How did you become involved in the movement against sex trafficking and sexual exploitation?
My involvement began as I was receiving EMDR trauma therapy to recover from lifelong posttraumatic stress disorder. I was overwhelmed by flashbacks, night terrors, anxiety and depression that were triggered by the passing of my father, who began grooming and sexually assaulting me at the age of three, and then trafficked me on a regular basis, mostly in my home state of Pennsylvania, but also in New Jersey and Delaware, from age four to the time I entered school at the age of five. He photographed me pornographically at the age of twelve as I was forced to engage in sexual acts with an older female cousin. Throughout early childhood, there were other male perpetrators, and at the age of ten I was lured into the home of a middle-aged, female neighbor, who made sexual advances, then tied and sexually assaulted me. After this assault, she handed me five dollars to go buy ice cream. In my confused mind, I thought she loved me, yet being paid reinforced the devastation I had felt from being trafficked years before and actually seeing the money exchanged in return for my sexual slavery.
As my recovery slowly progressed, I was in need of support from other survivors and found online communities that provided assistance regarding sexual abuse and sexual assault, yet I had nowhere to turn when it came to the issue of exploitation. I stumbled upon the Pink Cross Foundation, which provides faith-based support for those seeking to escape the adult film industry, and due to my exploitation in pictures and later on film at the age of seventeen, I felt at home. I still felt the need for further support in dealing with the memories of being trafficked though, and this led me to GEMS, based in New York. Thanks to the efforts of Rachel Lloyd and all the GEMS girls, I finally began to come to terms with the nature of the crimes that had been committed. A large part of my success in moving forward from all this has been due to engaging in awareness and advocacy which came about as a result of finding safety within Rachel Lloyd’s survivor group.
What draws you to support people who are trafficked and sexually exploited?
From early on in my own recovery, it was very obvious to me that I had a greater chance to heal if I assisted in the healing of others. Even more of a contributing factor though, is that I was a witness to sexual crimes committed against others whom I cared very deeply for. While my own suffering is nothing to dismiss, I suffered much greater distress in watching these events happen and in spite of attempts to stop them, remained unable to help. I’m hypersensitive regarding people in dangerous or degrading situations, especially children and women. These things aside, there is also the recognition of the bigger picture and a desire to lend assistance in any way I can to combat modern slavery and exploitation.
What does your work involve?
I am somewhat limited in the amount of time and effort that I can put forth. First and foremost, I am a husband and a father. I’m employed full time at night, and during the day, I have a home in the middle of ten forested acres to maintain. When time allows, my main contribution is through volunteer support for survivors of trauma. As part of an online community for PTSD sufferers, the topics can range from military experiences to domestic violence and everything in between. There are a large number of sexual abuse and sexual assault survivors in this group, and that is where my focus lies. Survivors of exploitation are present as well, and new members are filtering in on a near daily basis. While offering support, situations do occur that require referrals to service providers, crisis centers, mental health professionals and law enforcement.
I have also become involved in advocating for legislation and raising awareness via social networking. I recently joined the Polaris Project Legislative Circle in hopes of expediting the passage of Safe Harbor laws and to assist in the revival of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Any and all legislation pertaining to criminal justice, victim rights, trafficking, exploitation, sexual assault, sexual abuse and child safety are of great interest to me, and I share information on these issues online with various networks as a means of raising awareness.
What legal improvements or changes would help to abolish human trafficking and sexual exploitation?
This is a critical topic as trafficking and exploitation are more openly addressed, as with the Human Trafficking Symposium held at Georgetown University, which emphasized the importance of a victim-centered approach. The enactment of laws such as Safe Harbor and the TVPA are vital for rescue and recovery efforts, yet there must be equal emphasis placed on the demand. A great deal of care must be taken to ensure that tougher penalties don’t endanger victims. There also needs to be an understanding of the underlying causes that increase trafficking and exploitation, such as poverty, sexual abuse of children and other forms of abuse, proliferation of internet pornography, inadequate education, empowerment and enrichment programs, and the overall breakdown of family units. Maintaining the integrity and safety of our children must become a top priority. Legislation that requires routine training for law enforcement, local officials, school and university administration and staff, medical professionals and other community leaders in the areas of human trafficking and exploitation should also be priority. Enacting laws will accomplish very little as long as stigmas and prejudices are permitted to flourish, so big changes need to occur on the ground level.
Because I’ve experienced the lack of support for exploitation survivors, I must also emphasize the need for more involvement from the mental healthcare community. Girls are bordering on suicide because their ‘boyfriends’ forced them to expose themselves online. Wives are forced to provide sexual acts in order to remove debts owed by their husbands. Children as young as I was and even younger are subjected to the most heinous sexual acts imaginable and often photographed. The average age of entry into prostitution continues to drop lower and lower. These precious lives are at their wit’s end and they don’t know where to turn, they feel incredible shame, and many times, they aren’t aware that they suffer from trauma and deserve to have professional help.
For anyone else who wants to be involved, what can other people do to help?
There is a tremendous amount of work to be done, much more than most realize, and it involves everyone regardless of experience or occupation. A lot of people are probably like me, limited to a certain degree by family, work or other situations. Getting involved doesn’t have to mean starting up an NGO or making huge donations. It can be as simple as a neighborhood watch, becoming educated on trafficking at truck stops and monitoring activity, holding informational meetings at a community center, distributing the National Human Trafficking Hotline on flyers or sent via email and social media, being aware of potential labor trafficking and immigration violations in local communities, reaching out to runaways and the homeless, discussing internet safety with a parent group to make everyone aware of online grooming, regularly checking alerts for missing children. GEMS can be contacted to obtain copies of the film Very Young Girls, and Rachel Lloyd’s memoir Girls Like Us can be distributed. The best way to get involved is to get informed, be realistic about your capabilities and goals, and network with others to identify needs. Anytime someone is considering getting involved with victims or survivors directly, it’s important to maintain boundaries for their sake and your own. Please be aware of possible scams, always make sure whomever you’re dealing with is legitimate. Be aware that perpetrators may work in the guise of activists or advocates. Don’t give in to hype, because as trafficking and exploitation become more of a focus, there will be those who want to capitalize on it. This isn’t like McDonald’s. Lives are at stake, so please be respectful.
What are your plans for the future?
I intend to continue advocating and raising awareness at or near the current level I do now. I am open to opportunities to share my story and engage in other activities related to human trafficking and exploitation. I’ve recently been employed by a university where I could possibly pursue the fields of Psychology, Social Work or Criminal Justice and Law. I’m forty-four years old and my life is just beginning.
Recommended websites/further reading:
- David Zimmerman’s interview about the issue of child sex abuse images on Facebook can be read here.