Multifaceted pair Tolga and Christine Marie Atas have embarked on their most important work yet: providing refuge and inspiration for escapees from sex trafficking.
From their Las Vegas home, Christine Marie Katas and her husband, Tolga, are turning her personal trauma into a fight against religious polygamy and prostitution.
Tolga and Christine Marie Katas are a motley Las Vegas duo. He’s a former musician and producer, now an inventor and a fashion photographer. She’s a software developer working on her PhD in media psychology. Some years ago, as a single mother, this former Ms. Michigan found herself trapped in an abusive, polygamous, sex-trafficking situation in Utah. After escaping, bereft of resources, she eventually went public with her story on the Investigation Discovery series Dangerous Persuasions, in an episode titled “Prophet or Predator.” Later she met and married Tolga. After years of helping similar victims informally, in 2013 the couple began a program called Voices for Dignity to assist people escaping from religious polygamy and prostitution by providing them with housing and jobs. This fall, their message will gain a larger platform when the Lifetime channel captures their efforts in the reality TV series Escaping Polygamy.
ON HELPING VICTIMS
Tolga: She’ll get an anonymous call at 2 in the morning and say, “I’ve got to go drop off clothes in the middle of the road.” These women are so afraid [of getting caught], they don’t even want to meet her.
The couple once assisted a boy named Willy, an escapee from the notorious Warren Jeffs’s polygamist Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Tolga’s uplifting photos and video of Willy were shown on ABC’s 20/20.
Christine: When a girl [from the same church], Alissa, saw the footage online, it was a wake-up call. Within two weeks, she was out of there.
As part of Voices for Dignity’s work, the couple employs Tolga’s visual expertise to shoot empowering photos of escapees.
Christine: The first person we did a photo shoot with, we worked with her therapist to find out what message she needs to believe about herself— things like “I’m smart, I’m beautiful, I’m strong.” Then we created backgrounds and costumes to help show that. In one she was an African princess. In another she was sitting at a computer, looking professional. When we were done, the therapist said, “That was not a photo shoot; that was a life-changing experience.”
Tolga: There’s something about seeing a photo of yourself with a power message. It shows that, Wow, I can do it.
ON PROSTITUTION, POLYGAMY, AND TRAFFICKING
Christine: Patriarchal, religiously mandated polygamy is not free choice. The United Nations considers polygamy to be a source of inequality and oppression. But here in America, we have shows like Sister Wives making [plural marriage] seem normal, and people assume those women really want to be there. People say, “That would never happen to me” or “That person must be stupid not to leave.” But the truth is, it can happen to anyone —male, female, young or old—because every person has vulnerabilities [that a pimp, polygamist, or exploiter can prey on]. You don’t need physical violence to be a victim of trafficking. It can be entirely through psychological coercion.
Tolga: And when they get you spiritually, there’s nothing you can do. You can’t go to the police and say, “He screwed up my mind.”
Christine: If any woman feels empowered engaging in prostitution, I say more power to her. But she’s one of the rare ones. People think of trafficking victims as girls brought in from another country, but there are trafficking victims all around us who are invisible. Human trafficking can take place without someone leaving the city of Las Vegas. It has nothing to do with movement; it has to do with exploitation through force, fraud, or coercion. I would also say this: Stop judging and start helping.