For those of you who have been asking for a list of resources, the final post in this series coming next Saturday (Real Stories, Part III) will include a list of all my sources for this article and a list of resources on how to get more involved.
Last week, I started telling you her story. She is an unconsenting sex worker being trafficked and sold for money. There are many words that have been used to describe her, from prostitute to victim. Many of them are misleading, some downright wrong. And anyway, I don't want you to get caught in the web of words that surround her "case," I want you to know her. How she got where she is. What happens next. What it's like for her psychologically.
It's that last I want to tell you about today. This is so important, because while we know the word trauma, we don't really fully know just what that means. I want you to understand why she so often doesn't want to be rescued. I want you to know why she so deeply mistrusts those who could help her, such as law enforcement. My hope is that by getting you inside her head, you won't judge her, or accidentally do things that make it worse for her instead of better. Knowledge is power, after all.
And that's where we pick up the story today: with knowledge. You see, he knows about all about her. Her pimp is very good at knowing how she's feeling and why, and how to use that to his advantage. Possibly this has been a natural skill of his since childhood. He may have come from a place where there simply wasn't love, and manipulation was the only way to get what he wanted. He learned to figure out people's weaknesses so he could get them to pay attention to him and like him. That kind of home and those kind of children can be found at every level of society, high and low, including here.
Or perhaps he came from a place that was unstable, the people unpredictable. Maybe there were drugs involved, or mental health issues, or lack of income, or any of a number of things that cause adults to be absent, worried, and emotional. He learned to read people quickly, to spot the slightest change and know what it meant so that he could always stay out of the place of blame or anger and try to stay in the place of love and peace. This too can occur in any home in any neighborhood.
But it may be he's simply good at reading people. Some people are. It's a useful skill nowadays, and I'd warrant most CEOs have it. It's not necessarily a bad skill to have - as long as you pair it with a sympathetic heart.
Explaining these potential causes of why he can read people so well doesn't take away the blame of the pimp himself. He had choices too. People have been raised in bad situations and come out fine. But like I said, I want you to understand, to really be able to picture it and know that it's real. Can you picture him? Okay good.
So her pimp is very good at reading people. He's good at manipulating her. And it's rather easy for him because all the girls are the same as all girls everywhere: insecure. Because of his aptitude for spotting human emotion, he is good at seeing weaknesses and insecurities. And he knows what to say and do to both make them bigger and to fill them with his own priceless affirmations that get her hooked on him. He knows how to offer her the assurances she wants to hear while telling her the type of lies that will persuade her.
In some cases, she thinks she's in love with him. He's offered her what seems like the love and acceptance and affirmation and all the things she's needed and never had enough of before. It's the closest thing to love she knows, and she certainly doesn't get it from anyone else, whether she lives in a culture where it is customary for parents to sell one of their daughters for extra income, or she is a runaway, down and out, like most American trafficking survivors, or she is simply a "normal" child who suffers from the same insecurities that all humanity does. He hooks her in because he can be The One she doesn't have, and then he makes sure to keep out anyone else from filling the holes he fills.
She needs him.
Because of the way he caters to her emotions, it really feels like he takes care of her. Love is a powerful thing. Because she thinks he loves her, she will do anything for him. It's love, and love can do no wrong. You might think that at some point she should realize that this isn't love and that she needs to get out, to get away from him. But false love isn't his only tool.
Shame is another. Once she's done that first small job for him, serviced the first customer, he has her by two lines now. There is so much shame in selling your body to a stranger. We could talk about the shame of what others would think of you, but it goes deeper than that. It goes above and beyond cultural values to something essential to our human identity. When you give yourself (forced or not) to someone else sexually, you become tied to them. Basic facts about you, some secret essence of the soul, is shared. Intimate knowledge is spread around exorbitantly, cheaply. You no longer have control over who sees you, who knows what about you. Sex is a kind of knowing. It is vulnerability. It is opening up. You lose yourself into someone else. Which is not only why rape is so traumatic, it's also why sexual abuse reveals the darkest, ugliest side of the perpetrator.
