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‘I Believed It’: Sex Trafficking Survivor Explains How Vulnerable Women are Tricked into Prostitution

SACRAMENTO -- When the sun sets in Oak Park, a not-so-secret society steps out onto Stockton Boulevard.

"Trafficking victims walking around the streets and then you’ll see their pimps on the corner because they’re out there too," Sawan Vaden said.

It's a life many are too ashamed to talk about, but not Vaden.

"I wasn’t ashamed about it when I was doing it so why would I be ashamed now?" Vaden said.

Vaden's past doesn't have power over her anymore.

"When I was 13 I ran away from home and when I did I was kidnapped and trafficked," she told FOX40.

It can be as deceptively simple as this -- Vaden says when she ran away, she walked down the wrong street and met a woman who seemed to be nice. That woman introduced her to a man who turned out to be a pimp.

She says she was put on a plane to Las Vegas, where he sold her for sex -- until a stranger recognized her from a missing child flyer and called police.

"That was all victim when I was 13. And then as I became an adult, I never looked at it as being a victim," Vaden said.

Here's where things get confusing for vulnerable young girls -- not all sex traffickers use fear or force to control their victims. Sometimes, it's love. Vaden's second trafficker was her boyfriend, or so he told her.

"When I was 17, I met a guy that was pretty cool and he was very good looking and he had a really nice car, and we talked for a while," she said. "And when I turned 18, he told me that in order for me to be with him that I had to do what he did. And so I did what he did."

She says it wasn't hard to convince her to be a prostitute in order to prove herself in the relationship.

"I believed him because he had it. Like I've seen the things that he had, so I thought that they would be mine as well," Vaden said.

But she would soon find out there were several other women eating up that same story. They were all free to leave and go home to their families whenever they wanted, but he manipulated Vaden into staying.

"He would call and say, 'I'm gonna die without you, I can’t live without you, I need you to come home,' and I would go back," Vaden said.

That's often how teenagers are tricked into being trafficked.

“The unfortunate thing about it is they can’t track them, they can’t prove it. And so girls are just lost, you know, in the wind," Vaden said.

It happens everywhere.

"This is not just an Oak Park problem," Terri Galvan said.

Galvan is with Community Against Sexual Harm, or CASH -- one of many local experts who says whether you recognize it or not, women are being trafficked all over Northern California from neighborhoods in South Sacramento to neighborhoods in Roseville and Rocklin.

Galvan says it isn't just a problem for teenagers.

"We help women who are 18," Galvan said. "We help women who are 50, 59."

Once teens have been trafficked, they are more likely to become trapped in a cycle of abuse, addictions and arrests. It gets increasingly difficult to rebuild a stable life.

"I mean it’s really important that they are afforded just basic dignity and privacy," Galvan said.

At CASH, sex trafficking survivors guide victims toward a new path.

"It's having both a therapist and a mentor," Galvan said.

Vaden is one of those mentors and says she was only able to break that cycle for herself because of the help she got from others.

“I’ve gotten through it and my desire is to help other women get through it," she said.