Windie Jo Lazenko is a sex-trafficking survivor. Now she’s working to help other women find a way out—even as she educates the public about a problem many don’t understand.
Lazenko was 13 years old when she escaped an abusive home situation in California for what she thought was a safe life. She went to live with a friendly-seeming couple she’d met through a local motorcycle gang, and if at first she “earned her keep” by doing small domestic chores, those chores soon turned sexual. By the time Lazenko was 16 years old, the couple had branded her with a tattoo reading “Property of” and made her dance at a strip club. Shortly after that, they began prostituting her to friends and fellow gang members. Part of the complexity of the situation was that Lazenko, while traumatized, didn’t completely grasp that she was being abused.
“I was in search of a family, and they provided me with a sense of value, however messed up,” she told Time magazine in January 2019. “I saw them as the people who had saved me, when they were actually the people who were victimizing me the worst.” It was when the gang started pressuring her to recruit other girls that Lazenko understood she didn’t want anyone else experiencing what she had. She ran away.
It took Lazenko time to reflect and recover, but in 2007 she started working with anti-trafficking organizations, both drawing from her own experiences and learning on the job how to serve victims. After discovering that the Bakken oil fields had spawned a virulent trafficking trade in Williston, North Dakota, Lazenko founded 4her North Dakota, a one-woman crusade dedicated to helping victims and building awareness about the sex-trafficking nightmare.
Lazenko stresses that part of that awareness means throwing any preconceptions out the window and understanding that sex trafficking cuts across all manner of lines, from racial to sociological. “These are girls from two-parent homes in the Midwest, girls from the inner city, girls from the reservation,” she says. “They are valedictorians, rebels and runaways.” Part of her mission is educating locals on what to look for. She’s taught hotel managers, bartenders, and baristas how to watch for warning signs: girls in the company of controlling men, say, or inked with “ownership tattoos” like her own. She’s given presentations to police and social-service organizations about the best way to work with potential victims. She’s gone with federal investigators on raids and testified before state lawmakers. And she works with victims one-on-one.
The fact that Lazenko has been a victim herself goes a long way toward building trust. Her work with Danielle Knoblauch is a perfect example: Knoblauch is a mother of three in her 40s, who was forced into sex trafficking when her husband was sent to jail, leaving drug debt and dealers who were all too happy to use Knoblauch to pay it off. “People always say, ‘That could never happen to me; I’m too smart,” Knoblauch says. “[People] thought I was lying. They treated me as an addict and a whore.” But in Lazenko, Knoblauch found someone who deeply understands the journey a victim is on.
Lazenko also understands the necessity of shining a light on something ugly. “We have to keep talking about sex trafficking,” she says. “[O]therwise it will stay a hidden epidemic.”
Thumbnail credit: Screen shot from The Hidden Epidemic of Sex Trafficking in the U.S. via Time.com.
Janice Deal is a writer, an editor, and a lover of found objects. Her short-story collection, The Decline of Pigeons (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2013), was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her first novel, The Sound of Rabbits, was recently named a finalist in the Many Voices Project Prose competition. Janice lives in Downers Grove, Illinois, with her husband, daughter, and three disreputable cats.
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