WBUR’s Cognoscenti

I am honored to share I was recently published in Cognoscenti, a “thoughts and ideas” website from WBUR, an NPR radio station based at Boston University. The editors have also asked me to contribute additional stories, so stay tuned for future posts! My recent piece is below.

‘No One Intervened’: A Sex Trafficking Survivor Says U.S. Must Do Better For Its Children

I was sexually abused and trafficked by an immediate family member from infancy until early adolescence. My abuse and exploitation supported his drug addiction. He used a CB radio to advertise me to truckers traveling along the interstate near our house. Extended family, friends and teachers suspected something was wrong, but no one intervened. Instead, most wrote me off. That’s just what those people do to one another.” We were white trash; I was disposable.

Even though I had straight A’s and graduated in the top 10 percent of my high school class, I felt worthless. In my community, I was seen as someone who would never amount to anything. But my mother had higher hopes for me. She knew my academic aspirations where my way out. She had wanted to go to college, but her violent father had convinced her that she could learn as much at the textile factory where she worked as she could in college. Even though she was trapped and could not protect me from my exploiter, she helped me survive by allowing me to have my nose in a book as often as I could and by supporting my dream of becoming a scholar.

Extended family, friends and teachers suspected something was wrong, but no one intervened.

When I was 10, I visited a friend whose mother was a professor at the local college. Their house was filled with books, and the radio was tuned to NPR. In that moment, I knew I wanted my life to look like theirs. My family was ensnared in generational cycles of violence, drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, poverty and shame. That one visit gave me a vision of what I knew my life could look like beyond those cycles, and I held on to that inspiration for dear life as I fought my way out. Six months before I graduated from a college far from my hometown, my mother died. Heartbroken but resolute, I moved to Boston to fulfill my lifelong dream of becoming an academic.

I am now pursuing my Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where I am researching how organizational and legislative discrimination toward commercial sexual exploitation of children, or CSEC, can re-traumatize child sex victims and survivors instead of providing necessary services and protection. For instance, 40 states, including Massachusetts, retain the right to arrest a child (anyone under the age of 18) for prostitution, often citing the need to detain “non-compliant” youth or insisting that jail is the only way to keep victims safe from traffickers and buyers.

This approach degrades and harms trafficked children in three ways. First, arresting children for CSEC implies that they are complicit in their exploitation, not victims of a violent crime. Second, labeling sexually exploited children as “non-compliant” ignores the likelihood they have severe post-traumatic stress disorder, which can manifest as victims appearing “uncooperative” under extreme duress. Third, police who aim to “protect” victims of commercial sexual exploitation by locking them up ignore the long-term implications of having a criminal record, such as impeding future employment or educational opportunities. Instead of detention, more resources such as safe housing and funding for support programs are needed so that jail is not seen as the only option for “protecting” victims.

We must also address child sexual abuse and poverty — two primary CSEC risk factors — if we truly want to prevent their harm. The United States is ranked first among economically advanced countries for children dying from abuse or neglect and second for children living in poverty. In addition, we are the only United Nations member state that has not ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international children’s human rights treaty. Yet, we imagine ourselves as a country dedicated to the health and well-being of our nation’s children.

…we are the only United Nations member state that has not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Decades have passed since I left my hometown, but I would still be seen as less than were I to return. I choose to shake off their prejudice. I have grown stronger as my advocacy has become more public. I recently appeared on BBC World Service to raise awareness about the scourge of child sex trafficking. My research recently changed child sex trafficking legislation in Florida to ensure that its victims will not be involuntarily detained without receiving protective services that extricate them from their abusers.

My mother dreamed that good things can happen to anybody, even people who have been violated. She didn’t live long enough to see that good things have happened for me. I am happy and proud to honor her memory, however, by standing up for children who, through no fault of their own, are victimized as I was. My hope is that our nation will do better for our most vulnerable children, too.

BBC World Service Interview

1502I am honored to report I was interviewed by the BBC World Service earlier this month to talk about a recent global study completed by a leading anti-trafficking organization, ECPAT. My story is included in the report because truckers were my exploiter’s primary clientele. The report shines a light on how Sexual Exploitation of Children on Travel and Tourism (SECTT) affects children around the world, and how this crime is growing.

Listen now (interview starts at 7:50 minute mark)

KP

Support a Trafficking Survivor’s Dream

Addressing Child Sexual Abuse Histories Within Boston’s Sex Trade Population

 

I am posting a literature review I recently completed for study I am doing in my Society of Health and Illness class. I usually do not post works-in-progress; however, I am incredibly proud of this piece. These ideas are the essence of my research and this is the first time I have articulated all of these concepts together within a singular piece. I will post the final study when I am done in May.

