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    This piece was originally posted on May 2, 2018.

    The human trafficking hotline number is 1-888-373-7888.


    Everybody knows the Kentucky Derby is about making money. That’s why Kristy Love came here. Seventeen years old, hair and nails done, in a nice hotel, drinking. She’d never heard of the horse race before, but got hyped thinking about the thousands she could make in a day, the possibility of sleeping with a superstar. She’d made the ride to Louisville from her hometown of Cincinnati with her pimp, who was a white dude she thought looked like a member of the Bee Gees, and a few other girls — her competition.

    Love considered herself a moneymaker. Young. Nice shape, like TV’s Christie Love, the African-American lead actress from the 70’s, the crime fighter. That’s who the pimp named her after. The two Loves had the same dark skin. Both real slim. The 17-year-old Love was fit from a life of turning tricks. She’d be good for Derby. And after that: Atlanta’s now defunct Freaknik festival.

    She’d worked the streets since she was nine, when she met her sugar daddy. “He’d give me $40 to take to school. That’s a lot for a kid in 1982,” she says, remembering the rumble of his truck. “I didn’t know I was being groomed.” They’d eat Italian food. Do some drugs. Hit the strip.

    Love would dress in her favorite outfit: fishnets, baby doll ruffle socks, short shorts and her grandma’s shiny patent leather shoes from Sears, which she felt protected in. Love felt pretty, felt loved. She hoped she wasn’t hurting her grandma, a good Christian woman who she’d crash with sometimes. Grandma knew. Had to.

    Still, no one stopped her. No one stopped someone close from raping Love repeatedly from the time she was three years old. No one stopped a pillow from pressing into her face. She took the abuse, then took the lollipop, sucking on her secret. “I always thought in order to get someone to like me, love me, that I had to use my body,” she says.         

    So, the streets. No high school, no prom. Instead: the wall she’d sit on, waiting for a car to roll up. A quick blow job on a man’s morning commute, or a trip to a motel. She had a baby at 13, six kids by 21.

    There were rules, of course. Never tell a client you love him. Never tell him you have kids. Report back to the pimp with all the money; lean in the car window and give him the $50 or $100 or whatever and get blown out by a cloud of cigarette smoke. Don’t fight. Not if they drag you down stairs. Not if they slap you so hard you lose an earring. Not if they choke you out.

    In a way, Love was proud of the rings around her neck. She thought it was a talent, being choked. Thought it made her a star, to be able to endure this kink. It all seemed normal. She wasn’t aware then that she was being trafficked. She now knows the choking as the suffocation of trauma, of the pillow over her three-year-old face. She now knows that all those days and Derbies she was just “real trained up.” The mind control stronger than a thoroughbred. Reins around the brain.


    It’s the week of the 144th Kentucky Derby and things are on lockdown at the Kristy Love Foundation. Love goes by her real name now: Angela Renfro. When she was 29, “a collaboration between God and jail,” she says, helped her take her first steps toward freedom. Now 49 years old, she’s been out of “the life” almost 20 years.

    Renfro is the founder of the survivor-led non-profit that helps and houses victims of human trafficking. The shelters offer recovery programs, parenting courses, job training, art therapy, morning meditation.

    Human trafficking is defined by the federal government as the use of force, fraud or coercion for labor or sexual exchange — unless you’re under 18, in which case such crimes are considered trafficking without stipulation. (Kentucky passed the Safe Harbor Law protecting kids from prostitution prosecution in 2013.) It’s a felony, and can earn 10 to 15 years in prison.

    Renfro’s got to get the girls ready for the nonprofit’s third annual Hats Off to Survivors event the next day. It’s a luncheon where several people will speak about trafficking, among them Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear, who counts anti-trafficking efforts as one of his missions, getting truckers and housekeepers and schools trained to recognize signs of trafficking like timidity, submissiveness, disorientation. Derby hats are lined on a couch for the gala: black, blinging, bouqueted. Renfro holds a meeting with nine women in one of her three West End homes. (She’s currently working with a total of 19 and says she’s helped over 700 since 2012.) It’s a pep talk mixed with real talk in the cramped but cozy living room.

    “Hats Off is about changing your all’s perspectives on Derby. It’s about bringing you dignity,” she says, her eyes bright with pink eyeshadow like a spring flower, her “Black and Beautiful” shirt hugging her. “It’s about emphasizing your freedom.”

    Renfro knows Derby is a hard time. Some of the women are freshly clean off drugs; others are in the long process of healing from “the life.” Easy to get sucked back in. Guys are already trying to pick up her girls at bus stops, offering dope.

    Renfro’s story is not uncommon in this region, except for the fact that it’s being told. Most cases of human trafficking go unreported, keeping it a 99 billion-dollar industry. Louisville is always a hub for trafficking, because of where the interstates cross over, the current opioid epidemic (people selling themselves or their kids for a fix) and big events like the Farm Machinery Show and Derby, where money and booze flow and sex is like a sure bet.

    The women in the room — black, white, young adults and 60-somethings — look up, down, around. The talk gets tense. One woman calls Derby “a city out of control.”

