Though we still have a long road ahead of us, Alabaster Jar Project is blessed to be a part of the ongoing movement to fight human trafficking, where the activism in our community can move mountains, where women who initially were seeking support become a new support network for other survivors, where many of these women blossom into leaders of our community, and where San Diego and other affected populations are becoming more educated on how human trafficking occurs, where, why, and how they can help.
One issue that our survivor advocates sometimes find difficult to communicate to those who have never been sexually exploited is why those whom they could consider peers, who grew up alongside them, would enter exploitation and human trafficking. Unless we have had personal experiences with a manipulative or violent abuser, it may be difficult to understand why survivors would not only get involved in toxic situations but remain there once it’s clear how much danger they are in.
What is important to understand is that it is extremely rare for a woman to consciously, independently, and willingly pursue a career as a prostitute or adult industry worker. Because most women would not immediately walk away from their lives to do so, sex traffickers and exploiters have developed a carefully calculated process to lure women into their control. This intricate process can be encapsulated into one word: Coercion, or any scheme, plan or pattern intended to cause a person to believe that failure to perform an act would result in serious harm to or physical restraint against any person in their life.
Though violence is often the outcome of a trafficker’s abuse, many cases do not begin with physical force. “He said it would be like having an all-expenses-paid vacation,” Michelle*, a survivor, explains about her abuser. “And at first, it seemed like that was the case. We were in a different city every few days. We went to the beach, we went out for drinks, we went shopping... Who wouldn’t want to live like that?”
The only difference than having an actual vacation was that Michelle was expected to fund this lifestyle by working as an escort. Since this profession is extremely dangerous, it wasn’t long before she was confronted with violence. A few weeks in, Michelle was robbed by a sex buyer, but instead of consoling her, her abuser assaulted her. “He acted like it was my fault,” she says. “I felt stupid, and I was scared.”
Why would Michelle continue with sex work if she knew she was in such a violent situation? “He knew where my parents lived,” she explains. “He threatened to hurt them. He told me wherever I went, he would find me and punish me for leaving. Maybe he was bluffing, but I didn’t have any other options. He took all the money I made, and without him, I would be homeless.”
Though most abusers are violent, the strongholds they have on the mind are often powerful enough to control her actions before the violence ever occurs. Even though many women may start off feeling like they are in control of their environment, or even feel that prostitution was their own independent decision, all freedom is taken away from them when they are forced to continue to be sexually exploited by threatening anything and everything in their world if they refuse.
After several years of abuse, Michelle was able to get into an emergency safehouse, then to our Grace House Residential Program, and now works full time in customer service where she is able to sustain her independent lifestyle. “I love support group!” she boasts of AJP’s weekly peer-led support group. “These ladies understand what some of my closest friends can’t. Where other friends see my weaknesses, they see strength.”
Alabaster Jar Project is constantly learning about the best and most innovative ways to serve women, like Michelle, who are affected by coercion and many other traumas that come from sexual exploitation. While it may be discouraging to learn about the tragedies our survivor sisters have faced, there are many ways to help them overcome their trauma and grow into empowered, independent women. Simply being educated -- by reading this blog and following us on Facebook for updates on our current opportunities to aid our mission -- is a great way for our supporters to begin fighting against human trafficking.
We thank you, our supporters, for taking the time to understand such a complicated issue. We know how difficult it can be to learn about human trafficking, as our doors are open daily to the women who survived all that Michelle has described, and more. There is still so much we all can do to help survivors, and our team at Alabaster Jar Project cannot have the impact we strive to have on their lives without your support.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
written by Amanda Moon Ellevis