LITERATURE REVIEW 

A history of child sexual abuse is the top risk factor for commercial sexual exploitation of children and adults. Upwards of 90% of commercially sexually exploited individuals have been sexually abused as children (Silbert and Pines 1981; Mitchell, Finkelhor and Wolak 2009; Tyler and Melander 2015). Additionally, 70% of 200 sexually exploited respondents in a landmark study stated enduring sexual abuse as children “directly affected” their entrance into the sex trade. A 2013 study of violence against children (aged 1 month to 17 years) discovered 2% of the sample population had been sexually abused in the last year (n=4503). Of those children, 10.7% of the girls aged 14 to 17 reported being sexually abused in the last year. (Finkelhor et al. 2013). The widespread prevalence of childhood sexual violence can, therefore, create a population vulnerable to revictimization, including being lured into commercial sexual exploitation. Commercially sexually exploited adults reported enduring more frequent and severe sexual abuse than non-exploited adults who were sexually abused as children, and entered into the sex trade at younger ages than sexually exploited adults who indicated they were not sexually abused as children (Lalor and McElvaney 2010; Steel and Herlitz 2005).

Commercial sexual exploitation relies on similar vulnerabilities as child sexual abuse, creating a continuation of violence for those who have endured earlier victimization. Patriarchal systems of dominance and control are central to sexual abuse and commercial sexual exploitation. Sociologist Nancy Whittier states, “Child sexual abuse is fundamentally shaped by intersectional inequalities of gender, race, and class, which structure individual-level experiences, prevalence, cultural representations, and state institutional responses. An intersectional feminist approach to sexual violence should also foreground age, recognizing children and adolescents as a group that is structurally unequal and subject control and domination by adults” (Whittier 2009: 104-105). The centrality of adult power, particularly in a heteronormative private family context, reinforces patriarchal norms of male dominance, which demands obedience from children within a social framework of paternal authority. This dominance allows for seclusion of child sexual abuse under the guise of “private family matters,” and is essential for sexual violence to persist (Johnson 2005). Further obfuscation is perpetuated because addressing child sexual abuse at the root level is a very low priority throughout society. Child sexual abuse offenders, just like buyers of sex, have very low prosecution and conviction rates (Corrigan 2009). Also similar to sexual exploitation, law enforcement state they do not want to arrest child sexual abuse offenders to save them from the embarrassment and stigma from having to register as sex offenders (Corrigan 2013).

These power dynamics of abuse and silence teach sexually abused children relational templates based on violence, isolation, and manipulation, which leave them vulnerable to commercially sexually exploitative adults. Such relational templates must be “unlearned” if a commercially exploited person is to exit exploitation, and service providers can help. A pimp describing his “ideal” prostitute states, “Beauty, yes. Sexual expertise, somewhat. That you can be taught easier than you think. What is important above all is obedience. And how do you get obedience? You get obedience if you get women who have had sex with their father, their uncles, their brothers—you know, someone they love and fear to lose so you do not dare to defy” (Kluft 1990: 25). By “recruiting” subservient sex workers, commercial sexual exploitation becomes a continuation child sexual abuse— a commodification of compliance and control. Commercial sexual exploitation can also exacerbate a sexually abused child’s identity and self-worth as only a sexual object. This self-objectification and isolation can leave sexually abused children vulnerable to exploiters’ manipulative tactics of promising love and protection, which is a key grooming tactic to luring vulnerable people into commercial sexual exploitation (Price 2012). Such relationally-based grooming, or “boyfriending,” is a particularly complex challenge for service organizations assisting people exit exploitation. A person may truly experience this connection to the exploiter as mutual love, not control, which can make leaving difficult. Therefore, a cycle of exit and re-entry back into exploitation is very common, and developmentally normal while a person builds new social networks and supports (Dalla 2011).

