The stories published about sex trafficking survivors are mostly about the successes. They are about the ones that manage to leave the sex trade. The ones that find healing. The ones who become heroes themselves.
These stories certainly exist. They are what abolitionists long for and what keep us trying through all the failures along the way. The reality is, however, that failures dominate our landscape. The damage that slavery does to the soul and body does not always have neat resolution. In fact, sometimes there is no resolution at all. HIV kills, and a mind broken by years of unending trauma might never recover. There is a reason that suicide, drug abuse, and re-entry into the sex industry are so common for survivors.
One of the most precious people that I ever encountered in my work was a young girl, Kitty.* Rather than sending her to school, Kitty’s mother sent her to grown men who would rape her for cash. For years, her mother pimped her, ruining her tiny body and breaking her mind, until finally she sold her one last time to a trafficking ring and walked away forever. Mercifully, Kitty was found by the police and taken to a shelter where people who cared deeply about her worked to restore her mind, physical health, and spirit.
This is where the real work begins for a survivor. When they realize that they are physically safe, every dormant demon begins to surface. When there is no longer a need to find food and shelter and physical safety, they have to wrestle with questions of their own value and the implications of what has been done to them. I cannot begin to describe how difficult this process is for a survivor. It’s daily and it’s deep and it’s characterized by starts and stops, progress and regression. Being totally rewritten does not feel good, and for some survivors it becomes too painful to go any further.
That happened to Kitty. She couldn’t do it anymore. Changes in the shelter’s programs, including the loss of her mentor, were overwhelming. So she ran. Like so many others, she left the uncertainty of the healing process back to the life she had before on the streets. It’s a horrible, degrading, and violent life. But it IS predictable, and for some, that predictability becomes the priority.
We still don’t know where Kitty is. It’s been a long time, and even still, when I am out in the city I find myself scanning the crowds hoping that somehow we will encounter each other and she might be persuaded to return to the difficult journey into her own mind and heart. I realize that the likelihood of this encounter is nearly zero, and the chances of her surviving on the streets decreases statistically every day.
This is the agony of abolition work that is rarely presented to the public. Kitty’s story is not a success story, but it is not atypical. For every story about a survivor who is restored and goes on to live full joy-filled lives, there is a story about a precious life lost forever. However, the bulk land somewhere in the middle. They are the ones who will always suffer the enormous emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual consequences of their trauma, and every single day will require of them a deep courageous choice to keep pushing forward toward hope.
(As an organization primarily focused on equipping those on the frontlines, Dark Bali honors caregivers who experience these kinds of stories over and over and yet continue to love and serve victims and survivors with their whole hearts. While they care for people like Kitty, we care for them by providing training on important topics like trauma, therapeutic techniques, and secondary trauma. To partner with Dark Bali in order to serve all of our coalition partners, contact us or become a financial partner.)
*Not her real name.
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