Most people only know me as a survivor of domestic sex trafficking, less known is that I have also been exploited for labour. Labour trafficking is not assigned the importance that it deserves. We cannot continue as a society to assign more value to only certain classes of exploitation.
Currently, I serve as the Executive Director of Washington Trafficking Prevention (WTP). This role is completely different than any role I've ever held in the past. Previously I worked for the Organization for Prostitution Survivors as an advocate, and later at Kent Youth and Family Services in Washington State as a behavioural health specialist, I remember all the important lessons that I learned from the people I worked alongside. Those experiences inform the partnerships that WTP nurtures, the awareness events that we host, and the programmes that we develop.
While working at Kent Youth and Family Services, I had the opportunity to partner with Kent Police Department to provide advocacy, outreach, and services. While serving in this role, I received referrals daily from law enforcement, community members, service providers, and educators. I saw a recurring pattern of people who were groomed for exploitation online and survivors of human trafficking who had a history of abuse, unmet needs, poverty, and marginalization. Most of these situations are preventable, and there are multiple situations where an intervention can be made. My hope is to create a world that no longer supports or sustains systems of marginalization that make people vulnerable to exploitation.
Every time I read a study about the mortality rates of people who experience exploitation, I always feel like I'm one of the lucky ones. Sometimes I feel guilty because I was able to access services and support when I needed them. When I say I'm a survivor, I mean that I am actually still alive and survived it. Many survivors of exploitation die by homicide from a pimp or a buyer.
Even less talked about is death by trauma. Many of us end up leaving the life of exploitation and abuse, but because of the inability to access specialized services, we die from overdose or by suicide.
I grew up in a home and a family where cycles of untreated trauma, substance abuse, poverty, domestic violence, and sexual assault were common. Before I turned five, I was sexually assaulted by a family member, and experienced physical abuse and neglect from my primary caregivers. The instability and violence that I grew up with seemed normal.
Part of that instability I experienced growing up was a frequent relocation. Moving frequently prevented me from building a support system and friendships. My lack of social support and feelings of isolation made me desperate for any kind of attention I could receive. When I was 12, America Online had become readily available to the public.
Internet chat rooms became the place where I tried to fulfill my need for love and belonging. I lied and said I was 14 years old, and I encountered droves of adult men who were excited to talk to a 14-year-old girl online.
Fast forward a couple of years, and the abuse at home became untenable. When I finally ran away at 14, I experienced multiple assaults, homelessness, domestic violence, and began using substances to feel better. Unfortunately, my substance abuse did not actually solve any problems, and made me easier to manipulate and control.
I met my first pimp when I was 16 years old on the internet. We would talk online for hours, and I felt like he really understood me and cared about me. He told me he was going to take care of me and that nobody was ever going to hurt me as long as he was around. When we met everything was fine at first, and he seemed like the perfect guy.
The bond that he fostered with me online was calculated and focused. He knew about the kind of home I grew up in, the abuse I experienced, and that I had no support systems. It was easy for him to isolate me from my very small circle of family members. He convinced me to end those relationships or sabotage them, and when he finally had me alone the abuse and exploitation started.
Even though I got the courage to finally leave that relationship, it did not solve my problems. I tried many times to rebuild my life and get a normal job. My trauma always seemed to precede me, and I had difficulty obtaining affordable housing and a stable job that paid a living wage. This resulted in me moving in with abusive boyfriends to stay off the streets.
In my mid-twenties, I met my last pimp. At that time, I had a job that didn't pay me enough to survive on my own, and he told me about a website where you can get dates and make easy money. He started marketing me and running my ads.
On December 10th 2012, I was on my way to meet a sex buyer and crashed my car into a police vehicle. Luckily the officers were okay, and I was arrested for driving under the influence. Being in jail for 90 days gave me the opportunity to separate myself from the situation that I was embedded in and begin accessing help.
Once I began accessing services for addiction and mental health, the impacts of my trauma came to the surface. I had recurrent flashbacks, night terrors, insomnia, memory issues, anxiety when in public settings, depression, and suicidal ideation. The impacts of PTSD were debilitating, and I thought I would never get better. I firmly believed that I was at fault for all of my exploitation. For the first year and a half out of the life, I had a really hard time focusing, remembering simple tasks, and taking care of normal life tasks.
I was fortunate to reconnect with my friend Judy, who became my mentor. Judy said something that changed my life. “There are three steps to getting over any resentment. Step one: get over it.” I remember being flooded with outrage when she said this. She continued: “Step two: stop wishing it hadn’t happened. And step three: do something to help somebody else, in a way that only you can help them because you experienced what you experienced.” That conversation has been a guiding light to healing from so many aspects of my trauma.
Like with so many survivors, my traffickers were never convicted or charged. I was too afraid to pursue charges, and once I was ready the statute of limitations had passed.
After a few years, I landed a job at Kent Youth and Family Services working closely with Kent Police Department to serve people who were suspected, confirmed, or at-risk of sexual exploitation.
There are many people who praise how far I’ve come, but truthfully, I still struggle and feel like an imposter in any space I’m in. I haven’t recovered from being trafficked, it’s a process that will likely be lifelong. Sometimes I still have flashbacks about seemingly innocuous things like songs, smells, body language, phrases, loud noises, or gestures.
Sometimes there’s a false belief that because I’m in a leadership role, I’m completely healed and impervious to the impacts of my experiences. There are no “perfect survivors”, and it’s a harmful falsehood that we need to stop perpetuating. Trauma recovery looks different for everyone, and our stories are all different. That’s why there needs to be survivor leaders from every community and background to address the problem.
Survivors are instrumental to preventing and ending human trafficking. There are so many ways survivors must be involved, such as serving on a board, running organizations, volunteering, providing direct outreach services, or speaking with elected officials.
I encourage the United Nations to continue to listen to survivors and support policy approaches that survivor leaders recommend.
To any of my survivor siblings out there, remember healing from our experiences is a process that isn’t always easy. Get connected to people who are safe and that you can depend upon for the times when you are struggling. One of the best decisions I made was to connect with other survivors. They normalized all the challenges and barriers I was facing, like experiencing trauma, financial insecurity, loneliness, shame, and guilt.
No matter what happens, no matter how imperfect your journey might look, keep trying.