Commercially sexually exploited people have been abused, but they do have individual agency and “survival skills” that have kept them alive. Service providers need to support survivors in learning new ways of being in relationship, while honoring their strength. A primary location of healing for commercially sexually exploited individuals is addressing multiple traumas that exist along a “continuum of complexity” (Clawson, Salomon, Goldblatt Grace 2008). Often times child sexual abuse histories have neither been addressed nor healed for commercially sexually exploited individuals; therefore, this foundation of trauma must first be addressed while healing “co-concurring” additional locations of trauma such as rape and physical violence, as well as possible substance abuse. Additionally, these ways of healing are strongly informed by gender in that girls and boys can experience child sexual abuse very differently, because our culture fetishizes and polices girls’ and boys’ bodies in very gender-specific ways (Tolman 2005). Both girls and boys can be cast as the “seductive child” who “asked for it,” but girls with sexual knowledge at a young age can be labeled “promiscuous,” even if this knowing is obtained through sexual violence, and boys can feel fear and shame of homosexual labelling, particularly because most child sexual abuse is perpetrated by men (Bruhm and Hurley 2004). Therefore, a primary component for healing is learning to protect oneself, and to establish mutual relational contact, outside of a dynamic based on obedience and dissociation (Herman 2000).

Commercially sexually exploited children and adults of color can also have intersectional locations of trauma from discrimination of race/ethnicity and class that can strongly influence the type and amount of direct services needed. People of color experience commercial sexual exploitation very differently than white children and adults who have access to more privilege and, possibly, social capital, even though they have been exploited. Providing services within these intersections of multiple oppressions present issues of power and access to resources. Legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw states, “The problem is not simply that [white] women who dominate the anti-violence movement are different from women of color, but that they frequently have the power to determine, either through material or rhetorical resources, whether the intersectional differences of women of color will be incorporated at all into the basic formulation of policy” (1994). Additionally, the historical context of subordination and objectification within people’s experiences must be acknowledged within service provision. For example, throughout history, Black women and girls have experienced violence such as rape, physical assault, and incest as the “visible dimensions” of a legacy that sexualizes, objectifies, and subordinates Black women’s bodies (Collins 2000: 146). Such tools of racial, gendered social control are also present for men of color in histories of lynching, particularly around the grounds of alleged rape of white women. Finally, the social location of women of color can keep them trapped in commercial sexual exploitation due to lack of educational opportunities and economic resources, as well as structural racism of governmental services such as welfare and housing assistance. This hindered social mobility, coupled with the historical objectification of Black women’s bodies viewed as “rapeable,” makes women of color vulnerable to remaining in the sex trade (Nelson 1993).  Therefore, the need for culturally-centered and inclusive services that address intersectional discrimination and sexual violence as a historical method of social control are necessary for people of color who have been commercially sexually exploited.

Additionally, providing services for commercially sexually exploited populations in an age of mass incarceration is even more complex. Access to housing is one of the key resources needed by commercially sexually exploited individuals. If a commercially sexually exploited people cannot afford housing, they can remain trapped in the sex trade by trading “survival sex” for a place to live; live with a trafficker or pimp; or make money through sexual exploitation to pay for housing (Silbert and Pines 1981). Commercially sexually exploited people receiving governmental housing assistance are in double bind. Federal law states tenants can be evicted if they participate in or have knowledge of criminal activity. While such policies may seem legitimate, this situation complicates the issue for commercially sexually exploited adults even further. “These vulnerable families have nowhere to go, and the impact is inevitably discriminatory…for countless poor people, particularly racial minorities who disproportionately rely on public assistance” (Alexander 2012). Here, the specter of homelessness looms large as incarceration rates, especially for communities of color, have risen dramatically in recent years. Girls, particularly girls of color, are being arrested at increased rates for actions that are all historically common symptoms of child sexual abuse – truancy, substance usage, and running away (Saada Saar et al. 2015: 9). Additionally, girls face further criminalization when they become emotionally dysregulated by trauma triggers, which can be viewed as a child being “non-compliant.”  Such disobedience is also viewed as deviance from “ladylike” gender norms, which can implicate girls even further (Tolman 2004; Saada Saar et al. 2015). Incarceration can be retraumazing due to control and confinement, and only builds on previous trauma without addressing the root cause of child sexual abuse.  Furthermore, detention facilities do not always provide social services, and available services are not always trauma-informed (Breslow 2015).

