During Human Trafficking Awareness Month, we’re giving a voice to survivors and those working on the front lines of trafficking. While we’re proud of the results of our tools to identify victims faster, we know that the issue doesn’t end there. The following post was written by Rebecca Bender, co-founder and CEO of the Rebecca Bender Initiative. She is an award-winning, internationally recognized speaker, author and Survivor Leader in the movement to eradicate modern day slavery.
Usually when I tell people I’m a survivor of human trafficking, they say “Oh, like the movie Taken?”
I think, well, kind of. Except I wasn’t pulled out by one leg while gripping at the carpet. My dad didn’t have a special set of skills to come find me. I definitely was not sold for a million dollars on a yacht. So no, not really like Taken at all.
But it’s interesting because we all do that — survivors included. We envision human trafficking in this little box, because of that one movie we saw that one time. As survivors, we grew up in the same culture as all of you, so we envision it the same way. What happens in Nigeria looks very different than it does in Cambodia, than it does in New York City, than it does in Atlanta.
According to a recent study by Polaris Project, there are twenty five different typologies of exploitation in the United States alone. So if we’re all only thinking of that one way, we’re going to miss the dozens of ways that it looks in our very own communities.
What trafficking looks like
I grew up in a small lumber town in Southern Oregon. I was an average girl, who had never been put in an “at-risk” youth category. I played varsity sports. I was on the honor roll. And I graduated a year early, accepted into Oregon State University. The summer after graduation, I got pregnant and I had to withdraw from my dorm room. I moved in with my parents and had my daughter, but I kept moving forward. I enrolled in community college as a single mom. After all of my friends that had gone off to university moved out of their dorm rooms, they invited me and my daughter to move in with them. I was really excited to get out of my small town.
I realized very quickly though that the vulnerabilities that I had growing up — even in a “good home” — were still there. My parents divorced when I was young and it was an ugly divorce. My mom became a single mom, but by high school things had started to turn around for me. When I went off to college and moved in with my friends, those same vulnerabilities resurfaced.
While all my friends were off doing what college kids do, I was the girl stuck at home with the kid. Until I met the most amazing man. He was funny and charming. He got to know my hopes, my dreams, and my fears. He slowly pushed the boundaries of hypersexuality in my life. After six months of dating, he invited us to move in with him.
See, trafficking is not always abductions. It’s a slow, gradual expansion of boundaries and an increase of trust. The day that my daughter and I arrived in Las Vegas — which is where he moved us to — he forced me into human trafficking. For nearly six years, I was sold between three different traffickers. There were three other women in the home with us and two children.
During that time, I was branded twice. Having two men tattoo their names on my back like a piece of cattle. My face had been broken in five places, I was hospitalized for dehydration and overexhaustion. And I had been to jail seven times.
But I was never kidnapped. Or duct-taped. Or locked in a room with a dirty mattress.
The reality is that my daughter may have gone to school with yours; I may have stood next to you in the grocery store line. And nobody ever noticed. Nobody ever noticed because we all envision that one way. I went through the thought of I got on the plane “willingly”. I got out of the car “willingly”. I didn’t fully understand the complexities of force, fraud and coercion played out in my everyday life.
Thankfully, in 2006 the federal investigators raided the home and in 2007, it allowed me and my daughter an eventual avenue for escape. But I can tell you that running was not the hard part. The hard part was choosing poverty. The hard part was starting over at 26, with an 8-year-old girl, being homeless. The hard part was having a criminal record, a huge gap in job history, and more trauma than any person should live with. The hard part was “what now?”. I escaped, yes, but now the journey began to figure out how to navigate this new world of normalcy with the same vulnerabilities that got me trafficked in the first place.
Creating a path to change
There are many facets to fighting the largest social justice issue of our time. There’s prevention and intervention for vulnerable kids that can lead to their escape. It’s about awareness in our different communities, so we can shift the perception of what trafficking looks like in your town. It’s training for those that have the opportunity to intercept and intervene with victims that are being trafficked.
But it’s also about restoration, trauma-informed care, policy reform, and job opportunities that communities can provide. It’s about advocacy and community support for survivors and our families. It’s all of us coming together, using our influence and our passions to truly make a difference in the lives of those in slavery across the world.
The Rebecca Bender Initiative was created to equip communities and professionals on how to identify and respond to human trafficking and to empower the survivors that live in those communities to be change agents and to elevate them to go after their dreams. If you want to change the lives of human trafficking women and children across America, please partner with us today and consider a one time or monthly contribution. rebeccabender.org
Organizations like the Rebecca Bender Initiative are working to provide survivors with much needed resources to aid in recovery and to reduce vulnerabilities that lead to re-victimization. Recovery is a journey, and one that requires support. Aftercare programs are severely underfunded in the US, if you can donate, it will make a difference.