When Jillian Mourning was 19, she flew from Charlotte to Scottsdale, Ariz., for a modeling gig. Her booking agent sat beside her on the flight.
"I considered him, at the time, like a father figure," Mourning says. "He would ask about my family and school. All the while, it was his way of breaking down my walls and gaining my trust."
After they checked into a hotel, Mourning went to bed alone. But in the middle of the night, three men, including Mourning's agent, came into her room. The agent forced her to take a Valium, making her feel numb and disoriented. Then the men pinned her to the bed and raped her, filming and photographing it as Mourning hid her face in a pillow.
When she flew back home to Charlotte, the agent demanded she see him. He threatened to release the footage online of her being raped if she didn't do as he said. Fearful that her family and friends would see the tape, she would go to him in various locations in the city twice a month. He filmed and photographed himself raping her, uploaded the videos to the Internet anyway and sold them to websites.
Mourning, now 25, was a victim of sex trafficking, the criminal act of using fraud, force and coercion to sexually exploit people for profit. Victims include anyone forced to perform a sex act to earn money for a trafficker, according to the North Carolina Coalition Against Human Trafficking. Sex trafficking is characterized by psychological and physical coercion and can include, but does not require, transportation of the victim.
North Carolina consistently ranks in the top 10 most active states in the country for sex trafficking, according to the coalition. Reasons include the state's transient population, including immigrants who could be in debt bondage, which is when someone pledges themselves to labor to repay a loan. More cases of sex trafficking are reported in Charlotte than any other city in the state, according to a 2012 annual report from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, likely because it is the biggest city between Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, and the airport is the sixth busiest in the U.S.
In October 2012, Mourning launched All We Want is L.O.V.E., short for Liberation of Victims Everywhere. As the founder and owner of this local nonprofit, she is committed to raising awareness about sex trafficking in the U.S. and around the world by helping to fund existing human trafficking rescue and advocacy groups. L.O.V.E. eventually will use donations to build its own shelters. Mourning's first fund-raising event was a cocktail party at Pisces Sushi Bar and Lounge in Charlotte. She'll host a black-tie soiree Jan. 19 at The Blake Hotel.
One of Mourning's biggest goals for L.O.V.E. is to eliminate the stereotypes about sex trafficking among women. While watching the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Uptown this year, she realized many women who do not have breast cancer are quick to support organizations like Komen. But it had been her experience that some women are quick to pass judgment on female victims of sex trafficking — either actively, by saying the victims had "asked for it," or passively, by not supporting related organizations. Breaking that stigma would encourage more victims to come forward, Mourning says. Women who have been trafficked "wouldn't be afraid to come out [as victims], because they wouldn't be afraid that the girl next to her is going to say she's a whore or she deserved it," she says.
Next year, Mourning is planning a trip to Calcutta, India, with L.O.V.E. team member Ashley Harkrader, a former event coordinator for NC Stop Human Trafficking who won the title of Mrs. Natural Elite in the 2012 Mrs. North Carolina pageant on her platform of sex trafficking. Mourning will interview survivors in India and collect research for a future book. Working with Apne Aap Women Worldwide, a nonprofit in Calcutta, she hopes to someday open her own shelter there for victims.
In the U.S., the Internet is the No. 1 platform for traffickers to buy and sell women and children, including boys, for sex. The Polaris Project, part of the National Trafficking Resource Center, studied domestic sex-trafficking networks that hide behind businesses on the Internet, and use "recruiters" who make false promises to people online to lure them into a sex-trafficking ring. For example, a female recruiter asked Mourning to join a local modeling agency, which is how she signed on with her "agent."
"There are so many girls at 14, 15, 16 ... that have this dream to be on a runway in Milan," says Harkrader. "They are told by the photographer, 'I can get you there, I'll find a way to get you there,' and before you know it, this girl is in a situation she has no idea how to get herself out of."
Mourning's abuse ended in October 2007, after five months. That's when the federal government began investigating her agent's investment company, which he operated in addition to his exploitation of women. In 2009, he was arrested for defrauding investors and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He has never been charged with sex trafficking, although Mourning says the FBI is gathering evidence on a potential case.
But Mourning won't be in court if the FBI moves forward with charges. In 2011, she told her then-boyfriend about being forced into sex trafficking, and he found the Internet videos of her being raped. Mourning watched the footage and stayed awake for two days afterwards. She then made a suicide attempt. Her family found out about the tapes when they visited her at the hospital. She says she won't press charges because she doesn't want to relive the trauma.
"For me to go through that process and have to watch all that, I just don't know if it would be worth it to me," Mourning says. "It would be too hard on my emotional wellness when I'm trying to be in a better place."
Mourning still models for department stores, print ads and bridal magazines.
"I can't give up something that is a dream and so enjoyable to me because of one person," she says. "It was hard to overcome, but I kept having to think to myself, I can't have him take that away from me."