Law enforcement and service providers need trauma-informed training in how developmentally-appropriate reactions for people with severe trauma histories can be perceived as non-compliance. Trauma-informed policy must also be integrated into in state and federal legislation intending to support commercially sexually exploited individuals. The decision whether or not sexually exploited youth and adults are legally viewed as victims or criminals can be determined by federal and state legislation. Therefore, the state legislative process is a primary determinate if a commercially sexually exploited individual will receive services or will be arrested for prostitution. Furthermore, commercially sexually exploited individuals can be further victimized through physical restraint or being locked up if their interactions with law enforcement are viewed by police as being uncooperative (Halter 2010). Thus, not understanding traumatic triggers and reactions can have dire legal consequences for commercially sexually exploited individuals, because triggered individuals can labeled “non-compliant.” On a wider scale, these decisions placed on police officers actually begin with the state and federal legislation which determines whether commercially sexually exploited individuals will be arrested for prostitution or will receive much-needed services. A key debate surrounding the passage of the Trafficking in Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), a landmark federal bill aimed at protecting victims of human trafficking, is if the goal of the law is to prosecute traffickers and buyers or sex or to provide services to commercially sexually exploited individuals. Victims’ advocates urged legislators to “adopt a more victim-centered model,” particularly in terms of providing funding for victims services (Sheldon-Sherman 2012: 446).

This study will address the prevalence of child sexual abuse histories among sexually exploited juveniles and adults served by ten non-governmental organizations in Boston. This paper will also explore legislative and structural barriers to providing services addressing child sexual abuse in this population. Few in-depth studies of direct service provision within the sex trade have been completed, other than program evaluations and calls for “best practices” (Silbert and Pines 1981; Cohen, Edberg, and Steven 2011; President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons 2013).  This project aims to build on this analysis and to further the discussion on how to best address histories of child sexual abuse as a key component of commercial sexual exploitation. This study will also discuss structural barriers for commercially sexually exploited individuals to receive services, such as legislation that criminalizes commercially sexually exploited individuals and lack of funding for social services. Minimizing these obstacles for service provision are essential for healing cycles of child sexual abuse and commercial sexual exploitation.

Methods

Data

Data stem from completed semi-structured in-depth interviews with ten direct service provider organizations. All organizations met the following criteria: 1) located in the Greater Boston area; and 2) serve commercially sexually exploited individuals in Boston’s sex trade. Data were collected through snowball sampling. Organization leaders who completed interviews provided the interviewer with contact information for additional groups. All organization leaders were interviewed once and no follow-up interviews will be conducted.

Interviews were conducted by a member of a research team in the sociology department at the University of Massachusetts Boston (UMass Boston). The team is studying the full scope of Boston’s sex trade, including commercially sexually exploited individuals, law enforcement, direct service provider organizations, traffickers, and sex buyers in collaboration with the Boston Mayor’s Office, Boston City Councilors, and area non-governmental organizations.

All IRB Human Subjects study approvals were obtained prior to data collection.

Measures

The study includes a qualitative measure investigating how child sexual abuse is addressed by service providers for commercially sexually exploited adults and juveniles in Boston. The interview guide was created by the UMass Boston research team studying the sex trade in Boston. Topics covered include: number of people served; specific services provided; changes in Boston’s sex trade over time; understanding of offenders (traffickers and buyers); pathways of entrance into and exit out of commercial sexual exploitation; and specific challenges to serving this vulnerable population.

Analysis

            Data will be analyzed using the qualitative software package, NVivo. Interviews have already been transcribed, therefore, analysis will comprise of utilizing the software’s functionality to identify common themes and disparities in interviewees’ organizational experiences. Primary code identification will be utilized to articulate patterns and differences in how organizations address histories of child sexual abuse among commercially sexually exploited individuals in Boston, as well as identifying structural barriers to service provision. Analysis will be disseminated through a final research paper for Sociology of Health and Illness.

References

Alexander, Michelle. 2012. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press.

Breslow, Jason M. 2015. Frontline: Locked Up in America – Christel’s Story. Video. Boston, MA:  WGBH, Public Broadcasting System.

Bruhm, Steven and Natasha Hurely. Curiouser: On the Queerness of Children. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Clawson, Heather J., Amy Salomon, Lisa Goldblatt Grace. 2008. “Treating the Hidden Wounds: Trauma Treatment and Mental Health Recovery for Victims of Human Trafficking.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Available at https://aspe.hhs.gov/pdf-report/treating-hidden-wounds-trauma-treatment-and-mental-health-recovery-victims-human-trafficking (last visited January 30, 2016).

Cohen, Marcia. I., Mark C. Edberg, Stephen V.Giese. 2011. “Final Report on the Evaluation of The SAGE Project’s LIFESKILLS and GRACE Programs.” Available at https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/234464.pdf (last visited March 8, 2016).

Collins, Patricia Hill. 2000 (rev.ed.). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge.

Corrigan, Rose. 2006. “Making Meaning of Megan’s Law.” Law & Social Inquiry 31: 267-312.

Corrigan, Rose. 2013. Up against a Wall: Rape Reform and the Failure of Success. New York: New York University Press.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé Williams. 1991. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review 43 (6): 1241-1299.

