“How in the world did you survive CSEC?” is a question I am commonly asked. The answer is neither short nor simple. So I’ve decided to write this series of posts answering that very question.
I do a lot of public speaking both as an academic and as a CSEC survivor. While I am both of these things simultaneously, the focus of of each presentation is quite different. The first takes a very distanced, sociological approach that subjectively looks at the dynamics of child sex trafficking and sexual exploitation. Whereas, my talks about surviving and healing from CSEC are intensely intimate and focus on my own journey moving from surviving to thriving. This series of posts aims to address both.
People often tell me I am an inspiration, which I appreciate immensely. I continue to speak publicly about my personal story because so many people have faced similar struggles, and my talks often create a sense of “communal survival.” We are immersed in a victim-blaming, rape culture that simultaneously ignores and vilifies survivors who are willing to tell “truth to power” and who refuse to be silenced.
While being a sexual violence and exploitation survivor grants me “insider” status and provides instant credibility as a CSEC expert, being a survivor can also be a hindrance as a social scientist. I am well aware that I can never be impartial or objective. My intention is to utilize my academic proclivity to end CSEC and sexual violence: that is always my goal. Therefore, I always need to “check” my bias when conducting research and surround myself with collaborators who share my commitment to social justice and to sound social science.
Here is the beginning of a series of the Top 11 things I have learned while healing from CSEC. (Yes, eschewing 10 for 11 is an overt Spinal Tap reference. “These go to 11” is the exact volume at which I intend to live my life.) These reflections seek to answer that question of how I survived, and also to provide some insight on common themes that still run through the dynamics of CSEC to this day. My personal experiences as a survivor and as a social scientist can never be disconnected. This is who I am.
#11 Healing from CSEC requires taking a lot of risks.
I placed risk-taking at the bottom of this list of lessons because it is the foundation of my life, not because it is the least important. I am 100% certain I would not be where I am today if I had not taken a ton of risks. I may still be alive, but I doubt I would be living a calm, happy life with a tight circle of family and close friends.
Moving to Boston after my mother died was the biggest risk I have ever taken. This risk did not pay off at all when I first moved here because I was really alone and I didn’t make any good friends until I had lived here for five years. In fact, I considered returning to my hometown in Appalachia (that I had fled) once I realized I was living the life my mother had wanted me to live, not the life I wanted. Yes, I was renting a gorgeous apartment in Cambridge, MA that had once been feature in Architectural Digest and was working at a prestigious university. But I felt empty…like I was in a movie…not building an authentic life of my own.
Ultimately, I ended up staying in Boston after I completely fell on my face in front of my hometown family and friends. Not that many people wanted me to return. My ideation that I had somehow abandoned my roots was a complete fallacy. People who I loved dearly had not only expected me to leave, but also preferred I stay gone. Certainly, this realization stung; however, I brushed myself off after some time and moved on. Ultimately, I am eternally grateful I hadn’t moved after all. One year later I met my best friend and my husband around the same time.
Such risk-taking is a common theme that runs through so many fellow CSEC survivors’ lives. The need to “leave it all behind” is essential in order to heal from the layers of control, domination, manipulation, and violence that keeps the dynamics of CSEC in place.
I certainly do not advocate people impulsively betting the farm without seriously considering all sides of a situation. In truth, returning to my hometown would not have been physically safe because the majority of my exploiters’ family still lived there, and I had already started my very public CSEC advocacy work. But at the time I felt like I had absolutely nothing to lose, because I had already lost everything after my mother had died. In the end, though, my may leaps of faith have served me incredibly well in that with big risk comes great reward. My life is living proof.
Stay tuned for the next installment…I will post the entirety of the list throughout January.
Also in this series: