What we need as sex trafficking survivors is the creation of philosophies that are purely survivor-lead and that begin with the telling of our own stories.

by Laura LeMoon

What you probably know about human trafficking is horseshit. Voltaire said, “If you want to know who controls you, look at who you are not allowed to criticize.” As a survivor of trafficking AND a sex worker, never have I found this to be more true than in the realm of anti-trafficking activist work in America — a movement that does not belong to the people it’s intended to serve.

I’m a human trafficking survivor. I’m now an advocate for other survivors, and I was recently “outed” in my job as also having been a part of the sex industry. Some of this was by choice; at other times, people outed me without my permission. I was reported to the director and dragged into the office, where two different heads of the department asked invasive questions about my personal sex life, my ethics and morals related to sex (specifically around children) and why I thought I could work as a human trafficking advocate with the goal of helping people move out of forced prostitution if I had been a part of the industry myself.

What we need as survivors, in order to begin to take back our own movement, is the creation of philosophies that are purely survivor-lead and that begin with the telling of our own stories. But many of the nonprofits out there aren’t taking that approach.

The Polaris Project is an anti-trafficking nonprofit organization based in Washington D.C., but with global reach. According to its website, it’s “a leader in the global fight to eradicate modern slavery.”

A male-identified victim of trafficking, “Tristian,” (name changed to protect anonymity) had a very disturbing tale to tell about his experience with the Polaris hotline:  

“When I went public in 2012, shit escalated over me going public, in 2013 I had to leave town … I called Polaris for help and was asked why a grown ass man is calling for help … then told by them that with a story like mine I should have known to keep my mouth shut.”

Cisgender men, trans folks and anyone who is gender-nonconforming are not going to receive help from these organizations because they don’t fit the stereotype of the sex-trafficking victim in a way that lets these “rescuers” be rescuers. The involvement of government in the suppression and oppression of trafficking survivors also cannot be overlooked. Many times, survivors have had high-ranking politicians and law enforcement involved in their trafficking, and have not been able to talk about it — for obvious reasons. The government sanctioning of the maltreatment and exploitation of trafficking survivors is an example of how the current nonprofit rescue system is allowed to proliferate. Tristian goes on to say, “They (law enforcement) raped us, pimped us or benefited financially from it.”  

Related: Why Ashton Kutcher’s Tears Are Everything That’s Wrong With the Anti-trafficking Movement

Survivor “Desiree,” who worked at a domestic violence agency in the Midwest as its human trafficking program coordinator, was fired for being a survivor. Desiree says, “[The executive director] found out I was a survivor. She would tell me things like … ‘trafficking survivors are manipulative,’ ‘well, HT [human trafficking] survivors are criminals, so…'”

Desiree’s organization receives one of the largest grants available to do this work. But advocates there are constantly kicking survivors out for ridiculous reasons. An astonishing 80 percent of survivors who go into that shelter end up getting kicked out with a “red dot” status, which means they can’t come back or even engage in any other services.

Survivor Amber Paulina of Seattle, Washington, shares, “for over a year I fled an international crime syndicate who auctioned me off to a brothel, combing the Earth’s ‘resource lists’ to find what I already knew. Services for hos do not exist …DV [domestic violence] shelters can’t take me because I’m beyond their scope, although men beat my ass regularly.”

Amber gives more detail about one of the anti-trafficking organizations where she received services:

“Someone died and made them bosses of ‘prostituted peoples.’ Not survivors. We survived. We are still alive. No one else has the authority. We didn’t give them power, they took it.”

Amber goes on to describe how two church elders, with no experience or education, opened a residential facility for trafficked girls. She was forced to call the executive director “Mom” and her husband “Dad” — they called all the girls their “daughters.” Amber says this church family was invited to nationwide conferences and gifted international trips for their work. Amber was grilled about her masturbation habits and was forced to write book reports on “famous” survivors like Rachel Lloyd.  

“I made bracelets for five bucks a pop that were flipped over at nine bucks a pop en masse at anti-trafficking events and at local boutiques. All material donated. ‘Made by trafficking survivor’ bracelets. All the time. For money. Unpaid,” Amber says.

These shocking stories highlight the rampant abuse of power that runs throughout the entire anti-trafficking field right now. So what you can do if you are a survivor is show up. Show up to all the places where we are not being represented: conferences, task force meetings, coalitions. We need to show up and reclaim our space at the center of this movement. Allies can help by stepping back. Give us the space we need — and be ready to go to bat for us when we need you. If you truly want to help, write a check. What we must do as survivors is raise back the curtain on the great and powerful Oz. These organizations, much like the great and powerful Oz, lose their power once exposed.

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