Although I grew up in a community where I was exposed to societal ills, I still had a sense of normalcy. Daily witnessing violence against women and violence against people of color, all while walking past people high and/or drunk on my way to school taught me a lesson that was difficult to unlearn.
The lesson that I had to unlearn was that women and girls are commodities:
- that they can be bought and sold and it's okay;
- that resistance will only get you hurt;
- that the hurt you receive from resistance is deserved; you don't belong to you.
This lesson was taught to me through socialization. It was the water that I was swimming in. This lesson, this lie, almost cost me my life.
I was ten years old when I was first exposed to pornography. It would also be the 1st time that I saw up close and personal violence against women and girls. The world I knew was quickly transforming to a place that was unsafe for me in ways that were unimaginable to me before. Being a female, a girl of color, and impoverished were working against me.
At the age of fourteen, I was living with a man and three women. The women would go out nightly to the truck stops, and also be taken out of state to have sex with men. Two of the three women in my young mind, were addicts who were doing so willingly. The third woman had a baby. The man offered food, clothing, a place to live and protection. I was taken to truck stops with them. I was bought short skirts and lingerie and told how pretty I was. I was exposed to pictures of his genitalia, pictures of explicit sexual activities, and shown off to his friends.
No one had ever told me that human trafficking was real. No one had ever told me that I was a walking statistic, a living embodiment of risk factors for victimization. No one told me that I had value outside of my body.
One night, the woman with the baby came to me. She said, “You don’t want this. I don’t want this.” She asked me for directions; she wasn’t from the state. I gave her directions. She said, “Take care of my baby. I don’t know when I will return.” Days went by, she never returned. CPS removed the baby.
Weeks later he was arrested for setting one of the women on fire. My ignorance to the danger, to trafficking was almost my undoing.
I still live with the wounds of that time in my life. It is imperative that we assure that all people who are at risk for victimization are given accurate information, early and often. This means everyone must receive accurate and timely information. Perpetrators of trafficking and violence against women and children are predators who are seeking individuals who are vulnerable, accessible and lacking in credibility. We must create an environment where those who are most vulnerable are seen as valued members of society and not as complicit in their own victimization.
TAKE ACTION: Take 2 minutes to learn the risk factors and behavioral indicators of human trafficking. Armed with this knowledge, you might also save a life.
Chéree Thomas is a Program Manager with the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence. She has almost 20 years of experience in service provision and is the author of See Me for WhoI am.