Dalla, Rochelle L. 2011. “You Can’t Hustle All Your Life.” Prostitution and Human Sex Trafficking Conference. Lecture conducted from University of Toledo, Toledo, OH.

Finkelhor, David, Heather Turner, Anne Shattuck, and Sherry Hamby. 2013. “Violence, Crime, and Abuse Exposure in a National Sample of Children and Youth.” JAMA Pediatrics 167 (7): 614-621.

Halter, Stephanie. 2010. “Factors that Influence the Conceptualization of Girls Involved in Prostitution in Six U.S. Cities: Child Sexual Exploitation Victims or Delinquents?” Child Maltreatment 15(2) 152-160.

Herman, Judith Lewis. 1997 (rev. ed.). Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books.

Johnson, Allan G. 2005. The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Kluft, Richard. 1990. “On the Apparent Invisibility of Incest.” Pp. 11-34 in Incest-Related Syndromes of Adult Psychopathology edited by R. Kluft. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Press.

Lalor, Kevin and Rosaleen McElvaney. 2010. “Child Sexual Abuse, Links to Later Sexual Exploitation/High-Risk Sexual Behavior, and Prevention/Treatment Programs.” Trauma, Violence, and Abuse 11 (4):159-177.

Mitchell, Kimberly, David Finkelhor, and Janis Wolak. 2009. “Conceptualizing Juvenile Prostitution as Child Maltreatment: Findings from the National Juvenile Prostitution Study.” Child Maltreatment 15 (1): 18-36.

Nelson, Vednita. 1993. “Prostitution: Where Racism and Sexism Intersect.” Michigan Journal of Gender & Law 1: 81-89.

President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. 2013. Federal Strategic Action Plan on Services for Victims of Human Trafficking in the United States 2013-2017. Available at http://www.ovc.gov/pubs/FederalHumanTraffickingStrategicPlan.pdf (last visited March 8, 2016).

Price, Kate. 2012. “Longing to Belong: Relational Risks and Resilience of Commercially Sexually Exploited Children in the U.S.” Wellesley Centers for Women, paper 111.

Saada Saar, Malika, Rebecca Epstein, Lindsay Rosenthal, Yasmin Vafa. 2015. “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: A Girl’s Story.” Human Rights Project for Girls, Georgetown Law Center for Poverty and Inequality, and Ms. Foundation for Women. Available at http://rights4girls.org/wp-content/uploads/r4g/2015/02/2015_COP_sexual-abuse_layout_web-1.pdf (last visited February 16, 2016).

Silbert, Mimi and Ayala Pines. 1981. “Sexual Child Abuse as an Antecedent to Prostitution.” Child Abuse and Neglect 5 (4): 407-411.

Sheldon-Sherman, Jennifer A.L. 2012. “The Missing ‘P’: Prosecution, Prevention, Protection, and Partnership in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.” Penn State Law Review 117 (2): 443-501.

Steel, Jennifer L. and Claes A. Herlitz. 2005. “The Association between Childhood and Adolescent Sexual Abuse and Proxies for Sexual Risk Behavior. A Random Sample of the General Population of Sweden.” Child Abuse & Neglect 29 (10): 1141-1153.

Tolman, Deborah. 2005. Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk about Sexuality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Tyler, Kimberly A. and Lisa A. Melander. 2015 “Child Abuse, Street Victimization, and Substance Abuse Among Homeless Young Adults.” Youth & Society 47 (4): 502-519.

Whittier, Nancy. 2016. “Where are the Children? Theorizing the Missing Piece in Gendered Sexual Violence.” Gender & Society 30 (1): 95-108 1995. Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse: Later Criminal Consequences. Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice.

How David Bowie Saved My Life

Buddha of SuburbiaOkay, I am finally ready to write about David Bowie’s passing. When I get truly, down-to-my-toes upset about something, I cannot speak…I cannot find the words for a few days. Maybe I am being overly dramatic, but Bowie’s passing has had a great effect on me. His early 90’s record, Buddha of Suburbia – a soundtrack to a BBC mini-series of Hanif Kureishi’s book by the same name, is my all-time favorite record. I’ve always loved Bowie, that’s no secret, and Kureishi is one of my favorite authors. But this record means so very much to me. I discovered it at Mystery Train, a fantastic used record store on Newbury that has since ceased to be, soon after I had moved to Boston in 1994. My mother had just died and I didn’t know many people. I had always dreamed of moving to a city, and I was grateful to be there, but I was not prepared to feel so alone…not lonely…I don’t think I’ve ever felt lonely…but being in alone in a new city is tough.

