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Epstein Survivor Teresa Helm Tells Her Story, How Grooming Works, and How She’s Fighting Back

“She said, ‘Make sure you give Jeffrey what he wants, because Jeffrey always gets what he wants.’”

At 22, Teresa Helm was an eager massage therapy student in California when she was invited to apply for a job as a traveling massage therapist—for Ghislaine Maxwell. After she flew to New York, she was assaulted by Jeffrey Epstein. For 17 years, she didn’t tell anyone.

Tonight, she shares her story, and she offers advice so others can recognize the warning signs of the grooming process. There was more than one woman along the way, she explains, and “each of those women had very successfully, very masterfully manipulated me and groomed me into thinking that it was a safe and healthy environment for me to go to,” she says.

Now, Helm is an advocate for survivors of sexual assault and sex trafficking.

 

Jan Jekielek: Teresa Helm, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.

Teresa Helm: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Mr. Jekielek: So Teresa, let’s just start with your story, how you’ve gotten to this point in time.

Ms. Helm: Yes. So my story started long ago when I was a young adult, 22 years old. I’m originally from Ohio and I was living in Ohio in massage therapy school at the time. And I had a visit to California and I thought that that’s where I wanted to be. So I switched schools and made the change from Ohio to California. 

And there was a student, a fellow student that was a bit further along in the program as me. However, I knew her through interacting more or less through client files as she was in the clinical portion of her training. So this girl approached me one day about an opportunity to be a traveling private massage therapist. And I was interested right off the bat. It sounded like a wonderful opportunity, although I needed to learn more about it.

So, she gave me contact information to another girl. For me being 22 years old, I’m going to meet this other young girl similar in age, and I’m thinking, I’m meeting her at her apartment on the beach. And that was really incredible for me, but it’s very inspirational because of course you want to be, at least in my case, I wanted to be as close to the beach as possible. And that was part of the dreams. And she gave me the name, Ms. Maxwell.

And she told me that Ms. Maxwell was highly educated, someone that traveled the world in a private plane, had private chefs, knew all the great, amazing people of the world, had all the best clothing, and was this really dynamite, amazing woman. And that’s who I would be traveling with and working for, if I were to get the position as a massage therapist.

And the longer Sarah and I spoke, I started feeling I related to her. We looked similar, we had similar hair color, similar body type, similar age. And she told me how I would be given the best opportunity for education all around the world, because I expressed to her that education was very important to me. And there was a point in that conversation where Sarah had asked me to imagine the best of the best, the most wonderful anything I can imagine being traveling the world as a massage therapist.

So she gave me the time and space to really imagine this in my mind. And once I told Sarah, “Okay, I’ve got that vision in my mind,” then she comes back and says to me, “Now, everything that you’ve just imagined, Teresa, it’s way more than that.” And she told me that if I wanted to continue with the interview process, that I would be flying to New York City to meet Ms. Maxwell. Because again, that was who was to hire me for the job.

And at the end of our discussion, Sarah and I at the beach, she told me she wanted to take a photo of me. And there was a moment where I thought, well, why does she want to take this photo of me? And then I thought, well, yes, of course Ms. Maxwell wants to see who’s coming to meet her. And I also thought to myself, am I good enough? So I started sizing myself up. So I turned it back on myself.

And within a couple of weeks, I was off flying from Los Angeles to New York City. And once I arrived in New York City, at the airport, I was told that I would have a driver there with my name on a sign at the airport waiting for me, and there certainly was. And that was an indication to me that I felt important, I felt cared for, attended to.

So, the driver takes me to where I’m staying, and it ends up being an apartment type building.. In the kitchen, I notice there’s a basket of fruit and cookies and there’s yogurt in the fridge. And that was another instance of me feeling like I was cared for, that I was being tended to. Ms. Maxwell wants to make sure I have something to eat if I want something to eat. And that was, again, significant to me. It impacted me feeling that I was wanted and cared for. So then I go walk to her townhouse in Manhattan, and I arrive and I’m let in, and I’m immediately asked to go up the stairs. And when I first arrived there, this was certainly a very beautiful home.

And at the top of the stairs, there’s a butler standing there, and this butler’s holding a silver tray. He has a full tuxedo with coattail and vest. And I laughed to myself inside, like this man standing, this butler standing there with a silver tray, because again, that’s not anything you see in normal life. That is just a movie scene type thing. So it was kind of humorous to me.

And he had asked me to wait for her in the room just around the corner. So I did, and the room I’m waiting in, it’s big, it’s beautiful. And she, Ms. Maxwell, comes into the room a couple moments later, and introduces herself to me. And she’s a very pleasant, polite, well-spoken woman, is how I viewed her when she came out.