    According to the Kentucky Statewide Human Trafficking Task Force’s 2017 annual report and data taken from the Polaris Project — an organization that runs the national trafficking hotline, collecting a database of reports — 25 of 88 trafficking incidents reported in Kentucky last year occurred in Jefferson County. Sixty-nine of the reports were sex cases, and most victims were girls between the ages of 12 and 14. The majority of them had been exploited by a family member or intimate partner. (The Louisville Metro Police Department and Attorney General’s office are currently investigating several cases in Louisville.)

    Renfro knows it all too well. As she speaks, several ladies cry — a head bends into needle-bruised arms, hair falls over faces, teardrops steady. They know it all too well, too.


    “Human trafficking is a supply and demand business,” says University of Louisville professor Theresa Hayden, who teaches a course on the subject and is the board chair for People Against Trafficking Humans Coalition of Kentucky (PATH). “As long as people are demanding human beings, there’s always going to be someone out there supplying.”

    From April 2013 to August 2014, Hayden and a group of students monitored advertisements on, an online marketplace that was known for its sexually illicit commercial ads, and which has been referred to as “Craigslist’s creepy cousin.” The study found that the number of ads increased the day before and of events such as Derby, Labor Day and 2014’s NCAA Tournament, which brought in over 160 sexually-explicit ads a day, compared to the average 53. Titles like “Sweet like Candy,” “New in Town,” “Juicylicious” with umbrella and raindrop emojis, code for condoms and semen, swarmed the site. Words like “pristine” represented youth.

    This April, the federal government seized Backpage, authorities believing that the third party content it hosted enabled prostitution and the trafficking of underage victims. Soon after, President Trump signed the Stop Enabling Sex-Trafficking Act (SESTA) and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) bills. The bills create an exception in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which basically keeps the Internet “free.” It says that website publishers will be responsible if third parties post prostitution ads (including for consensual sex work) on their platforms. The bill doesn’t go into effect until next year, but already, Craigslist personal ads and sites like Erotic Review (like a Yelp for sex work) have shuttered; sex-related payment on PayPal has been disabled.

    Renfro was never a part of the online sex business — she worked the curbs, walked the stroll — but thinks it’s a good step forward. “This phone is the most dangerous technology,” she says during a survivors’ panel at a trafficking conference at Indiana University Southeast. She’s worried about all these kids locked in their rooms with their smart phones, plugging away.

    “I’m sure by the end of the week, we’ll have another site already up. And that’s why we have to stay informed. We have to stay educated,” says Summer Dickerson, a survivor and leader of Women of the Well, who also has a house for women who’ve been trafficked. She also experienced her fair share of Derbies: 30 to 40 customers a night. “I don’t want to see another person go through what I’ve been through,” she says.

    “(The traffickers are) always a step ahead,” says Amy Leenerts, founder of Free2Hope, a non-profit devoted to prevention programs and training the public to recognize human trafficking. She thinks the removal of Backpage will make finding missing people more difficult, that outlet invisible. Her organization, along with Women of the Well and Kristy Love, work together with volunteers to do outreach around Louisville. They put Free2Hope signs in business windows to raise awareness. On them: the National Human Trafficking Hotline Number and a list of trafficking red flags — “Fearful? Timid? Submissive?” “Do they appear to be coached on what to say?” (This Derby, there are Free2Love stickers advertised in all TARC buses as part of a “Not in My City” outreach.)

    Louisville Metro Police Department’s Sergeant Tim Stokes agrees that the dissemination of Backpage won’t slow things down. “The problem is bigger than Backpage,” he says. “It’s bigger than our solely policing it. It’s a social phenomenon.”

    Besides, demand is demand. What Stokes calls “demand reduction” is a big focus within the Special Victims Sex Crimes Unit. Curb the demand, scare people out of making dates. In February, LMPD conducted a sting during Louisville’s annual farm machinery show. The SVU posted an ad of a female undercover cop in a spaghetti-strap shirt and spandex shorts — no suggestive pose, only a phone number in the text —  to different social media sites (including Backpage, Call Escorts, Facebook and Instagram. Within an hour, they received 200 calls. They told “clients” to meet them at an undisclosed hotel.

    One guy pissed his pants when he opened the door and saw police. They seized the money he’d prepped for the deal and put it into the human trafficking victims fund. LMPD ended up arresting 17 people within the two-day detail. Ages 19 to 74. White males, black males, Asian males, Latino males. All walks of life — drug dealers, dads, truck drivers, business people and professionals. “I don’t know that there is a picture of what a human trafficker or john looks like that would be an accurate representation,” Stokes says.

    LMPD may or may not have a similar operation planned for Derby, but on Wednesday morning the week of, Stokes tells me this: “Everything is in place. We’re ready to hit it hard.”


    On Derby day last year, the women at the Kristy Love house gathered in a grassy patch down the road and poked colorful pinwheels into the dirt. Each pinwheel in honor of someone sexually abused, trafficked, lost to the trade. The cool wind blew through the metallic, spinning garden like a breath. Balloons lifted like goodbye.

    This year, it’s keep busy, keep safe. Renfro is going to take the girls to Kings Island. They’ve already got the tickets. Sometimes moving forward means getting away.


    To learn more about sex trafficking at the Kentucky Derby and the Kristy Love Foundation, click here.

    The human trafficking hotline number is 1-888-373-7888.

    Cover photo: Pixabay

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