Why I Ride

Why I Ride: Hanna Teerman

Hi! My name is Hanna Sun Teerman, and it feels surreal to sit down and type this! I'm finishing up my senior year at the University of Southern California, and (2 days) after crossing the Pedal the Pacific finish line, I will depart to Taiwan for a year to teach English! I am genuinely grateful to explain my 'Why I Ride.' journey.

I feel like I prayed and hoped to be a part of something like Pedal for so long — while also praying and hoping to be a part of exactly what Pedal is ever since I heard about it three years ago. I sound like a fan girl, but I remember avidly following Pedal the Pacific on Instagram daily. I watched a diverse range of women from all over the U.S. in bright-colored jerseys eat sandwiches on the side of roads, visit the Tillamook factory, and hang out with livestock. But even more, I watched how these women cycled to start powerful, domino effect conversations about the injustices of sex trafficking—and I watched how they ignited these powerful conversations with empathy, kindness, and humility. I watched how these women all had a deliberate desire to bridge the gap between the current state of domestic sex trafficking to a world where all are free. They all had a deep desire for social justice. They were all acutely aware of the numbers, facts, and horrid nature of it all. But despite falling into the easier and more comfortable trap of privilege, complacency, and numbness—they cycled 1,700 miles to combat it. I both resonated and wanted to become more like these women who had an unequivocal commitment to radical change. 

My knowledge of sex trafficking has evolved and has been immensely challenged over these past few months since learning more about the realities of domestic sex trafficking. The first time I learned about sex trafficking was in my 9th-grade human geography class when we were doing our South Asia unit. I remember being so startled because I didn't think a concept like that could exist. It seemed too abstract and incongruent with the norms of the 21st century. But I also think it was easier to think of the issue as abstract and removed because of the grief and dread associated with sex trafficking. It's still hard to process that as I write this, children are being exploited and sold for just a few hundred dollars. Children are not seen as children. They are seen as a low-risk, high-monetary reward endeavor. The numbers don't make it better; 200,000-300,000 kids in the U.S. are at-risk for commercial exploitation each year. (National District Attorney's Association)

In high school, I read literature and novels on sex trafficking, primarily taking place in developing nations, and sobbed my eyes out. However, it wasn't years later that I learned that these same injustices occur in the U.S.—and usually on a more massive and organized scale. Today, the U.S. accounts for almost 52% of global human trafficking, with the sex trafficking of minors accounting for the most significant percentage. As a result, traffickers in the U.S. make over $9.5 billion annually. (Youth Underground)

I grew up in Houston, TX, which has some of the highest reports in the U.S. for sex trafficking. These past 3 years, I attended college in Los Angeles, CA, which also has some of the highest reports of sex trafficking. Before I moved to LA, cities like Hollywood were often falsely presented to me with the facade of glamor and pop culture. But in reality, they're run by powerful individuals who actively want to exploit and make money off of children. They're run by the Jeffrey Epsteins, Ghislaine Maxwells, and the Dan Schneiders of this world—looping in monarchs, millionaires, and corporations to create a vast network of young victims to exploit. Even worse, these powerful individuals use their status and money to absolve themselves from punishment and scrutiny. It is more normal than not that they are never prosecuted. If justice is served, it is not until years and years later. 

Independent of these powerful sex trafficking rings and the high-powered authority figures that run them, sex trafficking continues to exist at every stratum possible. It constantly seeks out vulnerable victims—whether it's individuals with unpaid debt, chronic homelessness, a broken family, or someone identifying with the LGBTQ+ community. Children are vulnerable just by virtue of being children. The variables are never-ending. Sex trafficking continues to evolve and adapt to a changing landscape and cleverly finds ways to escape prosecution. Sex trafficking invents and then reinvents itself—whether it's pimp-controlled, familial, gang-controlled, or buyer-perpetuated trafficking. 

If the statistics and nature of it all aren't bad enough, victims often aren't treated with care, compassion, and dignity. Whether it's the media, the courts, or family members—victims are frequently intensely victim-blamed. There usually is no courthouse where justice can be found. If there is, most victims are turned away from the courthouse. There's never enough evidence, the legal burden of proof is too high, or victims are never the 'perfect' victim. Sometimes, it feels like the U.S. and its institutions are more privy to protecting the sex trafficking industry than its citizens. 

A few weeks ago, workers from The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and the Texas Attorney General's office came and spoke to our 2024 team. From NCMEC, we learned more about the nature of sextortion and the concept of 'continued victimization.' Though children survived the sexual abuse, the fact their images persist on the internet makes them feel like victims over and over again. It's harrowing to hear personal testimonies and that sex-trafficking imprints itself onto victims even after it ends. It's difficult to learn about the nature of what constitutes and creates these statistics—but it is necessary not to grow complicit and numb to what is occurring. 

I could write a long essay about what I've learned these past few months about sex trafficking from the insights of my wonderful team, our speakers, and our book club book, Girls Like Us. Though it has been difficult (and I have turned my camera off multiple times during Zooms to cry), I am ready to Pedal the Pacific so one day, all are free. There has never been a more perfect way to channel my grief, anger, and frustration at sex traffickers, the institutions that protect traffickers, and an apologist culture that preserves sex trafficking. It is incredibly easy to subvert the statistics, testimonies, and sadness for the sake of comfort—and every day, I battle against this. 

I ride because I want to start conversations about sex trafficking so myself and others don't fall victim to ignorance, complacency, or numbness. I ride because I want to ignite these conversations with humility and kindness. Sex trafficking will continue to occur despite how much it's prevented—and this fact is cruel. However, we maintain injustice when institutions and people don't fight for social justice or victims. I ride because I don't want sex trafficking to be treated as a crime, not just a mere inconvenience. 

I still have so much to learn, and truthfully, I'm scared. But I'm ready to pedal 1,700 miles—and be molded, changed, and challenged by my wonderful team, the people we'll meet, and the conversations we will have down the Pacific. 

July 12, 2024
Chloe Aguilar

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