I usually hate attending press conferences announcing new anti-trafficking initiatives. The formulaic program tends to include politicians and city officials making bold promises that may or may not be kept; advocates praising numerous organizations and bureaucrats they criticize when reporters aren’t present; and a trafficking survivor inspiring the audience with her story of rising above unthinkable circumstances.
This recipe works because it blends the perfect amount of contrition for ways the (insert specific name of the city, state, country, or organization here) has failed to stop trafficking up until this point; a plausible outline for how things will change; and abundant hope that, yes, people can thrive despite insurmountable odds.
The March 6th press event at Boston City Hall to announce the launch of Boston’s participation in the Cities Empowered Against Sexual Exploitation’s (CEASE) new initiative to reduce trafficking demand in eleven cities across the United States by 2017 was no different. When I reluctantly showed up, I quickly learned the formula was in full force: the speaking line-up included Boston’s Mayor, Chief of Police, Attorney General, anti-trafficking advocates, and…wait for it…a trafficking survivor.
I felt sick to my stomach the whole train ride into the city and thought about leaving as soon as I passed through city hall security. But I chose to stick it out because I attended as part of the University of Massachusetts Boston team conducting research for the city’s anti-trafficking efforts. Otherwise, I would have preferred to have a root canal (even though I don’t need one).
Our team had reserved seats in the second row of the standing-room-only event. When I saw those seats I wanted to run: I would have much preferred to sit in the back, out of the spotlight and away from the schmoozing crowd. I am more of a behind-the-scenes gal.
But, those front-and-center seats turned out to be the perfect place for me. Otherwise, Mayor Marty Walsh and Attorney General Maura Healey would not have been able to see how their heart-felt, genuine, and unprecedented remarks brought me to tears. I had never heard an elected official so eloquently talk of trafficking as a human rights issue. I had never seen a politician speak about exploitation with the same brokenhearted facial expression that I have felt every day for 44 years.
My experience is politicians speaking out against human trafficking sincerely want to end sexual exploitation, and are horrified this issue even exists. But I have never witnessed two officials be so physically and authentically moved – ever. Yes, they had tears in their eyes, but their bodies also reflected that same pit-in-the-stomach, want-to-vomit-because-this-is-so-horrific visceral reaction to the evils of trafficking.
We are selling the domination of the bodies of women, men, and children in our city, in our country, and in our world. Walsh’s and Healy’s remarks and resolve clearly sent a message of “not on our watch.” This issue is clearly not just another talking point to help them gain points in the poles. Even writing this now brings tears back to my eyes. They are in this fight to end human trafficking because survivors matter.
My colleague Audrey Morrissey acknowledged their earnestness during her remarks as the survivor speaker, stating, “It would’ve been something to know that the mayor and the attorney general cared about what happened to me. Because I came from a place where no one cared what happened to me.” Audrey is a mover and shaker who lives and speaks her truth. The fact that she was the survivor speaker also showed me this event was the real deal of change, not empty words.
I do not believe this one initiative of reducing demand will eradicate sex trafficking. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” Studies show arresting and jailing purchasers of sex alone will not end trafficking. We must holistically grasp the systemic and interpersonal violence of abuse, poverty, and racism that fuels a network of victims, traffickers, and purchasers.
Taking on such a task is not easy. However, the compassion and sympathy exhibited by these two leaders give me even more hope that I ever thought imaginable. That new swell of possibility brought the tears to my eyes. I came from that same place of feeling that no one cared about me as a human being while I was being exploited. Now thirty years later, I was witnessing change right up front.