The Truth About the Sex Trade: Exit Ramps from “the Life”

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The Life Story: Moments of Change is a groundbreaking website and film project supported by NoVo Foundation that shines a light on the stories and experiences of women in the sex trade—also referred to as “the Life.” Their goal is to provide better solutions that can prevent all girls and all women, cis, trans, and gender non-conforming, from being exploited in the first place and raise awareness around the issue so that better resources can be put in place to help women exit the Life.

Throughout this series, we have looked at different stages of girls and women in the sex trade, starting with childhood vulnerabilities leading to the Life, entry into the sex trade, and the harsh daily realities of surviving in the Life.

In this fourth and final article in this series, we’ll look at exiting the Life. What are the possible exit ramps for women in the sex trade? What challenges do they face as they try to navigate their exit? And what services and resources do they need in order to make their exit not only possible but permanent?  

I had the privilege of interviewing women who have exited the Life who helped shed light on the unique challenges and needs a woman has when trying to leave the Life. Many of these women have gone on to be advocates for girls and women who need help doing the same. Their stories are a testament to the fact that although it isn’t easy, it can be done.

There are many factors that may prevent a woman from being able to leave the Life. To begin with, her exploiter will have cut her off from any possible support system so she has no one to turn to for help. She also may have a lack of education, few marketable skills, no job history, no credit, and no savings. She may not even have identification. And if she has a criminal record related to being in the Life (which many women do), it will greatly limit her options for finding a job or housing.  

As Quintecia, a survivor, advocate and service provider put it, “If it was easy, everyone would leave this life in a heartbeat.”

Improve Social Systems

“If someone had said ‘I can help you,’ I would have taken it….but it wasn’t offered.”  — Andrea, Survivor and Advocate

A girl or woman who is vulnerable to sexual exploitation often encounters a variety of social systems throughout her experience: child welfare, school, foster care, medical care, the juvenile justice system and many others. Although these systems are meant to be safety nets, unfortunately many girls and women end up entering the sex trade, or staying stuck in the sex trade, because of moments when these systems fail them and opportunities for intervention are missed.  

Jeri, an Indigenous Survivor and Service Provider, described her experiences with multiple social systems: “I was a prostituted child. I was interfacing with law enforcement. I went to juvenile detention. I had over eighteen emergency room visits. I was a child. I was walking on the streets. You could tell I looked young. I should have been in school. People knew that I was a prostituted child, but they looked the other way. I was in the ER eighteen times and no one ever asked me if I was really okay.”

If these systems and their staff and practitioners were better trained and equipped to recognize girls and women who are vulnerable to entering the Life, or those who are already in the sex trade, they could step in to offer compassion, empathy, and access to resources to help shift her path.

In an effort to improve these social systems, The NoVo Foundation recently announced The Life Story Grants, a $10 million, 3-year commitment for programs—including Housing, Medical Needs, Law Enforcement, Trauma and Mental Health, Immigration, and Systems Impacting Youth—that will open exit ramps and close on-ramps to commercial sexual exploitation.

“System failures call for systems-based solutions to create lasting change—and that’s where we see an untapped opportunity for anyone who wants to improve the lives of marginalized girls and women,” says Pamela Shifman, executive director of the NoVo Foundation. “Practitioners in critical systems—like teachers, social workers, bus drivers, police officers, emergency room doctors, and immigration officials—come into contact with people in sexual exploitation every day. By offering compassion, resources, and opportunity, these practitioners can close an on-ramp to exploitation—or open an exit ramp.”

A large part of improving the various social systems lies in providing trauma-informed training for all service providers so that they can recognize the signs of sexual exploitation and respond with empathy and understanding instead of bias or judgment.

Kendra Harding, a licensed professional counselor for sexually-exploited women, stressed the need for “across-the-board training, so that people in the mental health field are trained, people in law enforcement are trained, people on state patrol are trained, first responders—people who are working in any type of direct contact. It is so necessary because I think if more people were aware, so many warning signs and red flags that people miss, could be picked up on so much faster.”  

Housing

“The need for housing is tremendous. There needs to be more transitional housing for when people are coming out of the Life as a space to learn the skills you need.” —Quintecia, Survivor, Advocate and Service Provider

Homelessness can be a factor that leads a women into the Life, but more importantly it is often the threat of losing housing that can keep her in the Life. How can she even consider leaving if she has nowhere to go?  

In order to begin healing from the trauma of life in the sex trade, women need a stable, safe place where they can start to rebuild their life, which makes housing one of the most crucial steps toward exiting the Life.

“We need to recognize that safe housing is one of the first steps that women need,” says Robin, a survivor leader and case manager. “Only then can she address her other needs like battling substance use, getting job training, getting counseling for complex trauma and applying to go back to school.”