And right away, Ms. Maxwell, which she introduced herself as Ghislaine Maxwell. So right away, her and I began talking and she was asking me all sorts of questions about myself and my background. And I was sharing with her that I’m from Ohio, and I kind of joked that, I said, “Well, you probably don’t know a whole lot about Ohio.” And she said, “Well, no. In fact, I had just recently been there with my business partners. We had a meeting there. We go there a lot.”

She told me where it was at, and it wasn’t all that far from where I’m from in Dayton, Ohio. And so there was a connection right away. I thought, oh, how cool? She knows all about Ohio. And we shared things. I spoke about my dad, and she spoke about her dad, and she told me how she flies helicopters. And we joked about how, of course, any woman can fly helicopters.

We discussed my birthday being December 26th, she told me her birthday is December 25th. And we kind of joked about how we always proclaimed growing up that we were going to celebrate in the middle of the summer to get it away from Christmas time and what that was like growing up having a birthday around Christmas time.

So everything that Ghislaine and I spoke about, everything that I shared, she would always meet me with something to match what I was sharing. And that made me feel number one, very comfortable with her. I didn’t feel like she was necessarily above me or at any type of level that I couldn’t be with. So I felt like I belonged there. I know I really started to relate to her. There did come a point where I gave her a massage because that was, of course, part of the interview.

There was a massage table there, and so I give her a massage. I go through all my steps. I’m still a student, so I was very much making sure I was doing a really great job going through all my steps, everything I’ve learned. Ghislaine had fallen asleep at one point during this massage that I was giving her, so I really took that as a good sign because she’s clearly relaxed.

And at the end, I gently woke her up and she excused herself from the room for a few minutes and I excused myself to the restroom. And I noticed on the way to the restroom that there’s a framed photo on the wall of her and ex-president, Bill Clinton. And I thought, wow, here she is. She’s friends with the president and look at her home here. And she’s so nice, and she’s so polite, and we get along so well, and she’s funny, and we’re talking really well.

At that point, I felt like this really couldn’t have gone much better—this interview process. And she had let me know that I was going to meet with her partner, Jeffrey. And that was the very first time I had heard the name, Jeffrey, or that there was even a second person or a second portion to the interview.

When she told me I was going to meet with her partner, Jeffrey, there was a quick instant in my mind where prior to going out there to New York, I had been discussing this opportunity with my dad. I mean, everybody in my family, my friends knew I was flying out. They were very excited for this opportunity. And I recalled my dad saying to me, “Make sure you ask some questions about who she is.”

So, when she told me I was going to meet with her partner, Jeffrey, that popped up in my mind what my dad had said. And I asked her, I said, “So what do you and your partner, Jeffrey, do?” And she said that, “We’re entrepreneurs.” That was her answer. And at the time, I felt comfortable with her answer.

She started mentioning how tall I was. And she started talking about how Jeffrey was going to love me. And I thought, okay, so she enjoyed the massage and it was relaxing for her and I did a good job, so that must be what she’s meaning here, that he is going to love me because I’m going to do a good job. And she said to me, at one point towards the very end, she said, “Make sure you give Jeffrey what he wants because Jeffrey always gets what he wants.”

And I, again, tried to normalize that entirely and just put it in this frame of, well, he’s probably had a lot of massage, so he knows the technique, he knows what technique he likes. In those moments, again, I was turning it on myself hoping that I was good enough. So I had a time and an address then to go meet at Jeffrey’s home. And I walked myself there, and I went there, and knocked on the door, and was let in, and asked to wait in an office just inside the door.

I’m looking around the office, I’m noticing the details of the ceiling and the desk in the middle of the room. And I recall there being an airplane, like a model airplane that was up in the takeoff position, because throughout this process of trying to figure out who Ms. Maxwell is, why is she so successful, even on the airline that I rode out on, I thought, Hmm, does Ms. Maxwell perhaps own part of this airline? Does she own part of the cookie brand that was in the kitchen? Does she own part of the yogurt that was in the fridge? The branding.

So, when I saw the airplane model was the same airline that I flew out on, had the logo, and I thought, okay, they own part of this airline, that’s why they’re so successful. And I certainly thought at that time, that success meant good, that if you were a really successful person, that you were a really good person, and that you got out there by working very hard.

And after a few moments of waiting in the office, then I met Jeffrey, and we went into the kitchen, and he introduced me to the chef. So it was the three of us. It was Jeffrey finishing his dinner, in fact, and the chef standing there, and we were the three of us talking, and they were both polite and charming, and the conversation was easy, and I felt comfortable right away.

And then once Jeffrey finished his dinner, then he said, “Come on with me to my office.” And I originally thought we were going back to the office that I had come from when I was waiting. And he said, “No, we’re going to go to a different office of mine.” And showed me the elevator, and I kind of joked about him having an elevator in his house.

