UNI alum brings documentary to Lang



UNI alum Vanessa McNeal screened her documentary Gridshock: A Film About Sex Trafficking in Iowa on Monday, April 15.


“Every single person will walk out of this place completely changed,” said UNI alum Vanessa McNeal, addressing the packed Lang Hall Auditorium at 6 p.m. on Monday night. The crowd of students, alumni and community members had come to experience the free screening of McNeal’s documentary “Gridshock: A Film About Sex Trafficking in Iowa.”

“We know this is a global issue; we know this is a national issue,” said Alan Heisterkamp, director of the Center for Violence Prevention at UNI. “And we’re going to see in a few minutes how it’s happening right here in Iowa as well.”

McNeal said she was drawn to the issue after hearing a class presentation about the sex trafficking epidemic while pursuing her master’s degree in social work (MSW) at UNI. She also has personal connections to the issue, having been sexually abused, neglected and sexually assaulted at a young age.

“I spent so many years trying to find wholeness in my life,” she said.

After completing her MSW, she founded her media company, McNeal Media, in 2017, and produced her first award-winning documentary, “The Voiceless,” which focused on male sexual assault survivors. “Gridshock” is her most recent project.

To fund the film’s production, from December 2017 to February 2018, McNeal and her team set a 60-day, all-or-nothing goal of $35,000 on indiegogo.com If the goal wasn’t met in that time frame, all donations would be returned “and we wouldn’t be standing here today,” she said.

Thanks to over 300 donors, the team reached their goal, and spent the last year producing Gridshock, a 55-minute film that explores “what [sex trafficking] really is, who it benefits and who it targets.”

The film featured interviews with three survivors of sex trafficking, as well as politicians, advocates, law enforcement and a recovering sex addict. One of the three survivors, Waterloo native Heather Rios, attended Monday’s event and participated in a post-film Q&A panel with McNeal and Karen Siler, a representative of local resource service Friends of the Family.

After a few brief introductory questions, the floor was opened for audience questions. When asked what college students can do to help, McNeal highlighted the need for awareness.

“I think the awareness piece is just the biggest thing that we can do. That sounds really flimsy, and I wish that I had something more substantial, but I think that it’s so important that we just continue to talk about what it really is and just have those conversations,” she said.

What sex trafficking “really is” is hard to pin down, as the film and panelists emphasized.

“If I gave you 25 bullet points, you might only check off two, and you might not think it’s trafficking,” said McNeal, stating that no two cases are ever the same.

She said citizens should look for “the absence of normal” and “be open to all possibilities” regarding sex trafficking in the store, at the airport and in their personal networks.

“We’re 1-2 steps away from knowing someone in a personal network who is affected by this,” she said.

The film also emphasized that a trafficker can be anyone of any gender, age or socioeconomic status. Buyers, in contrast, are predominantly men, many of whom are middle-class, married fathers with college degrees. It is important to note that most buyers lack a prior criminal record, making it difficult for law enforcement to develop a typical profile.

The many faces of sex traffickers mean that one of the most important things citizens can do is believe survivors, regardless of whether their story matches the “typical” idea of a victim.

“Traffickers and buyers rely on us not to want to believe it,” said Shiler.

Regan Rowenhurst, a sophomore religion and history major who attended the event, said that the lack of awareness and ignorance really hit home for her.

“I think that’s the part that shocked me most, about how people would question a survivor,” Rowenhorst said. “I couldn’t believe that.” 

The cultural tendency not to believe survivors, according to the panelists, has led to a lack of consequences for the real criminals in the sex trafficking industry. Victims will frequently be arrested for prostitution, while buyers and traffickers escape free of charge. The few buyers who are caught in the act, said McNeal, face insufficient punishment. For victims under age 18, the punishment is a Class D felony and up to five years in prison. However, for victims over 18, the buyer receives only an “aggravated misdemeanor” and the potential for two years in prison— a “joke,” according to McNeal.

“No one ever serves prison time; a lot of them don’t serve jail time,” she said. “They’re issued a citation or a fine.”

The next steps for “Gridshock” include an Iowa tour, with upcoming stops in Davenport, Sioux Center, Iowa City and Pella. From April 25-27, the documentary will also be screened at the Julien Dubuque International Film Festival in Dubuque, Iowa. The festival, in its seventh year, is one of the top reviewed film festivals worldwide and supports emerging filmmakers and diverse, cause-related films, according to the festival website.

McNeal is hopeful that the tour will lead to “Gridshock” being picked up by a major network to bring the issue to light nationwide.

“The story’s about Iowa, but it has a common theme, and a message that will go throughout the country,” she said.

McNeal is also planning her next project—a documentary on child pornography— and hopes to launch a new crowdfunding campaign in November to raise money for that production.

For now, though, she’s using her film to raise awareness. Both she and Rios said that, though “Gridshock” isn’t an easy film to watch, it’s an important one.

“You have to be open to hear the ugly,” Rios said, describing how sharing her story is important for her own healing as well as the awareness of others. “I feel like I need to turn the lights on and get those roaches out.”

“We need to be mad,” McNeal agreed, concluding the evening’s panel. “We need to fuel this fire and do something about it.”