January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, so we wanted to do something extra special. Like we say: "Awareness alone doesn't change anything, but nothing can change without awareness." Most of our awareness efforts messages are from the professionals on our Outreach Team based on their one-on-one experience with survivors. This month, though, we turned to the survivors themselves.
We asked survivors in Wisconsin and Alabama what they want the general public to know about human trafficking.
One survivor said, “Trafficking is real. It does happen, and most women do not want it and are forced to do it.”
Whether johns know it or not, when they buy sex, they are likely paying someone to sell their body against their will. Around the state, the country, and the world, human trafficking is all too real. Globally, human trafficking is a multi-billion dollar industry. In 2017 alone, the National Human Trafficking Hotline identified over 7,000 victims of sex trafficking in the US. We see some of these people up close. They drop into The Rose Center, they meet with our Outreach Team, and they commit to healing at The Rose Home.
To learn more about how trafficking affects your community, take a look at this fact sheet from Polaris Project.
A few survivors want the general public to know more about traffickers, also called "pimps". One survivor said, “Pimps are real and they are monsters. They put on a show at the beginning.” Another survivor said, “Pimps search for your vulnerabilities, once the high wears off, that is when the trafficker’s control really starts.”
Traffickers are master manipulators. They will spend time studying a particular target and determine what techniques they could use to exploit each individual. Often, they will build a trusting relationship with their target and give expensive gifts. Because of this careful grooming process, many victims believe it is impossible to leave their trafficker, even if they are not being physically confined. They use many forms of force, fraud, and coercion to convince victims to stay. Emotional abuse, physical abuse, and threats to victims or their family members are just some of the techniques that traffickers might use.
Learn more about the grooming process here.
One survivor wants you to know, “I was scared.” Some traffickers, called “gorilla pimps,” use fear as a method of control and exploitation. Another survivor said, “I remember being just frozen in fear. I couldn’t move. It was like an animal in shock.”
Victims are also afraid of police. Traffickers tell their victims that they cannot trust law enforcement. Sometimes, unfortunately, this fear is valid; depending on state and local laws, victims of human trafficking can be arrested, jailed, and even persecuted. Victims may experience other types of fear, as well: fear that their side of the story won’t be heard; fear of being deported, if they’re not from this country; and fear for the safety of loved ones that their trafficker has threatened.
Learn more about the mindset of a trafficking victim and the fear they experience here.
One survivor said, “I did not have the money to fulfill basic needs or a way out.”
Some people turn to selling their bodies when they don’t have a job, a place to stay, food to eat, or means to provide these things for their children. This is called “survival sex”. In this way, it’s not a choice; it’s a strategy for staying alive. Survival sex or not, traffickers keep the money earned by trafficked individuals to create a deeper level of reliance and ownership. Without money of their own, a personal cell phone, their personal information and documentation, her every action has to then go through her trafficker. This is yet another form of control and manipulation that traffickers enforce over their victims.
One survivor needs you to know, “Many women don’t have a place to lay their heads and have to survive and run away from other abuse and trauma.”
Human trafficking is not the only injustice in our world. Unfortunately, a lot of these injustices feed into one another like a vicious cycle. Experiencing or witnessing domestic abuse might change a person’s perception of abuse. If they become more tolerant of abusive behavior, they become more vulnerable to traffickers.
Runaway youth and homeless people are at a higher risk of engaging in “survival sex,” or sex acts in exchange for basic needs like food and shelter. Poverty and prejudice can create dangerous situations that make trafficking look like the best available option. It’s important to remember that in these cases we can’t blame victims of trafficking. We have to blame the societal conditions and individuals that led them there.
One survivor wants to tell you, “It begins with the lifestyle you were raised in and you get stuck in that mindset.”
Some people are lucky enough to grow up in a family that’s able to give them lots of support and love; others are not. Habits formed as children can be hard to change or break. If those habits include domestic violence, substance abuse, or sexual abuse, the risk of trafficking goes up.
