I’m a sex trafficking survivor. America’s laws won’t let me leave my past behind

The Guardian

Sex work criminalization means potential employers and landlords treat me as a person who was arrested for prostitution, not a survivor

Photograph: Alamy
Photograph: Alamy

I am a survivor of sex trafficking in America. I’m also a former sex worker. Because of the latter and despite the former, the legal system views me more as a prostitute who deserves to be punished than a victim in need of assistance. And, until we decriminalize sex work, it always will.

Criminalization contributes to our inability to exit sex work or end trafficking, rather than helps us. Whether sex workers or sex trafficking victims, thousands of women and men are arrested on charges of prostitution, trespassing, curfew violations and all sorts of crimes, limiting our ability to support ourselves in less dangerous or stigmatized ways when we so choose.

We are, instead, pushed underground, where we are forced to engage with pimps for protection because the police don’t protect us. Many of us want a different life, but don’t know a way out, while others have decided this is our path in life. None of us deserve abuse or arrest; we should have the right to decide how to use our bodies, and we don’t need more abuse and fear when we’re already on the streets in what is inherently a violent industry.

Sex traffickers tell girls like me that we will be arrested and treated like “dirty prostitutes” if we escape or go to the police – which was true in my case. The judicial system should realize that by prosecuting sex workers, potential victims become scared to come forward, even if they are unwilling victims.

Criminalization contribute to a cycle in which even women who wish to exit sex work are economically coerced into remaining in a life they don’t want, by virtue of the fact that businesses in the formal economy prefer not to have anyone convicted of a crime on the payroll.

I didn’t expect my life to turn out this way. But, when I was 17, I met a guy on Facebook who offered to take care of me after my mom went to prison for white collar crimes and I felt like I had nowhere to turn. Instead of helping me, he sold me to men across the United States from Texas to Washington DC. Alone and far from home, I had no way to escape or refuse without risking my physical safety.
It wasn’t until the police targeted my traffickers in a brothel raid that I was able to escape; and, though I testified against them, I had been arrested and my previous prostitution charges remained on my record.

Even after leaving my traffickers, I felt like I had no options to rebuild a normal life: my arrest made it difficult to find work, and I didn’t feel like I could go home even when I finally had one to return to. I ended up back in the life of sex work, in part because, after years of being abused and only experiencing that life, I felt like that’s all I knew how to do or to be.

At first, I worked on my own. But, soon I was lured into a relationship with a pimp who put me on the streets of Washington, DC. Unlike my previous traffickers, I felt we had a true connection. While he didn’t lock me inside a brothel, he monitored every move and forced me to bring back $2,000 a night or risk being beaten I was afraid to be on the streets alone, and initially he offered a false sense of safety and love.
However, my pimp did not protect me as he claimed he would, and a serial rapist bought and raped me in Washington, DC, held me at knife point in his van and then left me on the street, severely injured both physically and emotionally. Despite my fear of arrest, I needed serious medical help and couldn’t hide from the police but, unlike a lot of women in my situation, I was lucky to find some truly sympathetic detectives and prosecutors. I testified against him in 2013, and he will spend the rest of his life in prison where he belongs.

After the attack, I was put into contact with Free, Aware, Inspired, Restored (Fair) Girls, a nonprofit providing housing and critical care to survivors of sex trafficking and exploitation. It was there that I was finally able to start on my long path toward recovery: during the past three years, I have gone through counseling, enrolled in a job training program, and eventually reconnected with my parents. I have volunteered for Fair Girls, spoken out about my story and mentored younger girls at risk of exploitation; that really helped me, knowing I was helping other girls.

But even after months of working with Fair Girls and a pro bono attorney to get my record expunged – which is supposed to be standard for victims of trafficking – I was ordered by the state courts to do community service and submit to regular, state-administered STD testing. That, it seems, is part of my punishment for the crime of prostitution, and the cost of having a chance at a normal life, despite being a victim of trafficking.

In the eyes of the law, I’m both a criminal and a victim – and the impact of being arrested as a prostitute because I was trafficked left deep emotional scars. But the consequences of my arrest goes beyond the anxiety and hurt feelings: it impaired (and continues to impair) my ability to find a job, to obtain housing and government benefits and, really, to improve my life.

My story demonstrates why decriminalizing sex work is vital to protecting sex workers and sex trafficking victims from future abuse and stigma. We should be focusing on arresting those who sell or buy victims of trafficking. They are the ones who should be in jail, losing their dignity, and unable to get a decent paying job – not girls like me.