Your body is the last physical object left to you. When you don't even have that any more, you don't seem to have anything. Everything you had and were belongs to other people now. The knowledge of you is someone else's. Unless you've experienced abuse, perhaps it is impossible to understand what this feels like. You have lost yourself. You've lost your freedom and you're trapped.
You're not worth anything any more. Everything about you is used up. Cheap. Someone paid for intimacy with you, then got up, left, and walked away forever. Nothing about who you are inspires heroism or love or compassion or commitment. You are good for nothing more than to be sold and resold over and over. There's nothing else about you that is worth anything besides what you look like.* Nothing that is desirable other than your shape and size. Nothing in you is beautiful; your soul isn't one that people want to know.
So it feels. And pimps know this. They know that there is shame and a sense of zero net worth that come with being marked at a price for physical goods. They know how to play off of that, how to do a careful dance of pulling and pushing: making her feel worthless enough to never fight back, but making her think he still sees her as worthy enough that he'll keep caring for her.
So she's caught. She's knows she's unlovable. A thousand men have slept with her and none has loved her, so she knows she doesn't have any other value than what they pay. She doesn't have anything they would want besides the services she provides. And yet, despite this, her pimp cares for her. He loves her. Oh, the power of one who loves you when you think you're not worth it! He can do anything. Because she knows she's unworthy of his "love" for her, so everything he does is okay and right and good. She doesn't deserve him. What he offers is a gracious gift.
Which is why rescue can be a frightening idea. It's not that she isn't desperate for a way out. She does indeed feel trapped. She wishes she could die. She wishes there were another way. But she doesn't believe there is one. And you can't just tell her otherwise. Remember that every night of her life, she sees a couple dozen men who each tell her, "I love you," use her, and leave. She's used to people saying what they need to in order to get what they want. She's used to words being meaningless.
It will take time and effort for her to begin believing that there's a way out that isn't just going to lead to being used by someone else. Her pimp is her one and only. She has no guarantee that anyone else will love her as much as he has (let alone more). In fact, he's been telling her subtly every day that no one else will have her, that she's lucky she has him looking out for her.
In some situations, this is not completely the case. I'm focusing now on the stories I know better: girls in America. But in other parts of the world, the pimps aren't making a big effort to make the girls believe they are in love. They use other methods to control the girls: shame and unworthiness, of course, but they also lock doors, tie her up, pay for security. In some places, they pay law enforcement, so even if the girls escape, they will get picked back up again and sent back to where she came from.
And no matter where she is--North America, Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, anywhere--if she tries to run away and gets picked back up by her pimp, it means the same thing: punishment. This is another strong motivator that keeps her in line, because if she runs and he catches her, he may very well kill her. She knows it, too. She has seen him hurt other girls. He beats her and tortures her when she doesn't do what he tells her to. So she knows he's very, very capable of making her hurt in a very bad way.
There are so many ways that sex traffickers condition their victims and chain them down. The psychological tricks they play are so powerful, and made all the more powerful by all the physical things they do to keep their girls in line: Threats. Starvation. Rape. Gang rape. Physical abuse. Beating. Confinement. Threats towards their family. Forced drug use. If they have a hold on politicians or the police--or, like in America, a culture that glamorizes "pimps and hos"--their power is just about absolute.
In America, it's less common that law enforcement is being paid off on a mass scale, thankfully. But instead he weaves constant lies about what the police would do to her. Some of them aren't lies. Police are only recently begun learning what to do with trafficking cases. It used to be that the woman would be convicted and imprisoned on charges of illegal prostitution. When her time was up and she was released back onto the streets, her pimp would pick her back up again, beat her into submission, tell her it serves her right that she was locked up, and put her back to work.**
That still happens sometimes, though I'm proud of how proactive law enforcement has gotten about this issue and how the FBI 'Innocence Lost' task force is handling these cases. Nevertheless, there are people among the police who buy sex too. They are a vast minority, but law enforcement isn't devoid of these things, especially if the cop is turning a blind eye to her age or her lack of consent, as many johns (buyers) are. The john doesn't want to know about her; he wants her to be what he needs at that moment. Who she is isn't just irrelevant, it gets in the way of having a good time.
