So I have this friend… she is a survivor of human trafficking.
She often reflects upon the things she has been through, and what she wishes somebody would have noticed when she was being victimized, the warning signs that all too often go unnoticed.
Since 2010, January has been designated National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. With the support of non-government organizations, January 11 is recognized as National Human Trafficking Day. While we still have a long way to go, there is a lot more support for victims today than even 10-15 years ago. With the growing awareness, a lot of the stereotypes surrounding sexual abuse dynamics and the victims themselves have been uprooted.
Growing up, my friend heard little about human trafficking, aside from a few stories of western female travelers being abducted and sold into slavery while traveling abroad. She never in her wildest nightmares thought it would ever happen to her. In fact, my friend didn’t even know up until fairly recently that what she went through was considered human trafficking. It took her almost twelve years to open up to anyone about what she had been through. When she shared her story in full detail for the first time with someone who she loves and trusts and this person referred to what happened to her as human trafficking, it felt like a shock to her system, even a betrayal of sorts. It made her feel angry and confused. She was in denial because she had already spent over a decade trying to process the sexual, physical, emotional and psychological abuse she experienced.
The mere thought of taking on a whole new label as a specified type of victim felt overwhelming enough, almost like an entirely new crime to grieve over. It felt like being re-victimized all over again. She had already spent the remainder of her teenage years and the beginning of her adult years coming to terms with the fact that she had been repeatedly sexually abused and assaulted. To add what felt like such a weighted label to what happened to her felt like a burden she feared she wasn’t strong enough to carry.
After talking with her loved one, she reluctantly googled human trafficking and found dozens of stories, mostly about victims being forced into sexual slavery by pimps who groomed them by pretending to be their boyfriends. She didn’t really see any stories that sounded like hers, so she still wasn’t convinced that what happened to her was human trafficking.
She slowly began to wrap her mind around the fact that she was trafficked. She thought about the stories she read of children being groomed… and realized that’s exactly what her twenty three year old half-sister Nadine had done to her, culminating in my friend being sold to grown men starting when she was only in the fifth grade. The only difference was that Nadine was her family member, not a pseudo-boyfriend or stranger. Although it felt excruciating to open up those wounds once again, she racked her brain to remember how it happened, where it all began and how this could have been prevented. What happened to her could never be undone, but she wanted to help pinpoint the warning signs to hopefully help someone else.
It all started shortly after Nadine moved in with my friend and her parents. At first, my friend was so excited to have her Nadine be part of her daily life for the first time- it felt like having a sister and a cool older best friend, all in one. Nadine made my friend feel so grown-up. She no longer felt invisible and unimportant. Although she and Nadine lived in my friends’ parent’s home, her parents weren’t really around at all during this time in her life due to problems of their own. My friend felt lonely and abandoned before Nadine arrived. What started out feeling like a dream come true started to fall apart seemingly overnight. Things started to feel very wrong, very quickly. My friend tried to fight back at first, but that only made things so much worse.
Whenever she would try to confront Nadine about the increasingly severe instances of abuse she was inflicting on her. Nadine would tell my friend that she was either exaggerating or imagining things. My friend didn’t learn until many years later that what Nadine did in those moments is a specific type of abuse called gaslighting. To gaslight, someone means to manipulate them by psychological means into questioning their own sanity. Gaslighting is a very powerful weapon in silencing victims. The first time Nadine ever beat my friend was because she snuck some cake mix after not having anything whatsoever to eat the entire weekend. The next morning, Nadine told her that there was never any cake mix in the house and insisted she never laid a hand on her- but that she ought to beat her for making up such lies. When my friend looked at herself in the mirror before her shower that night, her torso and thighs were littered with bruises and welts. She remembers hearing Nadine talking with a male friend, worried that my friend would tell her parents what she did and her friend advised her to never leave marks on my friend’s face, only areas that could be covered with clothing.
It didn’t take long for the physical and psychological abuse to graduate to include sexual abuse.
Nadine started having parties nearly every night when it was a school night for my friend, and she would be falling asleep in class. One night after one of the parties, Nadine forced my friend to watch porn for the first time, joking that she had better take notes. When my friend tried to go upstairs, Nadine told her she would shave her head and disfigure her if she didn’t stay and watch. My friend was really disturbed by this and even remembers having nightmares about what she was forced to watch. About a week later, Nadine forced my friend to watch while she slept with several men at once. My friend remembers sitting in the corner of the room crying and not understanding what was happening, and Nadine laughing and telling her to stop being such a baby, that it was just sex. She again threatened my friend, this time saying that if she told anyone or didn’t stay and watch, she would also harm someone my friend loved and felt very protective over. She also said she would be installing a deadbolt on the outside of my friend’s bedroom door the next day and would lock her in there if she didn’t fall in line and do what she was told.
As sick as this made my friend feel, she rationalized that she could cope with it because at least nobody was touching her. Yet. It all started when a friend of Nadine’s flirted with my friend at one of the parties. My friend was confused and frightened that an adult man was saying those things to her, and went upstairs to hide in her room and try to sleep. Later that night, the same man from earlier crept into bed with her. She screamed for Nadine and pushed past him to try to go downstairs and get help, but her door wouldn’t open. She later learned that night was the first time that Nadine had allowed someone to sexually assault her for money. Nadine told her it was all a bad dream.
