TAMPA — Connie Rose was just 2 when her father began molesting her.
By the time she was 16, he would arrange for her to provide sexual favors to men in exchange for money.
Rose wasn’t able to escape his clutches until years later when she married her college sweetheart.
But just moments before she walked down the aisle, her father — realizing he’d lost control over her — marred what was supposed to be a happy occasion.
"He said, ‘You don’t have to do this – we can leave together and be husband and wife,’" she said.
Rose, founder of Victims2Survivors, has devoted much of her life helping other victims break the cycle of abuse and bring awareness about sex trafficking to the greater community.
She’ll be among several guest speakers at The Free Network’s event in observation of Human Trafficking Month.
Sponsored in conjunction with the Junior League, the University of South Florida, the Salvation Army, and Hillsborough County, the goal is to bring attention to a problem that is invisible but thriving in many communities, said Dotti Groover-Skipper, the Salvation Army’s anti-trafficking director for Florida.
"We need to have that awareness raised," she said. "I’m baffled when I hear people say it only happens in third-world countries."
According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, human trafficking is modern day slavery and involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.
It’s estimated that approximately 80 percent of trafficking involves sexual exploitation, and 19 percent involves labor exploitation, according to DoSomething.org, a digital platform that supports social and civic action campaigns.
Bringing an end to human trafficking here in Tampa Bay requires an "all-hands on deck" approach, which is why some of the area’s top leaders — including Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman and Hills-borough State Attorney Andrew Warren — have been asked to participate, Groover-Skipper said.
The program will conclude with a candlelight vigil and walk along the river led by survivors.
Rose, who is the residential director for local safe house Redefining Refuge, said that while every survivor’s story is different, all are connected to being socialized that their body’s value can be exchanged for something.
For Rose, that meant saying yes to her father’s proposal of prostituting her, if it meant he would stop raping her.
"I saw it as if I did it he would leave me alone, he would give me some kind of peace," she said.
On the outside, Rose said she was a typical teen who was a member of the school dance club and participated in beauty pageants.
But at home, she faced a life of daily terror with her father forcing himself on her and then later forcing her to have sex with men at all hours of the night.
"I was hiding a very dark secret," she said.
Rose now helps others overcome the trauma caused by sex trafficking. It’s work that also requires changing mindsets and giving the public the information necessary to combat the practice.
That includes dismantling the misconception that victims of sex trafficking involves a certain type of person, she said.
"It can happen to anybody," she said. "There are some segments of the population that are more vulnerable than others, but (sex trafficking) does not look at socio-economics or race. That body is a commodity."
Contact Kenya Woodard at [email protected]
.IF YOU GO
The FREE Network Kickoff Event for Human Trafficking Awareness Month runs from 4:30-7 p.m. on Saturday (Jan. 6) at the Franciscan Center, 3010 N. Perry Ave., in Tampa. This event is free and open to the public. For more information and to RSVP, visit tinyurl.com/ycaxcglw.