She may have serviced an officer. Most likely she has at least walked past someone who could help and they haven't said a word, ignorant of her plight. Like most of us would, sadly, she received a dirty look or deliberate ignorance - the same response we give to homeless people we pass by. Maybe she's been to the hospital or a doctor's office and nobody noticed (a part of her doesn't want anyone to notice, but another part of her is desperately hoping otherwise).
She won't forget that, and won't ever be likely to trust someone with her safety or her secret. Even in the many cases where she has not been in any way mistreated by a law enforcement officer, her pimp has still kept a running conversation about how the police cannot be trusted. She believes him because she has no reason not to. In North America, the vast majority of trafficked children are runaways. A lot of them came from foster care or situations where "the government" didn't do a good enough job in keeping them safe. So they have no reason to trust them now.
They will probably go into the doctor for health problems. Her body is being abused daily, and she is liable not only to all sorts of infections, but to illness due to the stress she is under. There is added stress because she can't get sick: she isn't supposed to, and it gets in the way of making money and reaching her nightly quota. When she doesn't make enough, he rolls it over to the next night, and the next night... Very quickly she can get deeply in debt for the money she didn't earn him.
Hopefully now you understand why rescue is such a difficult, massive, crazy idea. Most of the people she sees are the people who are buying her and using her. As far as she's concerned, the statistic is that 100% of people are out there to get what they want as quickly and easily as possible, with no thought for her. She's the only one who can look out for herself. No one else will ever love her like she wanted; that was just a fairytale. It doesn't exist. It is impossible. She's only safe if she's in control. And she isn't. She stuffs herself away deep inside because her heart isn't worth anything to anyone and all it does is get broken and hurt.
She has a complicated relationship with her pimp. She hates what she's become with him, but she doesn't think she could do better. She doesn't think things could have happened any other way, so there's no point hating him. Besides, he does take care of her. But at the same time, he's the source of all her pain. She loves him and hates him and fears him, all at once.
He's the only source of any good things in her life. He's the only one who offers her any hope: by doing what he wants, she is safe and taken care of. It's his promise, and he keeps it, whereas everyone else tells only lies. It's a sure formula to stability: do what he says and things will continue on as they always have. It may be hell, but he keeps his promises.
Mostly. He tells lies too, sometimes, but he's the only one who tells any truth, either. He tells her she's beautiful. Is that a lie? Or is it true? She doesn't know if she wants it to be true or false. If she's beautiful, the only thing that means is that more men will want to have sex with her. If she's not beautiful, maybe they wouldn't want her and she wouldn't have to do this. But if she weren't beautiful, she wouldn't have anything. Her only value is what people will pay for her, which she hates, but she also loves, because she's not worth anything without that price tag. That price tag is the only thing that gives her life meaning.
Her life gets more confusing, too, when you add in the effects of physical trauma. Being abused every day takes a heavy toll. Her memory is affected; even if she still attends school, her grades will usually be abysmal, between her memory having trouble encoding things, having no time to study, and not having the heart or reason to care. When simple survival becomes a daily struggle, the brain gives up on a lot of its other functions and focuses on keeping us alive. She only knows and remembers that which she needs to remember. She is very good at some things and poor at others because her mental energy is all being currently used on handling the constant pain, fear, horror, shame, depression, and loss.
Scientists are showing that very real brain damage occurs, stuff that shows up on MRI scans. The damage is reparable, but it takes a long time and lots of help, counselling, and love. Until then, her emotions, memories, thoughts, and beliefs will continue to be very different from someone without the same neurological damage. She thinks and feels just like we do, but she's experienced things that are so much worse than most people have to go through that her expressions and reasoning will be different. Brain chemistry will be different, especially in the hypothalamus.
