Written by: Jordyn; Alverno College Social Work Student, Exploit No More Fall 2018 Intern
A few weeks ago, on my way to my internship, I received a call from Melania giving me a heads up that a young survivor of trafficking would be in the office with us that day. I didn’t know it yet, but receiving that call drastically changed my understanding of the world of sex trafficking.
After completing many hours of research, I thought I’d be prepared for my first interaction with someone I knew had been trafficked. Julie, name changed for confidentiality purposes, came to us after a family member had dropped her off at a police station, not knowing what to do after Julie had revealed that she was being trafficked. Like most victims of sexual exploitation, Julie had gotten caught up in the life without fully understanding what was happening to her. When she finally reached out to someone she knew and loved, she was turned away and left at a police station, expected to tell her story to strange men who couldn’t possibly understand what she was going through.
When we talk about sex trafficking and exploitation, we’re given a list of warning signs and indicators to look for that can identify possible victims and survivors of trafficking. Physical signs like; physical and sexual abuse, unexplainable tattoos or brandings, large amounts of cash, multiple cell phones, and not making eye contact or avoiding answering questions are some of the major signs that I knew could be present in this young person. These indicators, along with behavioral warning signs, have been burned into my mind. I’ve read them, heard them, watched them play out, contemplated, and explored them in more ways than you can know.
As we mature, we're given categories, labels, definitions, ideas, and are expected to use them to shape our worlds. For the most part, we do a good job following these expectations, toeing the line and never straying too far from the norms. Even as we begin to see the false realities that define our understandings of others; the false realities of the stereotypes we assign to each other; it is hard to let them go.
Growing up in a household where labels were defined, we were taught to love and accept everyone, and judgments were passed only after you got to know someone, didn’t have the effect I’d thought it would. You see, despite this loving environment, I spent the majority of my time in a world where labels defined us, stereotypes existed for a reason, and what we learned in school was the gospel truth.
All of this is to say that despite all of my research, despite the hours spent contemplating and researching, trying to understand how this system of exploitation has lead so many victims and survivors down a path that changes their lives, when Julie came into the office, I was shocked.
Julie did not show any of the indicators listed above. She wasn’t malnourished or unkempt. She didn’t keep her head down or avoid having conversations.
Julie laughed loud. She spoke to me as if we’d known each other our whole lives. She was kind, confident, energetic.
Julie is human.
Julie is human. She defied the expectations of having been broken by experiences too awful to put into words. That she might get triggered by any mention of trafficking or that she wouldn’t be able to talk about what had happened to her. There were no tears in her eyes as she collected clothes and blankets, necessities for her new life. She did not exhibit any sadness in having nothing, nowhere to go.
Julie is beauty.
In all that she is and all that she has been. Julie is beauty in all of the scars and experiences that have contributed to who she is.
Julie is light.
She is the sun, shining in a dark world that tries to extinguish any and all light.
Julie is power and courage.
In the way that she carries herself without fear for the future. She is a force to be reckoned with. She is the brave warrior that stands up even when she is scared, when her voice shakes, she speaks her truth.
Julie is hope.
She is hope that tomorrow will be another day, filled with more opportunities and less exploitation. She is hope that one day, every person who has been trafficked will be able to rise up and fight back against their abusers.
If I hadn’t known that she had been trafficked, I never would have been able to tell. Julie looks like any and every girl that walks around the office, down the halls of a school, across campus, down the street. She looks like your neighbor, your niece, your friend, your family member.
Yes. This is a scary thought. That sex trafficking can and does happen right under our noses, every second of every day. That humans have the ability to be so cruel, so heartless, that we would buy, trade, and sell each other for sexual pleasure. But this is our reality.
Victims and survivors of sex trafficking are not the exception and they are also not the rule. They come in more forms, shapes, and sizes than anyone could have imagined. There is no model victim.
Despite all of the work that we do, this is something that we too often forget.
What Julie has taught me is that we have the power to change the way we move through this world. And yes, sometimes it will be hard to break free of what we have been taught, to step out of our ignorance and see the world in all of its chaos. But when we take that first step, when we are filled with a courage that allows us to connect with others, it is one of the most beautiful things we can ever do.