And then we walked up the stairs into an office where he immediately showed me all these framed photos of him and powerful people. And all I could say to myself in my mind is, don’t act starstruck. I just wanted to try to kind of play it cool. And after that, we went and sat on the couch. It didn’t take long before things got really inappropriate where Jeffrey ended up assaulting me. Then there was a point where I got up to leave the room and the assault continued just outside the hallway, outside the door.

There was a moment in time where I realized I needed to find the front door and get out. So, yeah, after kind of figuring out where I was and where the front door was in relation to where I was, then I made my way to the front door. And Jeffrey, he threatened me as I walked out the door. And I left there that evening and went straight back to where I was staying.

And I recall staring at the sidewalk, the whole way, so I could see each line in the concrete that separates the next pallet, I guess, of concrete. I went back to that apartment and just sat there the entire night and was scared and felt like I was being watched and listened to. And I don’t know exactly if I was, but that’s certainly how I felt. And I was terrified. I was so confused. It was just massive confusion of everything, and I’m trying to process and understand. The confusion was quite paralyzing at that time, and so was the shame of the entire situation.

And then the next day, I knew I had a flight back to Los Angeles from New York, and the driver let me in the car, and he was standing there, and he said, “We’re waiting on someone.” And I didn’t realize that there was someone else at the time there. And there was another girl that got in, and her and I exchanged names.

And she said to me… Well, she asked me what I was here for, and I told her that I was there to be hired as a massage therapist, and I had met with Ghislaine and Jeffrey. And I believe she told me she had just met with Jeffrey that morning. And she asked me, “Do you think anything was weird?” And I didn’t respond. Well, she said she wanted to go home, and I didn’t respond to her question. And we rode to the airport just in total silence after that.

I flew back to Los Angeles, and I didn’t share with anyone what my experience was. And I had received an email from one of Jeffrey’s assistants. And the email read that they were thanking me for coming out, and telling me that I was being considered for the position, and that I would find out in a few days.

And again, that’s another moment I’ll never forget, sitting there at my computer after I’ve returned and gone through what I had gone through, and they’re just treating it like it’s so normal, like just getting this follow up email, like you’re still being considered for the job, thanks for coming out. And the whole entire thing was just massive confusion, like I said.

Mr. Jekielek: It’s like you’ve replayed this whole situation in your mind, right? You remember it so distinctly.

Ms. Helm: Yes. I’ve replayed this. It’s been nearly two decades of replaying this in my mind, countless times.

Mr. Jekielek: When you describe it in all this detail, I’ve spoken with a number of people about these types of things on the show, and this strikes me like a textbook case of what they call grooming, right?

Ms. Helm: Yes, absolutely. That is exactly the process that I went through with the first three women. I’m excited, I’m thrilled at the opportunity, I really feel that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and certainly has been presented to me as a once in a lifetime opportunity. I get there, I am met with a driver with my name.

Now, what I know now about grooming is all of that is part of the process. Having the driver there with my name on a sign is part of the grooming process. It is intentional. Every move a groomer makes is intentional. They wanted me to feel comfortable, tended to, cared for, safe. The driver takes me to the apartment where I’m staying. It’s clean, it’s comfortable, it’s safe, there’s food there in case I’m hungry. That’s another part of the grooming process, because yet again, it solidifies and sends the message to me that they genuinely care.

And when you’re 22 or younger, or even older, you feel as though these steps are being taken to ensure your comfort and wellbeing. Again, that’s an intentional part of the manipulation, the emotional manipulation. And then my time spent with Ghislaine, and every point that I spoke about, she had something to match me, whether it was about our birthday, whether it was about our dads, whether it was about Ohio.

Every single time that I said something and she would meet me with it, it was intended to make an emotional connection with me. And that’s all to build trust, right? So every step of the way is intentional, it’s to gain my confidence in them, and for me to feel comfortable, confident, and safe, and trusting in them.

And though I’d only spent an afternoon with Ghislaine, then I’m feeling, even though she just presented to me that I’m going to go meet with her partner, Jeffrey, and it’s the first time I’ve heard that I’m going to go meet with anyone, I feel safe and comfortable and confident, and even quite excited because I feel like this part of the interview must have gone so well that I now get the opportunity to go finish the interview and get the job.

And so when I leave Ghislaine Maxwell’s home, and I have a time and an address to go meet at Jeffrey’s home, then I’m walking myself there, again, what I speak about often is that point precisely. I walked myself to the home of the man that was going to abuse me. I walked myself to a predator’s home. And I was not forced to go there. I was not tied up and taken there. I walked myself there.

And why was I so comfortable and confident and excited to walk myself there? And that was because each of those women had very successfully, very masterfully manipulated me and groomed me into thinking that it was a safe and healthy environment for me to go to.

Mr. Jekielek: And then it makes it incredibly difficult because many women that’s similar that have experienced this weren’t able to leave or didn’t leave, or didn’t find it in themselves to leave at that moment.