On the weekends would put on my walkman (yes, walkman) and walk across the bridge from Cambridge into Boston. I would stop at record stores, book stores, rock clubs, and cafes throughout the city. That all sounds very romantic now, but it was hard…really hard. On one of these forays, I found Buddha of Suburbia, and was never the same after I came home and played the CD for the first time. I instantly recognized, This is how I feel!! Some songs rock out, while others are melancholy and slow…jamming out while searching for peace. I instantly made a copy and sent it to a friend from hometown, happy that I could find something to express how I was loving Boston, but was also really struggling to find my place.

Bowie also taught me to ALWAYS go see an artist you love when you have the opportunity. My mother and I really wanted to go see Bowie together, but we never did. We almost went to see him at the Meadowlands during the Glass Spider tour in 1987, but said we would see him later. We didn’t realize then she would get sick just four years later and then pass a year and a half after that. Thankfully, we DID go see U2 at the Vet during the Achtung, Baby! tour while she was sick (and my future-brother-law was also at that show!!), and it was my favorite memory of all time with my mama. She put her hands on my shoulders during “Pride, In the Name of Love” and we rocked out together. I that moment I knew she got that my intention to make a difference in this world, and that she would still be supporting me long after she passed. I cannot tell you how many times that song has come on right when I need her.

I saw an interview once where Bowie said Buddha of Suburbia was his favorite record, which brought me great joy. I always strive to find the authenticity of things and in people, and knowing my favorite Bowie record was also his made me hope and think he considered this record “pure Bowie.” My favorite tracks are #4 The Mysteries and #7 Dead Against It – a great mix of ambient music (I have to think my other favorite artist Brian Eno had something to do with this track) and just straight up, fun electronica. You can listen to the whole record here:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yfEKAigomxg. The record is a bit of a synth rollercoaster ride and a perfect musical companion.

Just a few weeks ago I thought of Bowie when I was wandering around SoHo on a random Thursday while I was in the city doing research for school. I had read in another interview that he would never go out in NYC on the weekends because too many tourists and people bothered him. But during the week he could just go about his now business without anyone saying a word. So whenever I was in New York during the week over the years I always hoped I would just catch a glimpse of him at the market or simply being Bowie.

Ironically (or not), just last Thursday I listened to this record from start to finish for the first time in forever. I was finally sitting at my school computer with no deadlines or homework. I was just there to catch up on a few things and to have lunch with a fellow classmates. I didn’t realize Bowie’s birthday was the next day (last Friday), but I was thrilled at the coincidence. I watched the Bowie Storytellers on Palladia that night…another one of my favorite Bowie records/performances, especially since Gail Ann Dorsey plays with him. I swear I loved seeing Bowie in concert (yes, I finally saw him a few times after my mother passed) to see her perform just as much as him. Her bass and style are impeccable.

And then, just three days later, my husband told me the sad news when I woke up. The news sort of seeped into my heart and bones, and the grief washed over me. My heart remains heavy, just like so many others. But, ultimately, there is gratitude. For the longest time growing up, as well as during those early days in Boston, music was my only true companion. While in high school, being a DJ at the local college station WBUQ literally saved my life. Turning up the music to 11 in the sound proof booth altered the molecules in my bones and in the air around me for two hours a week, and I knew all would be well in the long run…and Buddha of Suburbia made me feel the same during my first years in Boston.

So, thank you, David Bowie, for making music and for being you. You helped me, as you did so many other people and you made the world a better place. You will be missed. xo

KP

Support a Trafficking Survivor’s Dream

balance, please

yinyangHappy New Year, everyone. The holiday season has given me a brief window to get my head above water, at least for a little bit, until classes resume at the end of January.

I am thrilled to report my semester went swimmingly…with a few bumps…some larger than others, which is certainly to be expected during a Ph.D. program. My fellow students are inspiring and my professors are engaged and caring. In just one semester I have learned more than I had hoped to garner for the entire duration of my degree.

The highlight was definitely creating my own dataset for statistics. My interest is to study what factors are associated with passing strong legislation to protect vulnerable children from commercial sexual exploitation. Little statistical work exists on this topic, so I am thrilled to be breaking this ground. Stay tuned for a blog post on this work soon…

For now…in this brief moment of rest…I am focused on balance. Reconnecting with my family and spending lazy days reading with my son. Being a mother is my favorite thing in the universe, and I have missed having family dinners almost every night and just hanging out together.