Sometimes, it’s more direct. Worldwide, almost half of trafficked children are recruited by family members. Imagine if the only way you knew to prove your love to your family was to let yourself be trafficked. Imagine how much strength and courage it would take to break away.
One survivor said, “It’s just the hustle, the money and drugs draw you in and then pull you down. Drugs are a way to deal with what you have to do.”
Some trafficking survivors have never touched an illegal substance--others might them as coping mechanisms. Traffickers may even get their victims hooked on an addictive substance. Controlling a person’s access to an addictive substance is a huge amount of power and control. It’s another way that victims can feel trapped.
Of course, drugs can come with their own set of dangers. Combine that with the dangers of trafficking, and the cycle of trafficking becomes even harder to escape. That’s why we’re so in awe of the survivors we know who have broken their addictions and continue to live sober. It takes a lot of bravery, strength, and endurance to leave trafficking and addiction behind for good.
Another survivor wants you to know, “I’m not just a product of someone’s violent behavior. I’m teachable. I can grow.”
Unfortunately, survivors are often labeled as hopeless, traumatized, “victims of trafficking.” Sexual trauma, abuse, poverty, violence, food insecurity, and home instability literally affect the brain’s ability to function properly. This impacts behavior and learning, but it doesn’t have to be permanent. Survivors can reprogram the brain’s habits through trauma-informed therapy, hard work, and patience. Renewal, regrowth, and restoration are always possible.
One survivor wants you to know, “It’s hard for me to trust people and relationships when most of my life they threaten my existence.”
Imagine being lied to and tricked for most of your life by the people you think you should trust the most. Imagine being betrayed by a significant other, family, best friend, and mother and father figures. In some cases, even law enforcement and counseling services have wrongly imprisoned survivors, didn’t provide survivors with access to adequate resources, or dismissed survivors as “hopeless.”
Developing trust with a survivor of trafficking or exploitation is not always easy. They have been trapped in their situation by force, fraud, and coercion--being trained that they cannot trust anything people say. For someone who has only known lies, having constant truth and loving action in their life will begin the healing process and help them begin to trust again.
One survivor wants to tell you, “My shame is not rooted in the fact that I was trafficked, it’s in the details of what happened.”
Trafficking always involves force, fraud, or coercion. This means that people who are trafficked don’t get to make their decisions freely. No one should have to feel ashamed about something they were forced to do—but many trafficking survivors do.
This particular survivor opened up and told us that she feels shame about specific things she was forced to do. When the little, specific things stick with you the most, the smallest detail can trigger bad memories that force a survivor to relive trauma. That’s why trauma-informed therapy is so essential to our aftercare practices.
Another survivor said, “I need love and hugs just as much as I need education on mental health and trauma. Both are really important to my healing.”
“Romeo pimps” take advantage of the natural human need for love. They will shower their victims with gifts and attention and make them believe that they’re in a real relationship. This emotional manipulation can be a strong force in persuading victims to stay.
Even after the betrayal of a “Romeo pimp,” survivors need love—just like we all do. Our holistic approach at Eye Heart World aims to take care of the whole person. That means education and trauma-informed therapy, but also a caring, supportive network of coaches and survivors.
One survivor explained how she felt so thoughtfully that we had to share the whole thing. Try to put yourself in her shoes as you read what she has to say.
“My trafficker was a caregiver. This is how food and utilities were gotten. I thought since my caregiver took me to do this that it must be right. I thought, ‘This is my role in the family; this is my worth.’ Now as an adult, I struggle with my self-worth. I struggle with the belief that I have to work for love. I struggle with the idea that my body can be traded for food. Trafficking leaves life-long scars.”
Thank you for following along on our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages throughout Human Trafficking Awareness Month. We hope that you continue to listen to survivors and believe what they have to say.
Want to take action against human trafficking? An easy way to take a stand is to join 500 for Freedom. Join our closest supporters as you commit to making a monthly gift. The ladies we serve at The Rose Home and The Rose Center rely on you to make their journey of healing and hope possible.