She has learned to frame the world in completely different way from a child raised in a loving and protected home. She creates inside herself a separate person. This is called dissociation. Inside, she is two people: the girl who sells herself and does what her pimp wants and says what the guys like to hear and does everything the way they like it and takes what they give her. There's also the girl who dreams she could be something else and that life could be different. She never gets to be that girl, but she exists deep inside anyway, like a precious pet locked safely away. She might even have two different names: the sex-girl name and the heart-name. The real girl locked away is just a dream, a fake: she keeps that identity alive because without it she wouldn't be alive any more, but it hurts to have hope and so she tries to kill her heart at the same time.
Reality is no longer a concrete thing for her. Especially if this life started when she was a child. There are realities that are simply too much for the brain to handle. Even though she lives through trauma every day, her memories of it might be dim and nonspecific. This has caused lots of problems with lawyers and judges who do not understand the brain damage that comes as a result of what she has been through. She may be called as a witness to tell the crimes her pimp did, and she simply does not remember it all, or her story constantly changes. Her memory does not want to remember. She will remember one thing here, another thing there. Even what occurred yesterday might be tough for her to remember in detail. This isn't something she does on purpose; it's a result of brain trauma.
If someone were available to help her, she might shy away or she might open up and cry out for help. It depends. If you were the one helping her, you might feel like she often changes her mind. As layers and layers of scars are dredged up, how she interprets those around her will change. The reality she knew from her pimp is all wrong. The same rules don't apply any more. She has to relearn what is true and what isn't, figure out which of her beliefs are actually lies and then figure out what's actually true in their place. Her entire reality is wrong and will have to change. The life of trauma, while full of lies and pain, was at least stable. Sometimes the healing process feels even more painful than it was to live that life, because there is so much instability, uncertainty, and fear.
This is her psychological pain, her often messy, very confused feelings. I hope you can feel a little bit of her pain and understand better what she's thinking. I know it's not something you want to think about, because even thinking about it is too painful, but please try for a moment to put yourself in her shoes so you understand.
In the final post of this small series coming out next week, we'll talk about how her story ends: from statistics to details of the recovery process and everything that that entails. But for now, I want to leave you with this:
When she's lifted out of that life and plopped down into something totally new and scary, her instinct is to close up inside, to fight, to run away--all at once. Her already terrible life just got more terrifying, full of unknowns. She is now surrounded by people whose true motives she doesn't know, so she doesn't know how to please them, nor what to trust them with. In the midst of that, sometimes, she runs for it.
This is a beautiful thing. I have had that thought running through my mind over and over ever since Jenny Williamson said it at The Response, a Sex Trafficking Summit my husband and I attended last February. Her running away from the safe house is a victory just as much as her staying there, because it shows that she recognizes she has a choice, and she's choosing for herself sometimes for the first time. After months and years of other people dictating her life, she's making a choice. It's a taste of freedom: she is free to choose.
Maybe we'll be able to find her again and rescue her again, and if so, maybe that taste of freedom will be the thing that keeps her from running next time. She'll realize that we let her choose her own path, and she'll trust that we're not enslaving her like her pimp did. But when your life has been so devastated by bondage and abuse, even her running away is a victory.
Until next Saturday.
* Incidentally, isn't this was restaurants like Hooters are communicating too?
** Other parts of the world have similar tragedies of mis-communication and poor understanding of the issue. One speaker I heard told the story of when she and a team in China had finally identified a trafficking ring. They alerted local authorities and made the bust. And then, she said, we watched as the police rounded these girls up, made them give everything they had--money, shoes, everything--back to the pimp, and had them deported because they didn't have work permits, having been kidnapped and brought into the country illegally by their pimp. There are now multiple groups that work at the borders of countries in Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe to catch the girls who are deported (as well as rescue them before the pimp can get them over the border in the first place) and provide them a safe house to stay at, but at that time, girls who were deported were soon picked up by the same pimp and brought back over the border.