How did you become involved in the movement against sex trafficking and sexual exploitation?
It was on a Friday or Saturday night in 2009 that I found myself home alone with the television remote. Ben, my fiancé, was out with a friend, and I was pouring wine and baking brownies to celebrate having the apartment to myself. I’d been working long hours at my full-time job, and I needed a night in.
I flopped on the couch and flipped through television channels. Maybe I watched a movie or a couple of sitcoms before coming across a documentary about human trafficking overseas. I can’t remember which station it was on (possibly HBO), but it was about this woman who was a survivor of human trafficking (in India, I think), and she worked to rescue other young girls from the local brothels.
There was one girl in particular who was being sold by her parents. The rescuer dressed up like a ninja – yes, a ninja – and stormed into the brothel. She pulled the young girl out before the owners understood what was going on. It was awesome.
But the little girl was unable to understand a life outside of prostitution. She couldn’t see any wrongdoing by her parents because it was all she had known. It was a family business, and she was following in her older sister’s footsteps. The little girl ultimately returned to the brothel.
The rescuer wouldn’t give up, though. She planned future attempts to save the same girl and others like her. This woman was awesome. Not only did she spend her time and money on saving innocent girls from trafficking, but she was a survivor herself. I felt strangely connected to her, even though she was living on the other side of the world from me, because we shared a similar past. But I couldn’t be like her, I thought, human trafficking only happened overseas.
Then the show transitioned to trafficking in the United States, and I grabbed my laptop and started searching: human trafficking in the United States, sex trafficking, and child trafficking. After several searches, I found Children of the Night (COTN) in Los Angeles, CA, founded by Dr. Lois Lee.
I was blown away, not only to learn that there was a program available for these girls, but that there was a name for what had happened to them – what had happened to me – human trafficking.
This piece of information was missing from my childhood.
And then I was angry. For nearly twenty years, I carried around this shameful secret about my past, a secret which led me to believe that I was dirty, that I was damaged goods. And it was a lie all along. I wished I had known that I was not unworthy.
I was a survivor. I was a survivor of human trafficking.
What draws you to support people who are trafficked and sexually exploited?
The first survivor I ever connected with was Tina Frundt, founder of Courtney’s House in Washington D.C., an organization which provides services to male and female victims of child sex trafficking. I attended a training session to volunteer at Courtney’s House, and Tina explained to us the tactics used by traffickers to lure children away from home. The tactics were exactly the same as those used on me in 1992. I was blown away. It wasn’t until that moment that I truly realized that I had been a victim, and I knew I had to speak out. I knew I had to share my story in order to educate teens, parents, and teachers.
What does your work involve?
As a consultant for Fox Valley Technical College’s (FVTC) AMBER Alert program, I present information to law enforcement in training sessions about human trafficking. As a survivor of child sex trafficking, I am passionate about sharing my story with law enforcement and service providers in order to help them understand the mindset of an uncooperative trafficking victim. I hope that by sharing my experience, today’s teen victims will be spared incarceration, mistreatment, or retraumatization. I also write a weekly column with the Washington Times Communities.
What legal improvements or changes would help to abolish human trafficking and sexual exploitation?
The passing of the education bill in Virginia was the highlight of my advocacy career thus far. I would like to see prevention education programs mandated in every state, and my hope is that these programs will be geared towards prevention of all types of exploitation: physical, sexual, financial, emotional, spiritual, etc. Traffickers are not the only people targeting children for personal gain.
For anyone else who wants to be involved, what can other people do to help?
Raising awareness for the prevalence of child sex trafficking in America is critical in the global war against human trafficking. However, audience members at community awareness events are often left feeling overwhelmed by the issue.
“What can I possibly do?” I’m often asked by those still reeling from survival stories and statistics. “How can I get involved?”
And I always answer in the same way: Become a mentor!
Mentoring is an easily accessible and effective way to prevent human trafficking in your own community. Child predators, specifically child sex traffickers, target those youth who are most vulnerable, those who lack the support and guidance needed to overcome and avoid the many challenges associated with adolescence.
What are your plans for the future?
I just signed a contract with Palgrave-Macmillan to write an academic book on trafficking in America. I’m really excited about this opportunity and will be spending a large part of this next year writing. I encourage people to sign up for my newsletter at www.HollyAustinSmith.com for book updates.
Recommended websites/further reading:
My Washington Times Communities column can be read here.
- ‘Law Enforcement Training: The Missing Service for Victims of Human Trafficking’, a short piece of non-fiction written by Holly Austin Smith, can be read on Voices of Prostitution Survivors here.