But finding housing can be nearly impossible for a woman exiting the sex trade. Not only is there a scarcity of affordable and public housing, but there are often other obstacles in her way: lack of savings, lack of job skills, and a criminal record, just to name a few.  We need to change the policies and systems that keep housing out of reach and develop new, viable options for these women.

What would this look like? The creation of specialized shelters and transitional housing that not only offer a bed to sleep in but also provide long-term services—including mental health counseling, addiction services, job training, life skills and access to education or legal services—provided by trauma-informed practitioners who understand the unique needs of sexual exploitation victims. Also, increasing the availability of affordable long-term housing and making sure housing services don’t discriminate against women who have prostitution charges or other charges related to their trafficking experiences are needed.

“We desperately need housing options specific to this population,” says Robin. “We need transitional housing. We need short-term and long-term, supportive and subsidized housing so women can focus on developing life skills that will allow them to be self-sufficient. We need landlords willing to rent to women who have criminal records. We need housing in safe neighborhoods.”

She describes how improving housing options for women trying to exit the Life can make a world of difference: “I just helped place three trafficked women and their children into housing. They were staying in homeless shelters and fleeing violence. Now they are in two-bedroom subsidized units with parenting classes and job training on site. That is what women need.”

Survivor Mentorship and Leadership

“We are survivor-led. We are led by the people who have gotten out to help the people who are in.” — Quintecia, Survivor, Advocate and Service Provider

Survivors who have successfully exited the Life have a lot to offer in terms of becoming advocates for others, leading anti-trafficking efforts, and informing crucial changes to the system. One approach that has proven to be successful is having women who have exited the Life provide mentorship to those who need support as they try to navigate their own exit. In fact, most of the women’s voices included in this series are mentors or advocates for other women in the Life.

Not only does this provide an empowering, rewarding career path for the mentors who may otherwise have had limited job options, but it also provides the women trying to exit the Life with a support system—someone they can trust who truly understands what they’re going through and is living proof that a way out is possible.

Mike Gallagher, a police officer in the sex trafficking unit in Portland, Oregon, describes the mentorship programs as “invaluable.” “The thing about mentors as opposed to law enforcement is the women go and learn to trust them, and we don’t expect the mentors to give us back this confidential information,” he continues. “It’s a friend. It’s somebody that they can trust and talk to about things and know that it’s not being given back or spilled back to law enforcement. These people are here to help the victims and get them down that path.”

Roxanne, an Indigenous survivor and advocate who exited the Life and now works as an Outreach Coordinator for an anti-human trafficking organization, told me, “My life is so amazing right now. I am definitely empowered today and I am grateful for everything I survived to be able to be a voice for other indigenous women and girls.”  

Quintecia is also a survivor who has gone on to be an advocate and service provider for women in the sex trade and offers this reassuring message: “There is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Working Together with a Holistic Approach

“Working together is everything. Now is the time.”  — Roxanne, Indigenous Survivor and Advocate

There is no one thing that a woman needs to exit the sex trade; it’s a combination of different resources and services that collectively must meet all of her different needs along her exit ramp—from housing to legal services to trauma treatment to job training.

As The Life Story Grants recognize by seeking to fund system-focused strategies across six different social support areas, change takes the combined forces of many social systems. They all have the potential to be exit ramps if their policies, protocols and training reflect the needs of girls and women in the Life, and this can be achieved if they all work together.

As Kendra Harding put it: “We need to join together to support these girls and women in a holistic way. We will be missing the mark if we don’t support them with all of the things they need.” “I don’t think this issue, this movement, can be done alone,” she continues. “You need a multidisciplinary team. It takes everyone …whether that be mental health professionals, addiction counselors, police officers, lawyers, medical professionals, media, or survivor leadership. So many different avenues need to be on the same page, because just coming at it from a mental health lens or a case manager lens or a housing lens, it’s not encompassing everybody. Everyone needs to be at the table and everyone needs to have that conversation of how we can all work together as a community.”  

Survivor, advocate, and service provider Quintecia agrees: “This is a ‘we’ project, not a ‘me’ project. Together we can change the system and make it better.”  

I encourage you to visit thelifestory.org to learn more about the different ‘moments’ in the Life, and help raise awareness in your community about the realities of the sex trade. Visit http://novofoundation.org/thelifestorygrants to learn more about The Life Story Grants.

This article was co-authored by Angela Joshi.

About the Author: Marianne Schnall is a widely-published interviewer and journalist and author of ‘What Will It Take to Make a Woman President? Conversations About Women, Leadership & Power’. She is also the co-founder and Executive Director of the women’s website and non-profit organization feminist.com (http://www.feminist.com), and co-founder of  What Will It Take Movements(http://www.whatwillittake.com), a media, collaboration, learning, event and social engagement platform that inspires, connects, educates and engages women everywhere to advance in all levels of leadership and take action.  http://www.marianneschnall.com


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