The man Rebecca Bender was in love with sold her for sex.
“I thought he was the one,” Rebecca said. “We moved to Las Vegas, and the day I arrived, he forced me into human trafficking.”
The next few years, Rebecca says, were horrific.
Meeting Prince Charming
Rebecca Bender was not an at-risk teenager.
She was raised in a middle-class home — an honor roll student, a varsity athlete, and she even graduated a year early. She was accepted to Oregon State University and, like any high school graduate, anxious to start her college career.
But the summer before she left for Corvallis, Oregon, Rebecca got pregnant. She was 17.
She chose to stay home, have a baby, and go to community college. But a year later, friends invited her to move to Eugene, into an extra room in their apartment. And she wanted to get out of Grants Pass, so she went.
But there, she found not a lot of college guys asked for a second date with a single mom. Rebecca felt alone and insignificant.
“And that’s when I met Prince Charming,” Rebecca said. “It was the perfect cocktail for disaster; I believe he looked for the vulnerable girl with a kid.”
A record producer, he said, who took her to concerts and got her backstage VIP tickets. To 18-year-old Rebecca, he seemed legitimate, especially when he promised her the life she always wanted for her daughter: a family. Rebecca thought he was the one.
Because, “When you take a child by the hand, you take a mother by the heart.”
Six months later, he told Rebecca he was moving to Las Vegas for work — after all, that was the entertainment capital of the world. He said he knew it wasn’t the place to raise a family, but he wanted to marry her and have a family. So Rebecca moved to Las Vegas.
The night they arrived, he told her to get dressed up; he was taking her to see Vegas. But the SUV pulled into an abandoned strip mall on a dead-end street. Not a club. Not a casino. Not a hotel.
An escort service.
“He said, ‘This is how it works in Vegas,'” Rebecca said. “‘I’ve spent a lot of money to get you here, and that was money I was using for my business. You’re gonna need to make that money back.'”
He described the escort service as just dancing in a room. He told her it was just like being in a bikini at the pool. And he promised love and safety for Rebecca and her baby girl.
But Rebecca thought it sounded an awful lot like prostitution.
“Don’t act like it’s more than it is,” he said. “It’s not like you were a virgin when I met you.”
Then he slapped her across the face for the first time.
Turned Out by Prince Charming
“I just wanted things to go back,” Rebecca said. “I just wanted the night to hurry up and be over so we could go back to yesterday, with a hope-filled future.”
Rebecca remembers thinking that even if she bolted out the door and flagged down a car, where would she tell them to take her? She didn’t know her address or where exactly her daughter was.
So she stayed. Out of fear and obligation, Rebecca Bender had sex with strangers for money — for Prince Charming — for a year and a half.
Prince Charming manipulated her desire for family, promising love and safety. Soon the cycle of domestic violence set in: first a honeymoon, then a beating, an apology and another honeymoon. Over. And over. And over.
“I started using drugs to cope with everything, and by 21, I was full-blown addicted to cocaine, being forced into prostitution by the man I was in love with.”
For What Reason?
Rebecca hadn’t come from a family of faith. Her grandma prayed, but her parents didn’t go to church or anything, so she hadn’t thought about God much — until her nightmarish life brought some strange experiences.
Like the time a serial rapist tried to strangle her almost to death. Rebecca remembers the moment something in the room released his hands from her neck, allowing her to get away.
And the encounter she had with another trafficked girl in the middle of a hotel who said, “I don’t know if you know God, but I have this overwhelming feeling I need to tell you that Jesus loves you. But the path you’re on is going to kill you.” Rebecca remembers feeling her head being pushed into a bowing position as she hid her face in her hands. The girl touched her shoulder and said, “Do not be afraid. God wants me to tell you He loves you.”
Rebecca wondered what this God thing really was.
She found out at the rehab Prince Charming made her go to — he was mad Rebecca was using his money for drugs. He said he sent her to rehab because he loved her and wanted her to get better. She agreed to go, but resolved she would not go to a faith-based one.
“I remember saying, ‘Christians don’t have a clue. I’m not going to no Christian rehab.’ ”
But the only rehab center with a vacancy was the Christian one, so she went — required daily Bible reading and prayer and all. One morning during prayer, Rebecca got the same feeling she had when the strangling rapist released her. She knew God was communicating with her through a piercing thought.
“God said, ‘That feeling is the feeling of life, not death. It was Me who released his hands from your neck,’ ” Rebecca said. “That moment I knew God had saved my life for a reason, and I wanted to know what that reason was.”
But the root of exploitation wasn’t resolved at rehab because Rebecca never identified as being trafficked; she identified as a drug addict. Clearly, drugs weren’t the problem. She went back to her trafficker, thinking if she just took Jesus to him, everything would be better.
Rebecca, however, had to follow the rules of the human trafficking game and get back to him on her own dime. She convinced another trafficker to take her back to Vegas, and the brainwashing set right back in. Months later, she made it back to Prince Charming, but things only got worse.
Not long after, Prince Charming sold her to another trafficker, and this one wasn’t so nice.
From a Romeo to a Guerrilla
Prince Charming had been a “Romeo Trafficker.” But this one was a notorious “Guerrilla Trafficker.” He used extreme force to control and manipulate his victims, and he did not allow drugs or alcohol. He beat Rebecca more than any other woman in his house.