Ms. Helm: Yes. And I’m not sure exactly what it was in me that… Everybody is different, every scenario is different. Yes, in my instance, I was able to go and not go back. And oftentimes, especially with survivors, there’s a history of abuse. In my case, that is the case. I have a history of abuse, sexual abuse as a child. And though oftentimes some survivors stay or continue to go back because the situation that they’re coming from is actually worse than what they experience in a trafficking and grooming type situation, which is very sad.

Mr. Jekielek: Everything you described, it doesn’t seem like there was almost any reason why you should have been suspicious, right? Or were there signs? I mean, you mentioned there were a few moments where you asked yourself a question, but this is something obviously that these days you go out, you talk about it, or you’re educating young women and men about all of this, how this all functions. But how would you notice that this is really what’s happening in a situation like this?

Ms. Helm: It is difficult at times. And you’re right, there were instances Ghislaine telling me, “Make sure he gets what he wants. Jeffrey always gets what he wants.” I think, okay, he’s had a lot of professional massage because of who he is, he’s successful, they travel the world, he’s had a lot of massage. Anytime I question anything, I normalized it instantly to what I thought I was there for. So there was never a time that I thought that I was there for anything else.

There was never a time that I thought that I was in any danger and I did find it to be safe. And what I can say to those now, as far as if they may be experiencing something is, and I understand it can be difficult, but when you do have those questions that rise within you, the best thing that you can do is to share those thoughts or those feelings with someone that you trust and get their idea or their take or feel on the situation.

And so, I really encourage children and teens and anyone really to be able to identify at least one trusted adult in their life that they can share those things with, and to really trust themselves and not doubt themselves and their intuition. That also goes into teaching body awareness in autonomy, even to young ones, because it all ties together.

Because you have sometimes a four-year-old where we want to teach that four-year-old, if they do not wish to give someone a hug that their parents or whoever they’re with, their caretaker, should not make them. Oh, you’ll hurt their feelings if you don’t give them a hug. Go ahead and give them a hug. So then they’re reluctantly giving a hug, but they’re going against everything they’re feeling that they should be doing for themselves.

So, we’re trying to teach at a young age, age-appropriate ways to understand and to really kind of stand up for yourself, so to at least increase the odds of being able to identify if it’s predatory behavior, because we do have family and friends that are around us that care about us and want to share things with us and want to give us gifts and special times and trips and these great things.

And that’s all, of course, very healthy and normal. And it’s very healthy and normal for us to receive these things and feel good and then want to give back. And that is part of the grooming process is groomers want to blur those lines to confuse you. I mean, one of the main goals is confusion, of blurring the lines because then you trust them like you would trust a family member.

So again, it often does come back to listening to yourself and taking a moment to really figure out how you’re feeling about a situation or a person. It’s better safe than sorry, all the time, especially if it’s someone new or someone sudden, not a lifelong friend or a lifelong family member, of course, if it’s someone that has newly approached you or newly came into your life through a situation.

Again, groomers, one of their main goals and intentions, in addition to getting you to a place of trustworthiness, to where you’re then abused, because as I’ve said about grooming, it’s like the gatekeeper, it’s like the gateway to abuse. You have to have a successful grooming process for the abuse to happen. If you don’t have a successful grooming process, then the predator does not have the opportunity to abuse.

And another main component to a successful grooming process is shifting the shame from the predator who should feel a lot of shame and guilt and for what they’re doing. However, they shift that to the victim, to where the victim takes on all of the shame, because they think, gosh, I thought they cared about me, I thought they were my friend, or I thought that I was there for a job interview, and I trusted them.

And then the shame gets internalized, and oftentimes the victims, and very much so in my case, then I blamed myself entirely. And the shame was so deep. I just felt completely, again, paralyzed by the shame of what happened, because I felt like I should have known. I felt like I should have never gone. Then oftentimes the victims are suffering in silence, and the silence inside is very loud. I don’t know how many times I’ve thought about this scenario in my life. Countless times I’ve gone over it. And each time I blamed myself—every single time.

Mr. Jekielek: So, with time, you figured out how to identify some of these components of this grooming process, but immediately after once you got back home or back to school, what happened next?

Ms. Helm: What happened after that-

Mr. Jekielek: Did you tell anybody?

Ms. Helm: I did not share with anyone what happened, the abuse of it. I tried to speak about it as little as possible. If someone asked me, “Oh, how did it go?” I just said, “It went fine, but I’ve decided I don’t want to take the position. I want to stay here.” I just tried to avoid it, and I tried to avoid it through conversation. 

However, it wasn’t as easily avoided internally. And I ended up finishing one portion of the schooling. So I got one level of certification, but I wasn’t able to get to the level that I had initially set out to achieve. And within about three months or so after that experience with Epstein and Maxwell, I broke my lease in California and moved back to Ohio.

