Sex Trafficking Survivors Speak Out At UN Panel



“Today, my name is not ‘victim.’ My name is not ‘survivor.’ My name is Rachel. I am beautiful. I am thriving. I am Rachel.”

“She spent some three months in detention for the crimes that had been committed against her.” Lisa Williams was recounting the story of the 10 year-old sex trafficking victim who inspired her to found Living Water for Girls, a refuge for such victims, in Atlanta, GA. 

Williams, a sex trafficking survivor herself, spoke alongside other survivors and activists at the United Nations in New York Friday on the panel “Unfinished Business from the Beijing Platform for Action: American Girls Speak Out Against Commercial Sexual Exploitation” as part of the UN Commission on the Status of Women. 

“Most of the young women and boys I have worked with don’t know they’re victims,” she said. Rachel, one survivor Williams has worked with, was also on the panel. Rachel’s story is behind the hashtag #IAmRachel, which recognizes that anyone could have been in her situation. 

“I was afraid, afraid to breathe, afraid to rest, afraid to trust, afraid to be seen, afraid to dream. But no more. I see myself in a new light,” Rachel said of her recovery from the sex trade.

“Today, my name is not ‘victim.’ My name is not ‘survivor.’ My name is Rachel. I am beautiful. I am thriving. I am Rachel.”

Williams echoed Rachel’s call to view survivors as more than their past: “I want you to know first and foremost they’re individuals. They’re someone’s daughter, they’re someone’s son, they have family, they have worth, they’re not your charity case.” She asked the audience, “Are you more than your experiences?”

After a resounding “yes,” she responded, “Don’t make yourself feel good by calling us survivors.” Instead, she would prefer people refer to Rachel and the other survivors she knows by saying, “I know a powerful young woman.”

Rachel’s Law, a safe harbor law based on Rachel’s testimonies that would have required traffickers in Georgia to register as sex offenders and pay a fine to help victims, just passed in the Senate but not in the House. Georgia, like many U.S. states to varying extents, still allows sex trafficking victims to be treated as prostitutes even when they are below the age of consent.

Carol Smolenski and Genna Goldsobel from ECPAT USA, a non-profit aimed at passing safe harbor laws in states across the country, also spoke. Goldsobel, ECPAT’s Youth Outreach Manager, said incorrect notions about sex trafficking often stand in the way of reform. “We have these common misconceptions based on movies such as Taken that these girls get kidnapped, thrown into beds, put into brothels, handcuffed to the beds. That’s not what it looks like here in the U.S.” 

Author, speaker, and survivor Holly Austin Smith, who moderated the panel, explained that sex traffickers in the U.S. usually manipulate emotionally or financially vulnerable children into complying with them. In Smith’s case, a man approached her at a New Jersey mall when she was a depressed teen and had recently been sexually assaulted multiple times. A different man who pretended to be the one from the mall befriended her over the phone, made her feel like someone in the world finally understood her, and said she could pursue her dream of becoming a dancer if she ran away with him. 

“At age 14, I was called a willing victim by law enforcement and social services because I didn’t run away from my trafficker,” she recalled. “When I was arrested and had therapists try to convince me I was a victim, I couldn’t wrap my brain around that.”

Smith added that traffickers are often family members children cannot run away from, and that her book, Walking Prey, exposes “cases where children were trafficked by their fathers, and some by their mothers, and one case where she was trafficked by her grandmother.”

“When I say ‘trafficking in the U.S.,’ people are confused,” Goldsobel said after the event. But once she explains what trafficking actually looks like, men and women alike are eager to help. 

Goldsobel added that using the right language can help dispel the notion that victims are in the sex trade voluntarily. When children are described as victims of trafficking, “your heart and soul would go out to them,” but when they are described as prostitutes, “we lose that sympathy.” Amber Edwards, a student involved in the Girls Against Trafficking Club at St. Joseph High School in Brooklyn, said that learning about trafficking in school “changed my perspective on what human trafficking was because I thought trafficking was by choice.”

Williams said another misconception about sex trafficking is that traffickers are all black men wearing gold chains. “I don’t know who here in this room is a trafficker,” she said. “There are women and there are men and sometimes they are juveniles as well.” Smolenski, ECPAT USA’s Executive Director, recounted a visit to a school in Brooklyn for rehabilitating Johns. The students came from such diverse backgrounds that the lessons were all taught in multiple languages.

Another obstacle to justice for trafficking victims is that those who know the perpetrators tend to look the other way. “There are people demanding children for profit,” Williams reminded the audience. “And those who are demanding it often are our husbands and our brothers.”

Educating people about the reality of sex trafficking in the U.S. can help those who are vulnerable prevent their own victimization: “Recently, we had a student who was approached by a trafficker through a modeling agency, and with the knowledge from the [Girls Against Trafficking] Club, she knew how to get out of that situation,” Edwards said. 

As this story demonstrates, education can help prevent sex trafficking. Ayana Gay, President of St. Joseph’s Girls Against Trafficking Club, advocated the use of social media, writing, and word of mouth to spread awareness. “It takes one person to say something,” she said, and if you can get someone involved, “we’re just one step closer to ending sex trafficking.”

“In the 90s, we had to move this giant rock up a mountain because nobody was talking about it,” Smolenski said after the event. But since the early days of ECPAT, she has seen a huge increase in awareness. 

“These ladies are the face of prevention,” Goldsobel said. “The only thing we have to do is speak up about it.”

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