My friend went from having straight A’s to barely ever showing up to school, falling asleep in class and never bothering to turn in her homework. She recalls a time when she came close to confiding in a concerned teacher, but this teacher began to get frustrated with my friend’s silence and threatened to call home. This only made my friend shut down all-together and make up some lies to placate the teacher and convince her that everything was just fine at home, thank you very much. In such situations where the abuse is originating from within the family, calling home is not a solution and could very well only put the child in even more danger.
Although she was once passionate about learning, my friend didn’t care about school anymore after a certain point. She didn’t even think she would make it to sixth grade- she was already plotting ways to commit suicide because she saw no other way out of what was happening to her. When she got home from school, she would be locked in her room immediately and various men would be let in and locked in with her. My friend’s only solace was writing on the walls in her closet as a distraction when she was all alone. She would often write stories about animals going on adventures to far away places. My friend quickly developed dissociation as a way to mentally check out from what she could not physically escape.
Due to the combination of dissociating from the trauma and being force-fed alcohol and drugs, my friend has fragmented memories of what transpired over the next two years. She remembers that much of those blocked out years took place in her bedroom, but there were times when she was taken to other houses. She remembers one with a camera set up on a tripod and toy trucks and cars scattered all over. Between breaking her spirit and threatening the people she loved, Nadine to convinced my friend to keep quiet. She told her that she was a bad little girl and an alcoholic and no one would ever believe her. This went on for two years. Things finally ended when another family member accidentally stumbled upon incriminating photos and text messages on Nadine’s cell phone, and pulled my friend aside and found undeniable evidence of severe physical abuse on her body. This relative alerted her parents and Nadine was thrown out of the house immediately. My friend has never been able to talk with her parents about the fact that her own half-sister sold her off to be sexually abused and assaulted more times than she could even count. She let her parents think that the full extent of the abuse was physical and emotional. She couldn’t even begin to comprehend the reality of the sexual abuse that had happened to her during those two years.
Everything changed in her early twenties when someone came into her life and cultivated with an open heart and gentle hands a safe space in which she could share her story- all of her stories, even and especially the ones that hurt too much to ever tell anyone else. She felt released from her shame and fear when she opened up to this person. It took her a while to be able to carry the weight of being a victim of not only sexual abuse but also human trafficking specifically. But the person she confided in made sure that she knew none of this was her fault and gently helped her to understand that even though she hadn’t left her country or even her state, even though her trafficker was female and a family member, that she was still a victim of human trafficking, forced into prostitution as a child. Now that my friend has been able to begin the process of coming to terms with what happened to her during those years, she wants more than anything to help others to recognize the warnings signs of a potential human trafficking victim. There are a lot of eye-opening lists of red flags readily available online, but they tend to be more geared toward situations where the trafficker is not a relative, and the abuse is not coming from inside your own home. My friend wants to stress that these things by themselves aren’t necessarily warning signs- however, in the larger context of a situation where something is wrong, many of those warning signs will be clustered together. Here is what my friend wishes somebody in her life had known to look out for:
•Locks/deadbolts on the outside of doors in the home
•Alcohol and drug use at a very young age, including coming to school intoxicated or hungover
•Rarely if ever allowed to have visitors at home or to go anywhere with anyone else
•Constantly getting new cell phones and changing phone numbers
•Acting out at school- short temper and/or emotional outbursts and aggression towards other students/teachers
•Frequent absences from school
•Unexplained injuries such as bruises, cuts, burns, welts
•Wearing long sleeved shirts or sweaters even in very hot weather
•Exhibiting hyper vigilant behavior and paranoia
•Deep mistrust and fear of adults, especially those in authority positions
•May brag about having or making a lot of money, but is clearly not in control of said money and does not have access to it
•Isolating themselves from other students/peers
•Socializing mostly with much older children and adults instead of children their own age
•Gaslighting- seeing someone’s own memory and experiences constantly invalidated and questioned, changing details of stories often
•Speech around family members appearing to be scripted, very tense and anxious around some or all family members
Thank you for taking the time to listen to my friend’s story.
According to statistics based on data released through The Counter-Trafficking Data Collaborative, almost half of all identified cases of child trafficking begin with some sort of family involvement. I believe that we are all capable of spreading awareness and taking action on some level. As the conversation about human trafficking grows, I hope to see that additional information turned into action. I would like to see teachers and other authority figures trained to spot the signs of trafficking, and given tangible resources to any potential victims in such a way that won’t further endanger them.
I implore you to do your own research on what signs to look out for- the living situations in which trafficked children find themselves in are as diverse as the victims themselves. This article was intended to shine a light on some of the overlooked signs that someone may be being trafficked by family members in their household. Anyone- of any gender, age, race, ethnicity, socio-economic background- is susceptible to human trafficking. There is no such thing as an unlikely victim. It can happen to anyone. And while that is a harrowing reality, awareness coupled with action can quite literally save a life. If you have any ideas of your own on how to spread awareness and inspire action to help survivors of human trafficking as well as preventing new victims, please comment on this post. We are stronger together.