victims or ask for help, even in highly public settings.
The International Labor Organization estimates that there are 4.5 million people trapped in forced sexual exploitation globally.
In the United States, there were 5,593 sex trafficking cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline in 2016. Since 2007, the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which is operated by Polaris Project, has received reports of 22,191 sex trafficking cases inside the United States.
When Bender returned to Las Vegas and her boyfriend forced her back into prostitution, she told him she wanted to leave.
He reacted violently. He wasn’t about to let his product walk out the door for good, Bender said. He threatened to kill Bender and her daughter.
That’s when Bender met a girl through the escort service who said she owned her own home. The girl, whose street name was Jillian, told Bender if she joined her “stable,” Bender would be able to keep some of the money she made. Bender thought she could save up money and buy her own house.
A stable is a group of victims under the control of one pimp, Bender said. She said leaving one pimp for another is called “choosing up.”
“You can’t just leave one stable and go and become square,” Bender said. A square is someone who lives a normal lifestyle. “But you are allowed to choose up, or leave one stable and choose another stable. Because this stable will protect you. So now you have the protection of one gang from another gang.”
Jillian also told Bender that the girls in the stable were friends. That they had “sister days” when they’d go to the movies or to a spa. She said they would throw each other birthday parties.
“I thought, I haven’t had a friend in years,” Bender said. “The only human interaction that I had was with a man who beat me or a man who raped me. I didn’t get to have any friends.”
Jillian showed Bender the 5,000 square foot homes where the girls lived, and she was sold.
But the day Bender moved into one of the homes, her new trafficker picked her up by the throat and dropped her on the ground. He told Bender, “You’ll find your daughter on the corner if you don’t come home with $1,500 tonight.” When Bender did come home, he beat her and strip-searched her so he could take every dollar. The other girls would sneak ice packs to her and tell her she had a spirit that wouldn’t be broken.
Bender was also sometimes beaten by the men who purchased sex from her. In one instance, a Russian man at the MGM had been using cocaine and was unable to perform sexually. He beat Bender and demanded his money back.
“But I’m going to be beaten if I don’t come home with some money so then I’m in this real bind,” she said.
The man kicked Bender out of her room, keeping the money.
“So I knew I was going to get in trouble when I got home,” she said.
Bender said another client strangled her. She remembers pulling on his hands and gasping the word “Please.” Her arms and legs became weak and her vision went dim. Finally, the man let go and Bender ran from the hotel room. To this day she thanks God for saving her life.
Bender said her trafficker would keep her up at night, training her on what to say if she was ever arrested. He would punch her while she begged to go to sleep. The man would usually wait until Bender’s daughter had been put to bed so she didn’t see. Sometimes he would take the child to one of the other homes. Bender remembers driving away on those occasions, sick to her stomach and wondering when the beatings would begin.
“It was just constant fear and constant abuse,” she said. Her trafficker even branded her, she said, by tattooing his name on her back.
Bender tried to run away. She and her daughter went to Grants Pass to stay with her mom. But her trafficker followed her there. She begged him not to hurt anybody. He told her it was time to come home.
Bender said her mom called the police several times while Bender was living with the second trafficker. But Bender hadn’t given her an address, so the police said there wasn’t anything they could do.
In 2006, federal officials raided a home in Dallas, Texas, connected to Bender’s trafficker, she said. Her trafficker moved Bender and the other girls into hotel rooms throughout Vegas, moving them frequently to avoid detection.
About 5 a.m. one morning, her trafficker’s phone rang. Jillian told him U.S. marshals were surrounding one of the townhouses.
“We could hear them on the bullhorn: ‘Come out with your hands up. We have a warrant for your arrest,’” Bender said.
Her trafficker told Jillian to flush the sim card from her cell phone and hide all the cash in the house. He told her to keep her mouth shut.
The marshals raided the home, finding the money and Jillian’s fake ID, Bender said.
“She was a minor when he started trafficking her,” she said. “So he made her get a fake ID to pretend she was an adult.”
She said Jillian and the other women who were arrested were held without bail under the RICO Act, a federal organized crime law. Police told Jillian they wanted to go after her trafficker, but, as she’d been instructed, she stayed silent, Bender said. Authorities charged Jillian and the other women with tax evasion and each was sentenced to one year in prison, she said.
During this time, Bender kept working, trying to stay current on the mortgage payments for the group’s four houses. She was also expected to make their car payments and pay for their attorney bills. Her trafficker told her to work more.
“I’m losing weight. I weigh 95 pounds,” Bender said. “I look like I’m strung out and I’m not on drugs. I’m so stressed and just constantly abused. Sick to my stomach all the time. My hair is falling out in clumps. It was the worst ever. I wanted to die. I literally wanted to die,” she said.
She passed out in the Hard Rock Casino and was taken to a hospital for dehydration, she said. Her trafficker came to the emergency room and forced her to go back to work.
“He said, ‘You need to get this money. Drink a Red Bull or something,’” Bender said.