And for a good four years or so after that, again, the whole experience was really traumatizing, and I felt so bad about myself, and I felt so… I mean, I did, I felt like an object, and I felt treated like a piece of trash. So that’s kind of how I viewed myself for a while, not worth anything. So it was very challenging, those few years after this took place. 

Yes, it was really in 2007 when I became pregnant with my son that I very quickly realized that I did have a lot of worth and that I was going to view myself as somebody worth bringing another life into this world. So that changed everything for me, becoming a mom. Just the pregnancy in itself with my son really saved my life, and really turned things around for me a lot.

Mr. Jekielek: You basically said, “okay, I have to get myself together. This is serious.”

Ms. Helm: Yeah. Yeah, I felt so incredibly blessed to become a mom, that I wanted nothing but the best for myself. I wanted to be able to treat myself as best that I possibly could so that my baby was treated as best as my baby could be treated. I wanted to be nurturing and nourishing, and that all that I wanted for my baby is goodness. And feeling like I get to be a mom, it made me really start to value myself a lot. That really turned things around a lot for me.

Mr. Jekielek: Well, it’s really remarkable you had really no idea who these people were for a long time.

Ms. Helm: Right. Right. I did not know who Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell were, and the network of sex trafficking that they had created over many, many years. I did not know that about them at all for a very long time until 2019. Until 2019 when I’m a mom, I’m living my life, I’ve done a whole, whole lot of great things in the process, and I’ve done a lot of healing, and getting myself to a good place.

I was listening to two guys on a YouTube show, and they were talking about the case and Epstein. And at the time, Epstein did not mean anything to me because I wasn’t familiar with the name Epstein. And when I heard the name Maxwell, it caught my attention. However, they were speaking of Robert Maxwell, and I didn’t necessarily know Robert Maxwell, but I knew the name Maxwell and I knew New York city.

And then when they were at the content of the conversation, that was the Sunday evening, and throughout the week, every day, I’m thinking, I should look into that. I just felt this feeling within me that I should look into it and I kept fighting it and pushing it away. And there was a Thursday morning, this was in July of 2019, and I had plugged my phone in and headlines popped up when I did that.

And I saw a headline that read, “Jeffrey Epstein found in jail cell in fetal position,” or something like that. And I felt all this compassion for this grown man in the fetal position in the jail cell. Then I put my phone down and I start to walk away and something just told me to go back and look at my phone again. So I picked up my phone and I clicked on the headline. Jeffrey’s face popped up in that photo of him with that Harvard sweatshirt on.

And in that moment right there when his face just popped right up on the screen, that was one of the most traumatizing, most difficult moments. And then I realized, this is Jeffrey. Like, this is the person I’ve been hearing about and these sex trafficking rings. And then I sit down [at] my computer and I’m instantly typing in Ghislaine Maxwell and Epstein.

And there in front of my eyes, on my computer, in my dining room is everything that I’m reading. And that’s when I realized who they were, and the world yet again, I mean, it was like a retraumatization of the entire everything, the grooming, the process, the women that got me there, the women that made it so I felt so trusting and comfortable to walk myself to Jeffrey’s home for him to then abuse me. And then for me to leave.

Everything just was flooding back. And then again, seeing the magnitude and the level and the depth and the wide scope of what they were doing and how many people they’ve hurt and harmed and how many lives they’ve wrecked along the way. So everything was just flooding in these moments, in these hours that I sat in front of the computer. It was again, the lenses that I wore viewing the world shifted yet again in that day and it will never go back. That’s how I discovered it all.

Mr. Jekielek: Okay. What about when you learned he was dead, what was your reaction?

Ms. Helm: That day was another interesting day. And at that point, I had already spoken with the FBI. And at that point, I had been speaking with a really amazing lawyer, Sigrid. Sigrid called me to tell me, and the feeling again was… I mean, I didn’t feel good that this person had lost their life. It was just huge influx of emotion again, but I’m still trying to process everything that I’ve learned just days before, a week to 10 days before or so.

And it was just a flood of sadness. I felt sad for myself. I felt sad for everyone involved. I felt sad that a person lost their life or compassion that someone lost their life. It was all very confusing again, the feelings involved. I think that I wished he were still alive. I think many of us feel this way so that we could seek justice from him in some format. And that’s not the case though. He’s not here, so we cannot seek justice that way.

Mr. Jekielek: So, a number of the victims, including yourself,  did have a chance to take the stand. Was that helpful? Was it at all? Was there any kind of consolation there?

Ms. Helm: I spoke in the federal court to Judge Berman, as I was invited along with other survivors. We were all invited to speak if we wanted to. The most recent trial, I did not speak at. I was there, but I did not go on trial. However, speaking in the federal court to Judge Berman, that’s the first time I had come forward publicly about it.

