How did you become involved in the movement against sex trafficking and sexual exploitation?
I was trafficked in prostitution in New York City for nearly ten years, from the early 1980s to the early 1990s. Two of my friends from the life were murdered. My beautiful friend, April, died of suicide because the madam she’d called promised to send help then did nothing. April died waiting – to me it feels like another murder. My best friend Gabriel, who’d been trafficked from age sixteen, died of AIDS at age twenty-four. His family kicked him out when they found out he was sick, so he had to spend his last days living with a john who made him buy life insurance with the john as beneficiary. I fill with tears when I think of it.
The public needs to understand that prostitution is sex trafficking. The term ‘sex trafficking’ reflects an awakening to the truth about the realities of prostitution – that it is sexually violent, coercive, degrading, and involves fraud, deception and the abuse of power. In other words, the circumstances of prostitution are those of sex trafficking. The only reason the public doesn’t always recognize this is that there’s a strange assumption that if someone is in prostitution – it’s okay to commit these crimes against her. It’s the ultimate victim blaming. The UN general assembly agrees – their definition of sex trafficking describes prostitution:
(a) “Trafficking in persons” shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation…
(b) The consent of a victim of trafficking in persons to the intended exploitation set forth in subparagraph (a) of this article shall be irrelevant where any of the means set forth in subparagraph (a) have been used.
What draws you to support people who are trafficked and sexually exploited?
Ralph Ellison wrote, “We are one, and we become many. This is not prophecy, but description.”
After being trafficked in prostitution, you feel linked to all the others who’ve been there. You want them to be okay. You are no longer merely yourself; you are part of a whole. It’s a tremendous blessing. It’s why so many survivor activists and advocates are working in the anti-trafficking movement. As survivors, one of our greatest resources is our warmth and our deep care for our sisters and brothers. Now we are empowering ourselves and each other, the next step is to help make our work sustainable through funding.
Researchers have found that survivors of sex trafficking/prostitution suffer from the same amount of trauma as the victims of state-sponsored torture; this is no surprise to those of us who’ve been there. People who’ve been through this kind of devastation need help, support and services. Recovery is possible. Many of us who’ve come through it are now leading passionate, meaningful lives. Most survivors I know are warriors.
What does your work involve?
I’m blessed to be working with an extraordinary survivor leadership board as the Executive Director of Sex Trafficking Survivors United. Our survivor leadership board includes these women who have built the anti-trafficking movement: Vednita Carter, founder of Breaking Free, Kristy Childs, founder of Veronica’s Voice, Marlene Carson, founder of Rahab’s Hideaway, Tina Frundt, founder of Courtney’s House, Evelyn Lurcha of the Bagong Kamalayan Collective, Inc., Natasha Falle, co-founder of Sextrade101, Bridget Perrier, co-founder of Sextrade101, and Trisha Baptie, founder of EVE (formerly Exploited Voices now Educating).
We are a survivor-led NGO dedicated to helping trafficked people exit and recover from prostitution while educating the public and empowering each other. We are a powerhouse! Our mission is to empower and unite the energy, efforts and voices of sex trafficking survivors everywhere so we can end the sexual violence of prostitution.
I also write and blog about being trafficked in prostitution and speak publicly on the issue.
What legal improvements or changes would help to abolish human trafficking and sexual exploitation?
Survivor activist Nickolaos Al Khadra shares my views — and he said it so well that I’m quoting him here (thanks Nickolaos).
For sex trafficking victims, the first thing that comes to mind is that every victim charged with soliciting of prostitution should be treated as a victim of sex trafficking, not as a criminal, and be offered the same escape routes. They shouldn’t be forced to ‘flip on their pimp’. There should be an initiative for better services; too many girls and women are being slaughtered, maimed from this particular policy. There has to be a safer process for catching pimps that doesn’t put the exploited individual at risk.
If the victim of sex trafficking is caught with possession of a controlled substance, it should not go against them when coming out of jail. Their court records are sealed. The question to receive financial aid is: Have you ever been convicted of a felony possession? If yes, this automatically disqualifies the applicant from receiving any form of government grants and loans offered for education. This question should be abolished. My reason for this legislation change is that if a person cannot get a job or education, this sets them up for being victimized by structural failure.
…For the johns, we need a new approach for attacking the demand. For years, the primary focus was aimed at the victims (supply). Any time laws prohibiting the sale of prostitution were delegated, the johns managed to skate on by with no repercussions for the hell they put most of us through. But the time has come for that to change. I would like to see no less than five-thousand dollar fines – the higher the income of the john, then the higher the fine. (These fines should go directly to fund services for people in prostitution.) To attack the situation, the high profile johns need to go down as well. Real legal justice needs to be put in place. Wealth should not be a reason to avoid prosecution.
For anyone else who wants to be involved, what can other people do to help?
Support the Nordic model legislation, which criminalizes johns and pimps, but does not criminalize people in prostitution. This reduces demand, the engine that drives trafficking. As long as there is demand for prostitution, there will be vulnerable youth and young people suffering.
Advocate for services to help people exit and recover from the trauma of prostitution. Raise awareness about the issue whenever you can; personal conversations can be a very important form of advocacy.
If you want to work more directly by volunteering for an organization or have thought of starting an organization, go to a survivor-led program in your area and ask how you can help them. They are in the front lines and most likely would be happy for your support. If there is no survivor-led program in your area, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ask the survivors in the area where the greatest need is. Don’t duplicate programs that already exist, and whatever you do, do not form an organization that competes with a survivor-led organization for funding. This has a devastating and disempowering effect on all survivors, and empowered survivors are the key to ending human trafficking. Sex Trafficking Survivors United advocates collaboration rather than competition. The movement needs all of us, and we can’t waste time on pettiness.
What are your plans for the future?
I would like to keep working with the amazing people in Sex Trafficking Survivors United, so that more of us are empowered and helped until prostitution is abolished. I will work hard to bring funding to our organization so that we can take the anti-trafficking movement into its next productive phase.
I will continue to share myself and my story, and be moved and thankful as more survivors break the silence to speak and write of their experiences (but only when they feel safe and ready and are very sure this is what they want to do after their lives have reached a place of healing). “When enough sex trafficking survivors are speaking out, the sex industry will truly begin to be dismantled.” – Kristy Childs.
The wonderful poet Sheila Black shared this poem called Telling with me. It’s by Laura Hershey, an extraordinary disabled rights activist and poet who passed away recently. It’s especially meaningful for us survivors:
Those with power can afford
to tell their story
Those without power risk everything
to tell their story
will hear your story and decide to fight
to live and refuse compromise.
Someone else will tell her own story
I would love to find a publisher for my memoir (I haven’t had time to look), and continue to forge meaningful friendships with survivors.
Recommended websites/further reading:
www.sextraffickingsurvivorsunited.org (coming soon)
- ‘An Ex-Hooker’s Letter to Her Younger Self’, a short piece of non-fiction written by Stella Marr, can be read on Voices of Prostitution Survivors here.