A trafficking victim describes her escape: ‘It was like something out of a movie’
More from the series
Slaves of the Sex Trade
Women and children are sold for sex every day online and in the streets of Fresno. Getting them out can be difficult, but some are trying.
Arien Pauls doesn’t look like someone who’s been through hell.
She flashes an easy smile as she speaks. Her voice is soft, but her words are deliberate and flow with eloquence. She has a distinct rockabilly style, with one arm bearing a tattoo modeled from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” and a hair clip featuring two large pink roses.
Looking at her, it’s hard to imagine that a man she loved forced her into slavery. For four years, Pauls was sold for sex on streets and in hotel rooms across the western half of the United States. She was barred from contacting her friends or family. She was arrested multiple times and treated like a criminal – a stigma that even now, five years later, is difficult to shake.
Her worst moments seem unimaginable.
Pauls’ trafficker – a man she believed to be her boyfriend – refused to take her to a hospital when one of the men he sold her to raped her. When she became pregnant with her trafficker’s baby, he forced her into an illegal, late-term abortion. When her reeling body began to produce breast milk after the abortion, her trafficker saw it as a moneymaker: Those with certain fetishes would pay extra now, he told her.
It took a daring late-night escape – her trafficker’s SUV roaring behind her getaway car on a Las Vegas street – to get out of that life. But once she returned to Fresno, her arrest record kept her from working in her chosen career, and she has struggled with the mental scars inflicted during her past life.
But Pauls has persevered. She’s built a new life for herself and her 3-year-old daughter, while also emerging as one of Fresno’s most vocal advocates against human trafficking. Although The Bee normally does not identify the victims of sexual assault, Pauls has been open about her story. She hopes to become a lawyer, offering the legal help she once desperately needed to fellow sex-trafficking survivors.
Even her clothing is a statement against the sex trade. The large roses she wears in her hair represent her reclamation of a symbol once branded on her chest, as her trafficker viewed himself as a “rose that grew from the concrete.” A series of painful procedures removed the brand, but she frequently dons the flowers as a reminder of her own control over her life.
That day in Modesto
Pauls’ life was never easy, even before she met him.
Her mother used drugs and abused her. Pauls was molested by several male family members as a child. She and her younger brothers often went hungry. She remembers having to walk several miles to the nearest food bank in order to help her family.
Shortly after graduating from Bullard High in 2007, Pauls lamented her lack of money on her MySpace page. She was working at a Taco Bell and struggling through community college, and she wished she could provide more for her younger brothers.
Her trafficker connected with her on social media and then used her postings against her. At first, he seemed to want a relationship. But after some time, he said he had a way for her to make that extra money she wanted for her siblings.
“I won’t forget the day he took me to Modesto,” Pauls said. “(He) took me to a hotel room, put some condoms on the bed, and said ‘When this guy comes in, just take the money and make him happy.’ ”
She continued: “I had an almost out-of-body experience. I left that room, and I wasn’t there. That’s how it continued to be for almost four years.”
After a few weeks, her trafficker moved Pauls to Los Angeles and cut off all contact she had with her friends and family. All contact with the outside world also was forbidden. Even talking a little too long to a store clerk could have consequences.
She lived out of hotels and a suitcase – though not necessarily the same suitcase. Whenever she was arrested, her trafficker would force her to flee without returning to their room to gather her things. She had to routinely replace the handful of items she was allowed to carry.
Pauls said she was honestly surprised the first time she was arrested by police who subsequently offered help. She began to wonder why they felt she needed help.
“As soon as I started questioning it, he started beating me,” she said. “And I didn’t question it anymore after that.”
For a while, she said, she didn’t care what happened to her. But that changed when she became pregnant. She remembers feeling a pull to get out of that life for her unborn child. When he forced her to have the abortion near the end of her second trimester, she knew she had to escape.
Fleeing her captor
For Pauls, her decision to leave came abruptly and shortly after the abortion.
Her trafficker had refused to give her money to buy condoms. She in turn refused to have sex with anyone.
“That of course made him furious,” she said. “And he attacked me. And he literally beat me until he physically passed out from exhaustion.”
After he passed out, she contacted another trafficking victim for a ride. As the two women drove through Las Vegas in the middle of the night, her trafficker’s massive white SUV began to close in. He followed them until Pauls was able to flag down a police officer.
It was fear, she said, that caused her to refer to her attacker as “her boyfriend” when talking to the officer. Her trafficker was eventually charged with domestic violence and avoided any serious penalties, she said.
When she returned to California, she sought help from the Fresno-based human trafficking advocacy group Breaking the Chains. She came to realize that her trafficker didn’t love her. He had used a variety of things in her life – her calls for help on social media, her family history of sexual abuse and neglect, and so on – to trap her in the sex trade.
Getting her life back on track was a struggle.
Her first few therapists – experts on treating rape and domestic violence victims – didn’t work out. She eventually found a therapist with experience treating human trafficking victims. She believes that many adult victims struggle to find even basic mental health care in Fresno, as there’s no real system in place to connect trafficked women with specific services.
She graduated from an emergency medical technician program only to be denied certification by Fresno County due to her prostitution convictions.
As she continued to learn about human trafficking, she decided to find a new purpose: helping other victims.
“I knew that I wanted to help keep this from happening to other women,” Pauls said. “I was just fresh out of being in that life as well, but I just knew inside of me that that was something I was called to do.”
She began to volunteer with Breaking the Chains and the Central Valley Justice Coalition, another leading local voice for human trafficking victims. She told her story to small groups of girls through the coalition’s My Life, My Choice program, which aims to educate high school students about the dangers of human trafficking recruitment. She also participates in the coalition’s Human Trafficking 101 classes, which are designed to educate the average person on the crime and how to report it.
During her talks, Pauls cautions young girls about the dangers of sharing too much of their personal stories and emotions on social media. She explains that traffickers are looking for vulnerabilities to exploit. She also talks about forming and maintaining healthy relationships.
The bottom line, she said, is that if any relationship seems too good to be true, it is. The promises of never having to work again or an easier life are empty.
Pauls is an unpaid volunteer, so she also works as an assistant catering manager to support her 3-year-old daughter and pay for college. She hopes that one day she’ll earn a law degree and then use her legal skills to take her advocacy even further.
In the past few years, she’s become one of the most public voices railing against human trafficking in Fresno. She’s appeared on television and in print media. She’s spoken at dinners, charity events and training sessions.
Pauls believes that continuing to raise awareness is the key to fighting human trafficking. She’s especially interested in correcting a common misconception that a 40-year-old woman prostituting herself on the street to support a drug habit is not a victim or does not deserve help.
“Why is she any less deserving of services or a chance at a second life?” Pauls said. “At some point, somebody put her out there and took advantage of her. And because there were no services available, that’s the life that she ended up staying in.”
She continued: “No little girl wakes up and says ‘You know what, I’m going to be a prostitute today. I’m just going to go outside and sell my body.’ … At some point, she got lost out there.”
To get help or help others:
National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888
This number can be used to report anyone in need of assistance and does not require the caller to contact law enforcement.
To fight trafficking: