Ms. Magazine blog post

msblog1-290x290Read my January 11th Human Trafficking Awareness Day blog post for Ms. Magazine.

Our Sex Trafficking Laws Hurt Sexually Exploited Girls

I am a survivor of the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC), specifically family-controlled child sex trafficking and child pornography. I am now a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, utilizing my experience to conduct gender-based, data-driven research on state-level CSEC legislation—specifically factors associated with states that decriminalize versus criminalize sex-trafficked children.

29 states currently retain the right to arrest and prosecute a children for prostitution. Even though the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) mandates that all children who are sexually exploited for commercial purposes are human trafficking victims, the majority of states criminalize them. Understanding this tension is important, because local police interact with sex-trafficked minors more often than federal officials—and they determine if sex-trafficked children are treated as criminals or victims.

State prosecutors and law enforcement often cite the need to be able to control “non-compliant” sexually exploited minors as justification for threats of arrest and prosecution, and criminal justice officials also argue that putting CSEC victims in detention “protects them” from traffickers and sex buyers. These policies ignore the likelihood that incarceration may re-traumatize sex-trafficked children, since up to 90 percent of sexually exploited minors have prior histories of child sexual abuse and neglect, and that those with histories of violence often have difficulties trusting others, especially authority figures such as police. These policies also fail to consider that sex-trafficked children may be under the psychological control of their traffickers, due to trauma bonding.

Refusing to acknowledge the numerous ways criminalization can trigger a traumatic response by CSEC victims undermines their legitimacy as victims. Legal authorities claim that they are working with “uncooperative” victims, but their policies drive those same victims—who see these procedures as an attempt to control, not protect, them—toward stress responses. I invite criminal justice agents to join with CSEC advocates and demand more resources such as safe housing and funding for support programs so that jail is not seen as the only option for “protecting” sex trafficked children. In addition to re-traumatizing victims, arresting and prosecuting them disregards the long-term implications of having a criminal record—such as impeding future housing, employment or educational opportunities.

Sex-trafficked minors are expected to make a “rational choice” of protection by authorities or cooperate with prosecutors; otherwise, they remain suspect of deviance or complicit in their exploitation. Exploited minors begin to be seen as criminals, not victims of a violent crime, if they do not choose to be “rescued” by law enforcement. For female victims, the implications are compounding: Being perceived as “out of control” is particularly problematic for sexually exploited girls, especially girls of color, for whom acting outside of racialized, feminine ideals such as purity and obedience increases their risk of being labeled “deviant.”

Historically, sexually exploited children have been labeled “bad kids” who do not deserve non-criminal protection and services. It is argued this bias occurs because they do not fit our current cultural narrative of childhood being a time of innocence. This model of purity requires that children be white and heterosexual, with little or no sexual knowledge (even if sexual knowledge has been obtained through violence). They should have access to quality education and adequate healthcare. They must live in secure housing within a heterosexual nuclear family. Sex-trafficked youth with experiences far outside of this model can be seen as “willing participants” in their exploitation who need to be controlled, not victims in need of services and support.

I was sexually abused and trafficked by an immediate family member from infancy until early adolescence; my exploiter used a CB radio to advertise me to truckers traveling along the interstate near our house. The exploitation ended once I hit puberty—my exploiters’ clientele only liked very young girls—and going to college was my ticket away from my exploiter and my family. I often wonder if I would still be getting my Ph.D. if I had been arrested or prosecuted for prostitution while being exploited. I am doubtful, because I would not have qualified for student financial aid. Therefore, I hope my research and decriminalization advocacy will “pay it forward” for fellow CSEC victims and survivors—especially those with academic dreams.

KP

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#1 I am the only person I need to forgive

DothebestyoucanHere is the final installment 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. My experiences as a survivor and as a social scientist can never be disconnected. This is who I am.

We’ve reached number one. Thank you for reading along with me and for having patience in between each post. I thought I would be able to write all of these on winter break last year, but I needed more time. Each piece has been exhausting to write, and I needed time in between each to simply breathe.

So. Here it is. The most important thing I have learned while healing from CSEC is that I only need to forgive myself for all of the mistakes and stumbles I have made along the way. I don’t need to forgive my exploiter or any of the sex buyers or abusers. I don’t need to forgive all of the people who looked away even though they knew something was wrong in my family. I don’t need to forgive all of the companies who have exploited the land and the workers in Appalachia. I only need to forgive myself: first, because I was a child, and second, because I did my best.

Yes, I have hurt people along the way. I stuck around too long in my hometown and I was a disaster to a lot of people I met when I first moved to Boston/Cambridge. Granted, most of my faux pas were minor – I was needy and clingy to my friends…old and new. But I had also just lost my mother, who was the only person who had ever fully believed in me. I was adrift, not to mention drowning in grief.

I was also stuck in cycles be transgenerational trauma. I had been “chosen” by my mother to be the one to get away from my family and hometown: I would put an end to our familial madness of poverty, addiction, violence, and mental illness. But I had also been “chosen” by my exploiter to be his property. I did not understand how these two roles had created a push and pull in me to both hate and long for my hometown. I was living the life my mother wanted me to live in Cambridge, but was also homesick for the familiarity of Appalachia, despite the dysfunction.

Eventually, I understood I was trying (and failing) to reconcile these two roles I had been given. I felt in a state of flux and could not settle down. I did not understand how these two conflicting “assignments” prevented me from being present to the new life I was creating for myself. Yes, I did want to get away from my hometown, but I did not want to be the “city girl” my mother had always envisioned me to be.

While I loved Boston/Cambridge, it was loud and crowded and overwhelming. At the same time, I did not want to go back to my hometown, but I wanted to live in a small college town where I could walk everywhere, and feel deep sense of community. I missed running into people I knew in the grocery store and living in a college town (yes, Cambridge is a “college town,” but it’s really a college city).

Fundamentally, I became my own person. I was able to stop worrying about being obedient, or a dutiful daughter, or any other role people had tried to put me in growing up. I realized the abuse was not my fault and I had healed my trauma as best I could (I will always need to manage my PTSD, which is a chronic illness).

These “a-ha” moments were graceful, but urgent. As my brain rewired itself and my central nervous system calmed, I understood it was time for me to stop playing out these dueling roles that simultaneously pulled and repelled me to Appalachia.

I had already cut ties with old friends and my family out of self-preservation, so my reconciliation was really internal. I needed to give myself permission to grieve for all that I had lost – my family, my childhood, my mother, and my sense of place. But I also needed to acknowledge how strong I had become and what I had gained – a new family, new friends, employment as an academic, and a new sense of place.

Most importantly, I realized I needed to forgive myself for not knowing what I could not know while taking this journey. I wish I could have just left my hometown once my mother had died, but I couldn’t. I was stuck in that transgenerational push-pull.

One former hometown friend told I would not be able to move on until I healed “my inner child.” (I simply cannot stand that phrase.) I didn’t have the words to tell her at the time, but, no, I did not need to heal my inner child. I needed to learn how to set boundaries and to state my needs. Ironically (or not), once I learned those things, she and everyone else from my hometown disappeared. My inner being – my authentic self – had always been a warrior. That strength is what had kept me alive.

“But maybe the only way to take the measure of a place’s terror and beauty is to leave it like a bat out of hell only to be drawn back in.” This is a great quote from a movie review of Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea.” This sentence reminds me so much of my experience of being sucked back into my hometown when my mother had gotten sick. I had spent my entire life wanting to get out of there, but I only realized the beauty and mercy once I watched the person I loved the most on this planet die amongst the Appalachian Mountains that she had never been able to escape herself.

I initially resented having to return, but now that I have lived in New England longer than I lived in Appalachia, I understand I needed to return for that time so I could fully and completely leave once she died.  When I was 18, I had simply run away. But once I left after her death, I closed that door completely. I needed a few years to truly separate myself, and it was not a pretty process. But for that messy time, I have finally forgiven myself. I am not perfect, but I am finally my own person.

Thank you to all who have read all eleven posts. Writing these has been cathartic. I intend to publish these lessons (and others) sooner rather than later. Stay tuned!

KP

Also in this series:

#11 Healing from CSEC requires taking a lot of risks.

#10 Laugh…a lot.

#9 Prioritize your health.

# 8 Say good-bye to “old playmates and playgrounds.”

#7 Be patient and take lots of naps.

#6 Isolation sucks.

#5 Unraveling codependency is really hard.

#4 It was not my fault.

#3 Healing can be humiliating.

#2 Unlearning obedience is essential. 

#2 Unlearning Obedience is Essential

c48db0e364e65cd68889387981576cdeHere is the next installment 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. My experiences as a survivor and as a social scientist can never be disconnected. This is who I am.

Okay. Now we’re getting into the toughest terrain of my top lessons. Yes, taking risks and laughing has been vital to my healing. But, relearning to think, act, and speak for myself has been the keystone to thriving. My exploiter, literally, beat my sense of agency out of me at a very early age by repeatedly physically abusing me whenever I disobeyed him. He broke me.

I also disassociated from my body as a survival tactic when I was sexually abused or exploited. Therefore, I learned to submit to avoid being physically harmed as often and to get the violence over with quicker when I was hurt. I learned that I would be abused for longer periods of time and with more severity if I fought back. I became a trapped, skittish animal, frozen in fear.

This “lack of humanity” feeling stayed with me even after my exploiter left our home when I was about 13. The daily, immediate physical danger of physical and sexual violence had passed. But I still felt trapped and watched. He still lived nearby, and so the threat of being beaten and sexually violated still loomed large.

I was so used to being controlled that I didn’t know any other way of relating to people – not even friends. I gravitated to dominating “mean girls” who knew I was passive. One “friend” would date any guy I said I liked, knowing full well I would never make a move. Another slept with my first “boyfriend” (who, not surprisingly, constantly cheated on me and did a ton of drugs). A third, the matriarch of my life-long group of friends, was the “queen bee” of the girls in the group, even though she was subservient to her boyfriend (who later became her husband).

Growing up I didn’t care about being a follower because I was just biding my time until I could get away from my family and out of my hometown. Flying under the radar allowed me to focus on my studies and, quite literally, kept me alive. I am certain my exploiter would have killed me if I spoke up against him or fallen in love with the boy I really wanted to date. So, I stayed in line.

But my obedience came with a high price. I felt incredibly alone growing up. I longed for authentic relationships where I could be vulnerable and trusting. But that same “skittish animal” feeling would return whenever I met someone who wasn’t interested in controlling me, and I honestly didn’t know how to have a mutual relationship.

I also used my appearance to push people away so they would not even approach me, especially guys. I wore baggy thrift store clothes (that was all we could afford) and bleached my hair white. I tried black lipstick and shaved the sides of my head. I lived in a constant state of flux: I longed for authentic connection but could not handle intimacy.

All bets were off, though, once my mother died and I moved away from my hometown. I had started therapy to deal with the grief of losing my mom and the overwhelm of moving to a new state. I started feeling stronger and more independent now that I was so geographically far away from my family and friends, especially my exploiter. I started to feel safe in wanting genuine relationships and I started to stand up for myself. This, not surprisingly, went over like a lead brick back home.

I confronted my exploiter and other family members who had also sexually abused me. I actually started dating and making new friends in my new city (and initially failed miserably, as I mentioned in the previous post). I also reached out to make amends with guys I had rebuffed in the past, and most were grateful to hear from me. To me, I was finding my voice. But to the people of my past, I was losing my mind.

I also started doing yoga, going to Al-Anon meetings, taking “human potential” classes such as the Landmark Forum (based on the controversial est program started in the 1970’s), and learning self-defense in a model mugging class. All of these tools re-taught me to think for myself and to re-embody my physical being that had been taken hostage when I was a child.

As I remembered (re-membered) my own humanity, though, I lost more and more relationships with family members and childhood friends. I made so many mistakes as I exercised my new emotional muscles. Simply being allowed to feel feelings was so new to me that I sounded like a freak when I tried to express my emotions. Even more so, I was so excited that I was even expressing emotions, that I was not embarrassed when my words came out all wrong. I was learning a new language.

While my heart was bursting with excitement and possibility, my brain and central nervous system were struggling to keep up. My actions where often impulsive. At one point, I quit a very stable job in academia that I had loved in order to work at a yoga studio, and then to explore the idea of opening my own business. I was, literally, rewiring my brain and heart. These classes gave me opportunities to interact with caring people who were not out to hurt me, and to challenge the stories I had been told by my family and friends. I later realized, I had to lose my mind in order to learn how to think and act for myself.

Eventually, my life did stabilize, and I did return to academia…and I have never left again. I am, in my authentic being, a social scientist and a feminist scholar. But my journey to authenticity has not been not easy. I, literally, lost everything along the way. Regardless, I would do it all over again. I realize now none of those people in my past wanted me, they only wanted control over me. Relationships are mutual commitments that grow over time, not power struggles over who gets to determine what is real and true. Enjoying such authenticity has been completely worth losing it all, even my mind.

KP

#11 Healing from CSEC requires taking a lot of risks.

#10 Laugh…a lot.

#9 Prioritize your health.

# 8 Say good-bye to “old playmates and playgrounds.”

#7 Be patient and take lots of naps.

#6 Isolation sucks.

#5 Unraveling codependency is really hard.

#4 It was not my fault.

#3 Healing can be humiliating.