“He would say, ‘You have a spirit that won’t be broken’ as he beat me,” Rebecca remembered.
Guerilla Trafficker even used Rebecca’s daughter to keep her in line. He threatened that if she tried to run, she’d find her daughter on the corner. One time, she did try to run. She went to the daycare to pick up her daughter, but he got there first, and Rebecca wouldn’t — couldn’t — leave without her daughter. Another attempt was foiled when she learned she couldn’t buy a plane ticket with cash after 9/11. Each of her failed attempts was a lesson, teaching her how to do it better the next time.
Rebecca tried to escape four times, her face had been broken five different times, she had been arrested seven times, and she attempted suicide twice.
Thankfully, the day finally came when she didn’t have to attempt anything more. Federal officials raided her trafficker’s home, and she was able to escape for good.
It had been almost six years.
A New Life – A Real Life
Guerilla Trafficker took a plea deal on a tax evasion charge, giving him one year in prison. Rebecca only had a few hours to get away while he self-surrendered.
Rebecca Bender moved home with her family, which was harder than she imagined. She was used to having plenty of money, even though it wasn’t hers — the traffickers took every dollar. She never went without, but now she was sleeping on couches and bumming rides.
Wanting to get as far away from her trafficker as possible, she called a regular client who lived in London. She felt safe with him; he was single and wealthy, so when she moved to London to be with him, she didn’t have to work.
While Rebecca says she doesn’t recommend running off to be with a client, she does believe God used that time to let things settle. No rent or food stresses, she could just be a stay-at-home mom.
She started praying again and even got involved with the Poppy Project, an anti-trafficking initiative in the UK. But pretty soon, Rebecca realized her situation. She was living with a man she wasn’t married to, a man who had been a buyer of commercial sex.
“I wanted better and to do good, but I had to make the final jump. I had to choose poverty,” Rebecca said. “But I knew I wanted to follow God’s call in my life. His gifts are irrevocable, and my calling hadn’t changed.”
So, Rebecca moved back home and chose poverty and food stamps for the first time.
The Rebecca Bender Initiative
Rebecca continued praying, and she thought it would be a while before she could hear Jesus like before. But it wasn’t.
“It was immediate,” Rebecca said. “He took me right back. …There was no punishment. And I learned that Jesus really loves girls like me — like Rahab and Mary Magdalene. And ‘those who have been forgiven much love much.’ ”
She has that tattooed on her arm now.
Eventually, Rebecca met a good man, got married, started her own business, and had another daughter. Things were finally going well when God started tapping on her shoulder; it was time to go back to ministry.
Rebecca remembers the morning she couldn’t ignore the tapping any longer. She was sitting at her coffee table as the sun was rising. For six years of Rebecca’s life, sunrise meant the night was over, and she had to go home; it made her stomach turn. And that morning, she heard Satan say in her trafficker’s voice, “It’s time to come in.”
Then, another piercing thought, but this time it came from God. It said, “How can you sit here and do nothing when you know what it’s like to be more afraid to go home than to get in a car with a stranger?”
Rebecca knew she couldn’t sit by any longer. She put her business up for sale; it sold in 30 days. She began sharing her story and speaking in small venues, and she wrote her first book, “Roadmap to Redemption.”
Then she drove five hours to have coffee with Linda Smith, founder of Shared Hope International. Shared Hope International fights human trafficking in the U.S. and abroad through prevention, restoration and legislation.
Soon, the Rebecca Bender Initiative was born. The Rebecca Bender Initiative has two main programs: ELEVATE, an online academy, and the training and speaking team. Shared Hope International supports the online academy.
ELEVATE is a 16-week, intensive mentoring program for survivors (both men and women) and includes a year of follow-up to help survivors get back on their feet.
“We really want to help survivors be all that they were created to be,” Rebecca says in the Rebecca Bender Initiative video. “Everyone was created for greatness, and we want to help pull that out of survivors.”
Two tracks are available for survivors in ELEVATE — Deeper Levels, where deep personal healing assists victims everywhere in finding normalcy after trauma and instructs in business etiquette and leadership development; and the Advanced Business Track, which is a crash course in non-profit management for those who want to go back into this social justice movement.
The Rebecca Bender Initiative training and speaking team features four sex trafficking survivors who are gifted instructors. They’ve taken their experiences and created highly sought-after trainings for FBI, law enforcement officers and homeland security officials. Since the Rebecca Bender Initiative began, they’ve trained over 20,000 law enforcement officers, equipping the first responders to help victims they find.
Loving Another Rebecca Bender
Rebecca says that’s the first step in getting involved in the fight against human trafficking. Do some homework and be aware. There are plenty of resources online at The Rebecca Bender Initiative; there are even some tips for teaching kids about human trafficking using the movie “Frozen.”
Once you’ve learned about the issue and what’s at stake — or rather who’s at stake — discover your passion.
“Find your lane,” Rebecca says. “Identify your place in the movement. Not everyone has to open a safe home or become a speaker.”
So, attend a conference, volunteer in your area, get trained, train others, find what you’re passionate about, and influence your circle.
The Rebecca Bender Initiative is a great place to start. Because there are more Rebecca Benders out there waiting to be found — to be loved — by the right person.
Could that right person be you?