Several years ago, I had a life-shaping encounter while attending a community event. A woman came to greet me, and when she learned that I was a therapist, she said, “I was sexually trafficked for 12 years of my life.” She shared scattered details about her story – her country of origin, the location of her slavery and how she was rescued and reunited with family.
I told her there was a reason that we had met because I had been spending time learning about this issue, and a group of people were working to start a coalition in my community of the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania to raise awareness and be trained to provide aftercare services to victims. Her response was full of conflicting emotions – desiring action, but overwhelmed with fear and hopelessness.
Over many more conversations, I learned so much from her:
- She taught me that understanding is not enough.She didn’t believe that awareness efforts focusing a spotlight on human trafficking could move a community to action: “People don’t want to know. They don’t want to believe it’s true and they deny that it is happening.” I said I agreed with her, but remained convinced that we must still try to educate.
- She taught me about the hopelessness and brokenness that comes from the trauma of sex trafficking: “We will never be whole.” She has been successful as an educated entrepreneur, but in order to live and survive, she has had to distance herself from this other part of her identity and her life.
- She also taught me a vital lesson that I now realize is an ongoing reality in this work – the importance of She described it as breaking the silence: “Do you know what we need? We just need someone to listen…someone who cares without a face of disgust and without a look of blame that says there must have been something you did to cause this.”
I had consumed literally thousands of pages of stories and information on trafficking, but meeting her truly brought this issue to life – the first of dozens of women our coalition, Valley Against Sex Trafficking (VAST) has met in our work over the last six years.
Our initial vision included a basic goal of raising awareness and seeking to coordinate efforts for a unified response that would comprehensively address this form of modern-day slavery through prevention, awareness, action, and aftercare. By educating community members – civilians, frontline service providers, law enforcement and prosecutors – we could contribute to eradicating this form of exploitation of women, men, boys and girls in our area.
We soon discovered that the work can be tedious, mundane, and full of obstacles and discouragement. Any assumptions that this included glamorous rescue efforts were quickly squashed with the realization that there is resistance to the truth of the prevalence of sex trafficking and the demand that drives the commercial sex industry. We would face situations requiring our intervention despite limited manpower and resources, with survivors who had seemingly endless needs and obstacles to overcome once separated from a trafficker.
Yes, the work is difficult. However, the work is also necessary.
Awareness efforts soon led many trafficking survivors to us. Statistics and stories were replaced with personal, local faces that would need our help and in turn would change our lives. Interacting with trafficking survivors is a cross-cultural experience. They represent backgrounds that are layered with diversity including ethnicity, socioeconomic status and family history. Many of their stories are riddled with addiction, abuse, neglect, out-of-home placement, loss, rejection and suffering. The language of “the life,” the rules of “the game”, and the many nuances of a relationship with a trafficker (also known as daddy, boyfriend, boss, abuser, and lover), are only a few of the cultural differences of a woman coming out of the commercial sex industry.
This cross-cultural experience requires one who will humbly engage, listen and bear witness. I sit with a woman who has secrets, stories, and experiences that are much different than my own. Many view her as dirty, “someone who chose this lifestyle;” others view her as to be pitied and a cause to be rescued. But what does she need? What do weneed to understand about women who have a history of prostitution or sex trafficking?
I asked this of one survivor after she had been separated from her trafficker for only two months, and she said this:
“Because of the nature of the commercial sex industry, most women will feel like they will be judged. It’s shameful once we come to terms with our experiences. What helped me was the tenderness…of the women who came to me and showed kindness…At the point of almost death, I found my existence.
Hope is something you can’t see. Hope was something they gave to me. They believed in me, without knowing it, they were showing they trusted me…”
Researcher Melissa Farley declares that “prostitution and trafficking can only exist in an atmosphere of public, professional and academic indifference (Farley, 2003).” For a survivor of sex trafficking, a community coalition can provide the social support that acknowledges her value and dignity,magnifying her strengths, resilience, courage and capacities to survive, which will in turn enable her to be restored.
Interacting with survivors is only one aspect of the work within an anti-trafficking coalition. Trafficking is an international, national, and local human rights issue, and VAST is dedicated to shaping local movements to end trafficking. Creating and implementing a comprehensive community response must include acknowledging and addressing the demand for commercial sex that fuels the industry. It must push for a unified response protocol that includes the training of concerned citizens to identify and report human trafficking, strong networking cooperation between law enforcement, prosecutors and service providers to provide survivor-centered, trauma-informed intervention and resources for survivors, and the mobilization of individuals with the tools and resources to mount strategic efforts to eliminate human trafficking.
In the Lehigh Valley, VAST continues in the ongoing abolition journey. Since 2011, more than 9,000 residents have been educated in trauma-informed care, trafficking identification and victim response, and networking and collaboration with law enforcement and prosecutors. VAST has witnessed five successful prosecutions of human trafficking, assisting more than 40 victims during the process; three of those victims have become survivor leaders and have initiated a survivor support group. Additionally, VAST continues with varying forms of awareness, action and advocacy efforts, including a K-12 curriculum to educate on the issue of sexual exploitation.
A world free from slavery where all people are valued and respected: some may see this vision as grandiose and idealistic. Yet, if we overlook evil and injustice, if we respond with resigned helplessness or turning a blind eye, we become a part of the problem. Change occurs slowly, but it occurs powerfully in unity with others, because it is only in unison that sustainable change can occur — the kind of cultural change that is necessary to eradicate human trafficking.
Farley, M. (2003). Prostitution, Trafficking, and Traumatic Stress.Binghamton: Haworth Press.