And going into the room, I didn’t know if I was going to speak, I decided I was going to speak. I didn’t know if I was going to use my name, I decided to use my name. It was part of the process to get me to where I’m at now, because going back to learning who they were on that Thursday, that next day, Friday, before I spoke to the FBI, I’m thinking, what do I do? I can’t just sit with this information anymore. I can’t just continue to suffer in the silence anymore.

And getting a glimpse of my daughter’s car seat in the car from my rear-view mirror is where I was like, this is it. I am not going to continue this silence anymore because I’ve worked very hard to get to where I’m at. I have values that I’m teaching my own children, and I’ve got to live those values and set this example. Each step of the way is me taking my power back from what was taken, because one thing that I know about these predators, they leach power from people, and they did. They leached power from me. They robbed me of my power, of a lot of my self-worth and value. And each part of the process is me taking my power back.

And that’s something that I’m hoping to be able to encourage other survivors to do, those that have already come forward, perhaps those that have not yet come forward, or other survivors outside of Epstein and Maxwell and others. Because again, it’s very important and very much so for my case, to continue taking that power back, because I will continue to take my situation and my experience and the trauma that I’ve gone through, and I will continue to flip it. Then I can help others and leverage that pain into purpose.

Mr. Jekielek: What do your kids know about all this?

Ms. Helm: My seven-year-old knows nothing. She knows not of this specific scenario with me. However, she does know age-appropriate things, like if I don’t want to give somebody a hug, she knows she doesn’t have to. She knows if she doesn’t feel comfortable with something, she can say no, and she will be honored. Her answer and her position of what she wants for herself will be honored. My son, who is 14 years old, knows a little bit about the…

Well, he does know about the work that I do working with various organizations and teaching parents. And he doesn’t always agree with me, especially when I’m talking about teaching parents about their children online, because he loves to be online. 

That’s a whole another part of the grooming process that happens online. So he knows some of my story though not full details, of course, because I don’t think it’s age-appropriate for him just yet. And I’m sure at some point they both will know the full story. So everything that we’re teaching kids, including my very own children, it’s all within age-appropriate terms. That’s really important.

Mr. Jekielek: So, I know that you don’t want to talk about the Ghislaine Maxwell trial because we thought that it had ended, but then it turned out that it hadn’t. So I’m not going to ask you about that too much, but I hope to invite you back when we do get more resolution on what actually is going to happen.

Ms. Helm: Yes.

Mr. Jekielek: What I do want to talk about is your work, because you’ve said earlier, I think that you really tried to flip all this around, right?

Ms. Helm: Yes.

Mr. Jekielek: And you’ve made it a centerpiece of your life to try to educate and empower people to not find themselves in these situations, and also to help people who have found themselves in this horrific situations.

Ms. Helm: Yes.

Mr. Jekielek: Why don’t we start here, online has become this major, let’s see, realm of grooming, so to speak. It used to be very much in person, very much like you described things happen, but this online realm,  it could happen without anybody really knowing as long as the child has a screen, basically. Right?

Ms. Helm: That’s absolutely correct. So it is happening more so online than anywhere currently. And it has hugely increased since COVID times, the last couple of years of living through the pandemic. Children are spending at a  minimum, 50 percent more time online, which then gives predators even that much more time to be a predator and to target children. And the social isolation, the mental health challenges that our children are facing because of the pandemic, everything is compounding these layers that is increasing the vulnerability for our children online.

There are many platforms that allow chat options that oftentimes young kids think is a really cool option. So they can talk to anyone, of course. And again, predators know that. So then, they target children. They start to ask questions. And it’s pretty quick to where if a child engages relatively quickly or easily, a predator knows that that’s a child they can work on.

And they start asking questions about who they are, where they’re from, what they like, what they don’t like. And there are the similarities in the grooming process where the predator will ask, “How old are you? Oh, really? I’m that old too. Where are you from? Oh, I know where that’s at. What do you like? Oh, I like that stuff too. What’s your favorite food? Oh, that’s my favorite food as well. What’s your name? Oh, I have a really good friend with that same name.”

So they always want to match and meet and make those emotional connections. And again, it’s all about emotional manipulation. And pretty soon this kid is spending more and more time chatting with this person, and they think that they’re chatting with someone similar, someone just like them.

And because you throw in the mental health challenges that we have, kid oftentimes these days feel like they don’t have anybody else. So all they want to do is speak with that person. Or their school is locked down and they can’t go to school, or their neighborhood. There’s so many things that are keeping kids in front of the computer. And then they’re creating this relationship with this person that they think is one person.

All along, they’re being befriended, they’re being isolated because instances like the kid’s talking to the predator, doesn’t know it. Other friends want to talk to the kid and the kid’s like, “Oh, I’d like to spend some time with my other friends online.” But the predator who’s been grooming them will make them feel guilty, “Oh no, you should be talking to me, spend more time with me.” And so there’s this process of befriending and trusting, gaining their trust, and then they start to isolate them.