She said her trafficker lashed out more than usual during this time, fearing the girls who had been taken to jail might start talking about what he’d done. One day, the man severely beat his 15-year-old son, who lived with them, Bender said.
“There was blood everywhere and he drug him back to his room and beat him in his room,” she said. “Then he came out and he said to me, ‘Clean up this blood before it stains my carpet.’”
She said her daughter, who was about 7 at the time, witnessed the assault and remembers it to this day. In a panic, Bender called her aunt, who worked in a Grants Pass shelter for survivors of domestic violence. She told her what happened with the teenage boy. Bender told her aunt the man had never hit her daughter. Her aunt said it was only a matter of time.
Bender’s trafficker had also been charged with tax evasion. He accepted a plea deal for 18 months in prison and was given a self-surrender date. Bender saw her chance to get away, knowing that at least for a little while, he couldn’t follow her.
It was Dec. 31, 2007, six years after she’d moved to Nevada with a man she had thought loved her.
Bender flew to the Medford airport, where her aunt picked her up. But she wanted to run further and soon moved to England to live with a man she knew there.
“I fled to London because I knew if he couldn’t find me he would move on,” Bender said.
After about a year, when things weren’t working out with the man, she moved back to Grants Pass. She was 26 years old. She was homeless. She was traumatized from the abuse she had endured for years. She had a gap in her job history she didn’t know how to explain. She missed her friends and worried about the women she had left behind.
But gradually she began to take control of her life.
Bender started working at a customer service center, where she was soon promoted to general manager. She started going to church, where she met the man she would marry in 2009. She began to feel some hope again. She thought maybe she could be a normal young woman.
She had a second child with her husband and she graduated from Rogue Community College.
One morning, Bender woke before her children. While drinking a cup of coffee in her kitchen, the sun started to rise. She felt sick to her stomach as she thought of her trafficker, who would make her stay out all night, working until sunrise. She thought, what is beautiful to most people makes her sick.
“And then I just had this feeling, like, how can I sit here and do nothing?” Bender said. “How can I sit here in my nice beautiful home with my warm cup of coffee when I know what it’s like to be more afraid to go home than you are to get in a car with a stranger?”
She started sharing her story. She’d go to churches and women’s groups and talk about sexual exploitation. She shared how her boyfriend had forced her into prostitution.
It wasn’t until Bender was invited to a screening of the documentary “Nefarious: Merchant of Souls” that she realized she’d been trafficked. The film explores the realities of the human trafficking industry in countries throughout the world, including the United States.
“It hit me that just because I lived in a different culture than Cambodia doesn’t mean the force, fraud, coercion and trauma wasn’t just as extreme,” Bender said. “It was just a different culture, a different setting where sex is for sale rampantly in Las Vegas.”
Bender recalled how her boyfriend had tricked her, saying she’d only be dancing for men. She remembered signing the forms saying she wouldn’t solicit anyone for sex.
“I think everyone only thinks of force, thinks of abductions, kidnappings, beatings, being locked in rooms,” Bender said.
She said most people don’t understand how traffickers use fraud to lure their victims.
“I think the general public doesn’t think about that, and it’s important that they do,” Bender said. “Because otherwise it breeds judgement.”
Bender’s first book, called “Roadmap to Redemption,” is a faith-based workbook for sex trafficking survivors. She also created an online school called Elevate, a 16-module course to guide survivors through healing, professional development and discovery of leadership skills.
She’s working on two additional books, one to help activists identify ways to fight human trafficking, the other a memoir. She is also pursuing a master’s degree from Bethel Seminary. She and her husband have four girls. Bender’s first daughter, Deshae, is now 18 and is attending University of California, Berkeley, where she runs track.
Bender speaks throughout the county, sharing both her story and her work to fight sex trafficking and aid survivors.
She has created law enforcement training employed by thousands of FBI agents, Homeland Security officers and undercover cops, informing them of the tactics used by traffickers. She also works with local and federal law enforcement officers, providing expert advice during investigations and testifying at trials.
Detective James Williams of the Medford Police Department said Bender has helped facilitate a paradigm shift in law enforcement to recognize survivors as victims and not perpetrators of crimes.
“I think for the Medford Police Department, and probably for many other police departments, there are relatively few people that we can go to that have Rebecca’s experience and training that are as willing as Rebecca to help at any time,” Williams said.
He said Bender is able to function at all levels of expertise in the field of sex trafficking, from helping police understand the different avenues criminals use to traffic people to providing expert information to prosecutors to being an advocate for survivors.
Williams said Bender has also helped law enforcement understand that trafficking not only involves child victims but that men and women are forced into commercial sexual exploitation as well.
In addition to working with law enforcement, Bender trains emergency medical providers on recognizing the signs of trafficking. She has also helped establish safe homes.
Bender thinks back on the time she spent feeling hopeless and unsure what to do with her life. Now, she feels honored to be empowering fellow survivors.
“As I started sharing my story, I wanted it to be more than just a sob story,” Bender said. “I wanted there to be an objective.”