There are two very primary effects, I think, of having grown up being trafficked for sex. One of them is that you live in a world no one outside it seems to understand or even acknowledge.
Unless you are part of the world of trafficking, the assumption is most often that children aren’t really sold for sex—not in this country, not in this town or in this school district, not in this neighborhood. Not here. Trafficked children do not play after school with your own children. The guy sitting next to you in church does not have an illicit side business. These things don’t happen.
But they do. My trafficker went to church, sat next to ordinary (albeit cultish) people, had a regular working-class job. I had friends at school and in the neighborhood. I was real and I existed, but my world was not something anyone outside that world could imagine.
It isn’t just the denial of the fact of child sex trafficking that leads to a sense of being apart from the rest of the world, but the denial of so many its details.
It is not just a denial of what it is like to be raped multiple times in the night, but what it is like to wear a Girl Scout uniform for a regular trick, or the deep impression shower tile makes on you because that’s what you stare at when you’re giving some other guy a blowjob. When you are six. Or the fact that you are always being handed money,and what that money means will happen to you, what it means you will have to do, or the reality that you are no more less valuable to the people around you than these little bits of paper.
You are handed back and forth in precisely the same way as those little bits of paper, and have no more value and no more rights than the money used to buy you. You are a commodity. Nothing more. Nothing less.
That’s what it was like. That’s what it was like for the women and girls who were also being trafficked in the same hotels by the same or different traffickers as I was. We were commodities. We knew it. We knew how commodities behave. We knew how it felt to be a commodity. We knew what it was like.
No one else knew or really wanted to.
It is as like going to school or church, watching TV, chatting with friends and neighbors—the world of the ordinary—and realizing there is no such thing as school outside of your own world, children do not have parents, they don’t have microwaves, or shoes, or clothes. No one in the ordinary world feels how you feel. They don’t feel how you feel about parents, or microwave ovens or shoes because they don’t have them. And if you try to tell anyone in this school-less, parent-less, shoe-less world how you feel about those things, you get deeply puzzled looks and a suggestion that it’s time to rein in your wild imagination. Or a trip to a psychologist. Because you must be crazy.
Everyone who has experienced a profound trauma or even loss feels at least a little that way. Isolated, apart, and as if no one has really experienced those things, even though people have.
And I know very clearly I’m not the only former victim of child trafficking. I am not by any means alone. But as an adult I don’t know anyone personally who has been. I have never in my life sat down with someone who has been able to say to me, “Yes, me too. That happened to me too. I know what it was like.”
It is not like other kinds of trauma that are more common, like losing a close family member in childhood or even having been sexually abused—since a third of women and at least a tenth of men have been. Child sex trafficking happens, but we don’t talk about it. As taboo as child abuse is, this is even more so.
And we also don’t all survive. I have never sat down with another survivor of the kind of suffering I experienced partly because not everyone lives to tell the tale. Children really are trafficked. It is not common, but it isn’t as unheard of as we’d like to think. But we don’t all make it into adulthood. We don’t make it into adulthood sane enough to even tell the tale.
The sense of isolation can be profound. It also makes the experience harder to get one’s own head around. There are so few people with which to compare notes. That’s one effect.
The other major effect of having been trafficked is an ongoing and pervasive sense of having no rights, and a lingering confusion about what my rights really are.
Trafficking affects the self-esteem of victims as well, but I have found under layers of pain and self-hatred I like myself. I believe I have value and worth and I walk into new relationships and casual social encounters assuming that most people will like me. Unless you are evil, I don’t think you will intentionally hurt me. You may never be my best friend, but I think we can manage a civil conversation. For the most part, I trust the world. I trust other people.
That’s because my foster parents did well by me. They loved me. They made me feel that I had worth and value. They gave me models of what good people are like. And after a bit of excavation, I have found the intact self-esteem they helped me develop.
But I don’t have a corresponding sense of having rights. I don’t have a sense that I can expect to be treated well or be rewarded for achievements. I don’t really know what to think or do when my rights are violated. I have the skills to be assertive. I don’t especially believe I deserve poor treatment. But I have trouble believing in a correspondence between worth and treatment and I don’t know when to exercise the skills I have to assert or protect myself. I don’t know when it’s allowed. I am usually afraid it won’t be.
The damage of slavery goes beyond not thinking well of yourself. It goes beyond shame. It extends to the idea that I cannot expect much of life. Life is arbitrary and capricious and it dishes out whatever it feels like giving to me. Which may not be much. It may not be what I want. It won’t be what I have earned.
I am aware that the last four paragraphs I’ve written articulate two completely contradictory beliefs: I trust the world. I don’t expect much of life. That’s the damage I’m trying to heal.