And once they start to isolate these children online, then that’s where the luring begins. It can go a variety of ways. There could be a teenager or a child that’s lured from their home thinking that they’re going to go meet this friend, or they could be lured into sending photos.

And it might start with, “Oh, why don’t you send me a picture of your face? Oh, that’s really great. I’d like to see more.” And then it continues. And then they’ll say something like, “Oh, I’d like to see what’s under your clothes, but don’t send me a picture of your face. It’ll be okay. There’s no face involved. Nobody will know it’s you.” Then they start to send more photos. And the progress continues to the point where they’re sending nude photos.

And then this predator is then taking these photos and uploading them to various sites and exploiting and making money off of these photos, and the child doesn’t know it. But then the predator wants more photos, then that’s where the blackmail starts saying, “If you don’t give me more, I know where you live.” because you shared all the information.

They know where you live, they know what school you go to, they know your favorite places to eat, they know your family, because you’ve shared all this information. Then they start to threaten. Then there’s this cycle of exploitation. And this is happening more online. Online is currently the number one place that a child is recruited, and currently the number one place that they’re being exploited.

Mr. Jekielek: And these are not small numbers of kids-

Ms. Helm: No.

Mr. Jekielek: … from what I understand. I think we were saying in Texas, it’s something like 70,000 children in… Was it in the last year or period? Or how does that work?

Ms. Helm: Yeah, I believe the number was about 79,000 the State of Texas identified as victims of sex trafficking. And of those nearly 80,000 children, about 55 percent of them were trafficked actually from their school. So that’s another component to trafficking. What’s happening is it’s happening online, it’s happening within school districts. So these traffickers are preying on these victims. These victims of trafficking will then leave a portion of the school day, a couple of hours or a lunch period, and then are trafficked during the day, and then return oftentimes back to school to finish out the school day.

Mr. Jekielek: We’re talking like child prostitution, right? Or something like this.

Ms. Helm: Right. And the term child prostitution is something that we, as a movement or lots of organizations, are really coming down to shift the narrative and the dialogue away from child prostitute or child prostitution to a victim of child sex trafficking or child sexual abuse material, versus child pornography.

Because again, these are children and there is no child that chooses prostitution or chooses this for themselves. And so it is child exploitation or child sexual abuse material versus pornography. And it’s important for that shift so that as a society, we can grasp the impact of what is actually happening to our children, versus like I said, it being a choice for them. This is not a choice for them. They’re not choosing this. They have been manipulated, coerced, forced into doing this.

Mr. Jekielek: Well, and especially to your point, as you explained earlier, they probably feel incredibly guilty and feel like it’s all their fault at the same time.

Ms. Helm: That’s a very accurate component to it. Yes.

Mr. Jekielek: I think it can be incredibly difficult for, frankly, myself right now, and many of our viewers to just fathom the idea that there’s children in schools that are being taken out of schools and sold to people and sent back to school somehow. And they’ve been coerced into participating in some sort of horrific scheme that also happens to be incredibly lucrative for the people that are doing this.

Ms. Helm: Yes, incredibly lucrative. On average, one person can generate on average $265,000 a year for a trafficker. That is one single solitary person. That is one of the reasons why human trafficking is a $150 billion industry a year—now that is worldwide. So it’s extremely lucrative. Varying indifference to the gun trade or drugs, that’s a one-time sale, a human body can be sold repeatedly, on average five to seven times a day for a victim that’s in the life daily. It’s five to seven times a day on average that they’re trafficked.

Mr. Jekielek: I want to ask you something, it might be a bit of a difficult question. At some point, I’m sure you realized if you hadn’t run away that day, 20 years ago, that you would’ve been in this sort of life.

Ms. Helm: That’s right. It could have gone that way. And that just possibility has been hard for me to sit with myself and think about. The honest to goodness truth is there was still this part of me after everything that I had gone through that wished I could have just looked past it and still got to do everything that I wanted to do. I still got to be the traveling massage therapist. I still had a part of me for a long time that still wanted what I went there for. I still wanted it.

And that was another part of that just added to the shame of the situation. And it was a part within me that I had to really sort through all those feelings that came along with it, because I felt like what’s wrong with me for feeling this way? What’s wrong with me for feeling like I still kind of want that job? And I think that certainly goes to show the level of manipulation that I experienced. And again, that’s their end game. That’s their goal. That’s their goal.

Mr. Jekielek: This one organization that you’re working with right now has made a kind of breakthrough, and this is why we were talking about Texas, by getting this legislation enacted about no trafficking zones, and schools to stop this. Again, when I first heard about the legislation, I just have to underscore this, I didn’t get what it was for entirely. It’s hard to fathom that this could be happening in schools to the point where legislation is required to disincentivize these people from doing this.