That said, I have also missed writing on this blog. I am grateful people find my insights about CSEC, trauma, and life in general helpful. While I am a bit of a Luddite, I love the opportunity to write out my thoughts and experiences through the lens of someone who as been through a lot.

I hope this finds everyone well. Stay cozy in the warm and thank you for being you.

KP

Support a Trafficking Survivor’s Dream

Education is Freedom

This post originally appeared on the Sun Gate Foundation website. This foundation provides educational financial resources for trafficking survivors. I received a very generous textbook scholarship for the fall 2015 semester. Thanks to their support, I am able to have all of the resources I need to prepare for and contribute to classes without having to stress about buying books. The deadline for spring 2016 scholarships is 12/1/15. Please spread the word and/or consider making a donation to Sun Gate to they can provide even more support to survivors.

I wanted to share the blog post here as well because have now finished the first semester of full-time Ph.D. study, and I am walking on air (granted, I am really tired much of the time, but I am blissful nonetheless). My Ph.D. classes are truly providing me with the skills to take my research and advocacy to a who new level of statistical and theoretical analysis. My intention is to utilize these new tools to contribute even further to stopping the commercial sexual exploitation of children.

phd-in-progress-T-Shirts1

I cried the first time I walked through the doors of the University of Massachusetts Boston (UMass Boston). My time had finally come to get my Ph.D. For decades I knew I would get my doctorate “someday” and the moment had arrived. I called my husband in tears. I needed to say the words “I am really going to get my Ph.D.” aloud –and for him to hear me – before the reality could truly sink in.

Education was my “way out” of a family locked in generational cycles of violence, substance abuse, mental illness and poverty. My mother had dreamed of escaping by going to college in Hawaii, but was told by her abusive father that she could learn everything in the factory where she worked that she could in college. The owners of the family pharmacy where my father worked offered to send him to the local college, but he turned them down. His priority was easy access to drugs rather than an education.

From a very early age I knew I needed to get away. My very first memory is of being sexually assaulted by my member of my immediate family in the back of a family friend’s bar. I was preverbal at the time, but I just remember feeling “shattered.” The world had somehow changed, but everyone was acting like nothing had happened. I continued to be physically, sexually, and emotionally abused by multiple members of both sides of my family until early adolescence. During that same time an immediate member of my family commercially sexually exploited me at truck stops and parties to support his drug addiction.

I knew I had found my escape route when I began to read in first grade. Books not only gave me a place to flee in my mind, but I also aspired to be like my teacher. She was kind, independent, and smart: my first role model. Learning made me happy and, for the first time, hopeful. I begged my mother to drive me to the town library 30 minutes away. My library card was my first passport. I felt independent and grateful for the opportunity to have a building other than church where I felt safe.

The sexual abuse and exploitation finally stopped when I was in middle school. The physical and emotional abuse continued, and so did my resolve to leave my family and my hometown by going to college far away (just as my mother had hoped for herself). In high school, I took several college-level courses at the very university where my father had refused to go. I turned 18 one day and graduated from high school the next. Three months later, my mother drove me college 2 ½ hours away. I had made it.

In many ways my work was only beginning. While my mother had encouraged my college education, she did not have any means to help me pay for my degree. My undergraduate degree took six years to complete because I had to take time off to work. Additionally, my mother died of cancer six months before I graduated. She waited until I had registered for classes to tell me her bone marrow transplant hadn’t worked for fear I would stay home to take of her instead of finishing school. Before she died, my mother told me to follow some friends to Boston and to get my master’s degree. I did both.

After receiving my master’s degree I started putting the pieces together about my abuse and exploitation history. “We study our pain,” is a common belief at the Wellesley Centers for Women, a research and action department of Wellesley College, where I now work as a social scientist. I initially focused on prostitution, which led me to the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC). I had also started therapy during the same time, which also helped me to navigate the “roadmap” of my past. I confronted my abusers during this time and was told to never contact them again. I knew too much.

I now have a true family and close circle of friends that support and care for me. I have been married for almost 13 years and we have an extraordinary 9 year-old son. Plus, I have been fortunate enough to be a part of a profoundly inspiring tribe of CSEC survivors, including Shamere McKenzie and the Sun Gate Foundation. These peeps, in addition to my Wellesley colleagues, are all encouraging me that the “time is now” for my Ph.D. The call for empirical CSEC research is pressing, even more so, I deserve to realize this final educational aspiration.

