It's time for our September issue of In The Know: A Survivor's Perspective. This month we are featuring Raquel Goodwin's words and perspective on where we can improve as a movement to end human trafficking.
There is so much good work being done in the anti-trafficking movement. But there are some places where we actually risk doing more harm than good.
I wear the title of survivor, because every day I choose to not just live … but thrive in the face of opposition. I serve as a beacon of light for fellow humans — fellow humans who, in order to survive, have embraced the idea that there is no way out of “the life.” There is no hope.
I want to make something very clear to you: they are watching. I know this, because I see it, and because I used to watch, too. I hear it in conversations with my friends who are still in “the life.” They can see that I still bear the stigma of “victim” and that, unlike when I was living “the life,” I am financially struggling. Try explaining to a subculture whose core creed is “money over everything” that their guiding “truth” is, in fact, a big fat lie. You can't; you have to show them. They have to see it to believe it, because the culture we live in today widely supports this belief that money is LIFE. Just listen to the radio or watch TV for an hour for proof. Why do you think “the life” is called “the life?” One reason: It’s our philosophy and theory on how to achieve and be successful at life. Those deeply-rooted beliefs have to be exposed as untruth in order for restoration to begin, and that realization takes time.
So, how can you help expose truth and put an end to commercial exploitation and sex trafficking? There isn't an easy answer. This is an extremely complex issue. We could start by strengthening aftercare services and listening to individual needs. Why you say? Because a complex issue does not cease being a complex issue once the recovery process starts … and because our friends are watching. Yep. They are listening, too. I can tell you that I have many friends who are currently in the lifestyle. Many of them don’t identify as victims of crime or as people who are being trafficked (or who have been trafficked in the past). And you know what? I didn't see myself that way either. It wasn't until I went through an intense one-year recovery and then one year of aftercare five years ago that I was able to see through a different lens and embrace the truth for myself. You can count on them (all of us) wanting and striving for a better quality of life. Together, we can demonstrate that a better quality of life is achievable, and it’s worth the effort. By building up and out from a strong foundation of hope, we create an environment that will organically expose their truth. By fully supporting and empowering those beacons of light — those who have made it out — we can't lose. It’s a win/win. I would also like to emphasize the key word empower. Read empower as if it’s resounding through thousands of megaphones. Now, I understand empowering others is not as glamorous and heroic as we want rescuing to be. This is no fairy tale. It doesn't fit into the fancy catered "awareness" event where you get your picture and name printed and then mentioned in little gold stars. Nor does it feed the anti-trafficking community coalition monster all the glory it needs. I see you and the work you’re doing. I hear you. Do you hear me? Not many want to come forward and be identified as a poor helpless victim. And that creates a big problem.
Wanna hear my life story? Here we go. My identity is not the outcome of someone's deviant behavior. The End.
So, please stop projecting it on me. Every time you decide that you want to "rescue" and "fix" me or try and figure out what a "victim" looks or acts like, I am subjected to yet another person trying to take my power and choice away. I didn't have the choice to be subjected to someone else's deviant behavior, but I do have the choice how I live my life after the fact. So, don't take that choice away from me. I have basic fears, needs and wants just like you. I also have the choice to shrink back or rise above, just like you. Sometimes I take a step back, but I choose to rise again; I choose to speak up (even when my voice shakes); I choose to be honest; I choose to be vulnerable; I choose to be authentic; I choose to be conscious; I choose to be brave, awake and alive in the face of opposition (aka life). This is my truth. This is how you can help me in the process. Stop trying to dictate when, how or what that process and journey is supposed to look like. I don't want, nor am I asking for sympathy. But over and over again, I ask for opportunities to thrive. To build. To rebuild. To empower others. Do you hear me? Oppression looks like an unequal power balance, and I look at it dead in its face every meeting that I'm surrounded by unhealthy rescuing, saving and being your “voice for the voiceless" cause. Feel called to save people but don't know what to do? How about: We can all save precious time by handing over the mic. We are here. Thanks in advance.
Next: Exploitation. Let's talk about it. It happens in churches. It happens at the end of your camera and the mic you hold to my mouth to share my sensationalized testimony as the donation basket is passed for the church. It also happens when people decide that you are "helping" or “working with” a survivor(s) without their consent or knowledge. This is a direct violation of human rights and is very manipulative. Even if you don’t mean for it to be. So many people want to mentor and help a survivor simply to say they did so! I have to be honest here: I can smell you from miles away, and it really stinks.
More on exploitation: Exploitation can happen when you get involved in the human trafficking movement, because it’s the hot topic of the moment (and when you get more support for your business and or organization by being involved). Check your motives, People! Why is it that literally everyone and their grandma has taken Human Trafficking 101 and are now fully-equipped and certified to mentor and walk closely with people who have suffered from lifelong complex trauma, yet, professional resources and aftercare services are hard to find? There is a very fine, and dangerous, line between helping, loving and co-dependency. Walking the wrong side of that line can lead to re-exploitation, not to mention masses of unequipped people who are beyond burnout. What good does it do for those who are helping to adopt the same “there’s no hope” lie as those they’re trying to help?! More accountability is greatly needed in the anti-trafficking movement. I’m asking for it now, more like yesterday. This is my plea.
Telling my story is not my obligation to help you become aware of sex trafficking, nor is it going to help you understand the why commercial exploitation happens … but doing something about what has failed us will. You say, “Well, how can I help, then?” I'm so glad you asked. A few tips: Exploiters are masters at manipulating, and they are experts at (1) identifying even the smallest crack in the foundation and (2) making it bigger for their gain. They are pros. You might know one. Or two. Exploiters believe in equal opportunity.
So how do we counter or, better yet, prevent these premeditated attacks? You become a bonafide expert at finding the cracks, and you strengthen them. You adopt and/or mentor teens and teen moms (but leave mental health counseling to the pros, please). You empower your fellow sisters; you build strong healthy relationships; you build inclusive tribes; you stop stigmatizing people who "choose" the adult entertainment industry. You invite your neighbors to your house for dinner, especially the single mamas! You create and support single mom groups.
I encourage you to get to know what systems are broken, which structures have obviously failed and how you can strengthen those. You can most definitely become an expert in these areas. Study up on legislation and policy. Become a certified health professional and then volunteer or gift your professional services. This next one is greatly needed: be a legit friend. They are rare. Fight for equality, for livable wages, for higher education, stronger communities, stronger families, role models … most importantly, just love, love, love. Isn't that what we all really want and need? Can we link arms? We are stronger together. Let's create an environment where we all can grow and learn from each other … where I am confident in knowing I can achieve the better quality of life you say is out there for me. And maybe through that journey, I can show you what it looks like to be brave.
We’ve come a long way in fostering survival, but there’s still so much listening and learning to be done. I choose to be known as a survivor not because at one point in time I was a helpless victim. No, I choose to be seen and known as a survivor, because every day I make the choice to be present, look adversity in its ugly face and show it who's boss. The voiceless have voices, and we are not asking for your sympathy; we are asking for opportunities to thrive. When will you hear us?