Ms. Helm: Right. In the State of Texas, there’s been a recent bipartisan supported bill passed, the No Trafficking Zone Act. It states that if anyone, if a trafficker tries to target a child or a teen on school grounds or within 600 feet of the premises of school functions for the purposes of trafficking, that it’s a first-degree felony charge. That’s an incredible win. That’s an incredible bill in legislation victory, for sure. And that’s the standard, that’s what it should be. These should be fundamental standards. Texas, later 2021, enacted a felony charge for first time sex buyers. So if you are caught purchasing sex, it’s a felony.

So, part of the trying to tackle this monstrous issue of human trafficking is trying to target the buying, because if you target the demand, then that’s a huge component to it. So for the State of Texas to say, “We are going to charge you with a felony if you’re caught buying sex,” that is another standard. I applaud Texas for taking that stance in that position. And that really, again, should be what every state should be right behind saying, “We’re doing this too.”

Mr. Jekielek: Just out of curiosity, what is the standard? So buying sex isn’t…

Ms. Helm: I know that in the State of North Carolina, there is a harsher penalty for littering than there is for sex buying. There is a fine for sex buying in the State of North Carolina. There’s more criminal repercussions for littering. That highlights one of the issues contributing to the perpetuation of people thinking that they can do these things because there is no accountability oftentimes.

Mr. Jekielek: Well, because the mantra that I hear is, well, if it’s adults, people are making consensual decisions. With children, it’s very different. With adults, it’s very different.

Ms. Helm: There is a group or, I suppose, a school of thought that have the position of sex work is work. However, I do not believe that that’s the case. Sex work is not work. These are victims of trafficking. They are addicted, they are into drugs oftentimes, that’s why they’re in those positions. They have what’s called debt bondages. A trafficker will say, you’re going to be in the life because you owe me this for whatever it was; for the shoes that I bought you, for the clothes that I bought you, for the food, for a place to stay.

So they get into these debts, but they’re never able to pay it off. That is not freedom, that’s not a choice, that is not work. Everywhere that sex work is legal or looking the other way from it, it directly contributes to child sexual exploitation. It directly contributes to child sexual abuse material, even as adults. Everything contributes to the abuse of children, it’s directly linked. And again, we know that even if you are an adult, it’s typically not a choice. It’s typically not a choice. So I do not support whatsoever sex work is work.

Mr. Jekielek: So you’ve just opened up a whole new line of inquiry that I’m incredibly interested in knowing about. I’m sure the audience will be as well. Little bit short on time, perhaps we can do this when you come back after we get some resolution on the Ghislaine Maxwell trial.

Ms. Helm: Yes. I do believe it. It’s very important for folks to understand the connection of adult trafficking and the impacts on children.

Mr. Jekielek: As we finish up, I imagine there’s a lot of people out there who are kind of in your situation, something terrible happened and maybe it was abuse, maybe it was trafficking, and they’re not wanting to put it out of their minds, kind of move on with their life, but it comes back, and it haunts them. And so what should people do in these sorts of situations, in your mind? Or is there like a blanket answer for that?

Ms. Helm: I don’t believe there’s one specific blanket answer. However, if someone has been a victim of sexual abuse, childhood sexual abuse, or as an adult trafficking, and they don’t share it with anyone, it will, as you said, continue to come back and haunt them, and it can continue the degradation of the destruction. It just goes deeper and deeper and deeper. 

I do hope and recommend that the survivors do either come forward. It doesn’t have to be in a public manner, of course, but seeking out an advocate, sharing with a friend, really allowing themselves to acknowledge that it’s not their fault and that it wasn’t their fault. They can always call the National Sex Trafficking hotline and get some assistance then if they’re experiencing it in the moment or even previously.

I really do recommend that those try to… It’s really a matter of standing up for themselves and really trying to grow that self-worth and self-love and really accepting that it wasn’t their fault, because again, that’s typically the number one thing that happens is the self-blame and self-shame. And that in itself can bury you. 

So I really encourage people to try to come forward, and whatever that looks like the best way for them, whether it’s sharing with a group, sharing with one individual, or spending a lot of time within themselves, but just not pushing it away, just addressing it. Exercising, meditation, those type things, eating well, nurturing themselves can go very far.

Mr. Jekielek: What about, as you described it, flipping it around and…

Ms. Helm: Yes, then going out and trying to take exactly what you’ve gone through and flipping it around and going out and stopping as many abusers as you can, and helping as many other people as you can. It goes beyond seeing the silver lining in a situation. 

As I spoke about earlier, it really takes the position of taking all the power back, because again, it was never theirs, it was never the predator’s, the abuser’s power in the first place. It was something that was taken from me. It was taken from the other survivors. It’s certainly been the path for me to fight back and take a stand for myself, and let the abusers of the world know that this is no longer going to continue happening. And we are here, we’re going to fight back, and we’re certainly coming for them.

Mr. Jekielek: Well, Teresa Helm, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show.

Ms. Helm: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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