KP

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HEALING MY “INNER TAYLOR SWIFT”

TaySwiftCostumeShakeTaylor Swift’s pop hit “Shake It Off” has become my new mantra. The theme of shirking haters, liars, and cheats while getting down to “this. sick. beat.” totally sums up how I survived growing up in my small rural hometown. Even though I endured endless discrimination for being poor and never, ever fitting in, I endured by knowing the day would come when I would move to the city and become an academic…which was exactly how I ended up moving to Boston and becoming a research scientist.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that this song resonates so strongly with me. T. Swift was born in Wyomisisng, PA which is 90 minutes from where I grew up. In interviews she talks about how she didn’t belong there either, and how she followed her dreams of being a singer/songwriter, eventually moving to Nashville at the start of high school. She felt part of something bigger and followed her dream.

But taking such risks can come with a personal price. For instance, one of my most cherished childhood friendships started to unravel after I spent a decade confronting and healing from my history of child sexual abuse and family-controlled child sex trafficking. I was becoming an empowered survivor and transplanted New Englander, but our friendship was predicated on me being a homesick victim.

Our friendship ended after I stood up to her for the first time. She believed a rumor she heard about me while drinking in a hometown bar that I was currently “stalking” a guy I used to really like. Instead of telling the guy’s stoned friend who was talking trash to zip it, she called to yell at me. Her version of me included a pining, heartbroken sap. She was not able to accept the truth that all I had done was reached out to this person when his loving grandfather had recently passed. To her, I needed to be wounded.

After a few years of grieving the loss of this friendship, I realized the need for me to be the victim had nothing to do with me. Writer, producer, comedian, and actress Mindy Kaling sums it up best in her recent book Why Not Me?

People get scared when you try to do something, especially when it looks like you’re succeeding. People do not get scared when you’re failing. It calms them. That’s why the show Intervention is a hit and everyone loves ‘worrying about’ Amanda Bynes. But when you’re winning, it makes them feel like they’re losing or, worse yet, that maybe they should’ve tried to do something too, but now it’s too late. And since they didn’t, they want to stop you. You can’t let them.

I had done it. I had taken the plunge and moved away and rebooted my life. I struggled a lot at first, which did include tremendous bouts of homesickness for the place I could not get away from fast enough. I wish I had just made a clean break and not relied so much on my hometown friends to feel “known” as I endured loneliness in my new city. All of these friends were addicts – much like my biological family – which was familiar, but certainly not healthy.

But, in all honesty, the limited contact I had with them through letters, phone calls, and emails helped to keep me alive as I slogged through healing from my traumatic past. Isolation is physically and emotionally painful, and I experienced tremendous pain as I unearthed so many memories and realizations that had needed to be buried until I was safely away from my family. I was “in the gloaming,” which is an Old English phrase for twilight. The sun had set on that horrific time of my life and I was letting go of the past.

I much prefer that phrase to the ever popular “healing your inner child.” This term has always made my stomach turn. The words insinuate that you have the emotional capacity of a toddler and if you only worked a little harder you could join the rest of the well-adjusted world at the adult’s table.

What’s worse, this phrase can be used to discriminate against people who have experienced tremendous childhood trauma. While trauma lessens over time, PTSD is a chronic clinical condition that never truly goes away. Learning to manage triggers and symptoms is a life-long process that can be tedious and disheartening. While you can certainly move on, the trauma remains.

What can heal, though, is the shame and grief from instances of childhood trauma like not being protected from violence or having to grow up in poverty. As adults, we have the capacity to re-write the script that we were powerless to change as children. We can re-imagine what we wanted our lives to look like and our hearts to feel like so we can heal.

This reclaiming is exactly why I begged my 10 year-old son to go with me to see Taylor Swift last month during her 1989 tour. I wanted to sing and dance to “Shake It Off” with him and 60,000+ New Englanders at Gillette Stadium (where my husband spends an inordinate amount of time – he covers the Patriots for WEEI.com). I wanted to give the eternally teenage girl part of me the experience of being “normal” and belonging in an arena full of kids, tweens, teens (and their parents) who struggle with the same feelings.

Before the show started, I realized 1989 was my first full year of “freedom.” I graduated from high school in 1988 and quickly moved to Philadelphia. Funny to think that while that year was the beginning of my new life, in that same year, 90 minutes away, Taylor Swift was, literally, being born. And I am grateful she came into this world and wrote “Shake It Off.” This song is a mantra…a healing…a glimpse of holding on to what I know to be authentic and true in my heart despite others wanting me to stay small.

KP

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