We mean well. We don’t intend to be insensitive. But sometimes our words are still hurtful to those who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation. With the help of some people who’ve felt the effect of unintentionally damaging words first-hand, we’ve created this list so we can better communicate love to these individuals.
1). “What was it like when (insert painful detail I shared) happened? Tell me more.”
This is one of the most uncomfortable things you could ask me. On one hand, I’m glad you listened to me. On the other hand, your question feels intrusive. I’ve shared exactly as much detail with you as I wanted to, and I’m probably feeling vulnerable and raw. Instead, thank me for sharing. Encourage me. Or just smile and let me know you care.
2). “But you were born in America! I thought sex trafficking only happened in poor, third-world countries.”
The exploitation of vulnerable populations isn’t unique to one part of the world. Yes, it even happens here in America. If you’re shocked that commercial sexual exploitation happens in your city and state, say that! Don’t use me to verbally process this newly discovered reality.
3). “I can’t believe that happened to you.”
It might not be your intention, but you are communicating disbelief about my painful experiences. Most survivors spend years finding their voices. Many of us battle daily with feeling like we won’t be believed and that our voices don’t matter. Instead, if you’d like to express your heartbreak, I welcome hearing “I’m so sorry,” or “I am devastated to learn that these things happen in our world. Thank you for sharing.”
4). “But you’re white!” or “But you speak English!”
I cannot tell you how often I’ve heard this blurted out. Sexual violence and human trafficking know no racial or ethnic boundaries. Comments about a survivor’s ethnicity, race, culture, or country of origin are unhelpful and inadvertently send the message that exploitation is more acceptable for people of color.
5). “You don’t look like a prostitute; I would have never known.”
I don’t know what you expect me to say to this one. While this is probably intended as a compliment, it’s an awful thing to hear. What you’ve communicated is that society places a divide between us: you’re the normal one, while I’m other, the damaged one. If people knew the real me, I would be defined only by what has happened to me.
6). “If it was so bad, why didn’t you leave?” Or “why didn’t you call the police?”
This question feels not only shaming, but it reveals how little you know about the dynamics of sex trafficking - the force, the fraud, the coercion. It shows you don’t understand the complexity of trauma, or the violence we might endure if we attempt to leave. I know it’s nearly impossible for you to put yourself in my shoes, but instead of subtly shifting blame to me, celebrate with me that I’m now free.
7). “God, (insert religious platitude).”
Religious platitudes are a no-no. These are statements that imply a specific belief system about how the world works and the interaction between good and evil. I’ve heard “Karma is going to come around to get your abusers,” “God turns all things out for good!,” and many others. That thought might bring you comfort, but unless you’ve got intimate knowledge of my personal beliefs, it’s best not to assume where I am in the process of reconciling the spiritual implications of my experiences. However, brief, kind, and neutral words such as, “I’ll say a prayer for you,” “Sending you positive thoughts,” and “May God bless you” are some of my favorite things and communicate that you wish me well.
8). “Hey! I recognize you from that event (or conversation) where you spoke about your childhood and sex trafficking!”
If you run into me outside the specific venue in which I’ve chosen to share my story, please don’t intrude. Even if you mean well and want to thank me for sharing my story, you’ve interrupted me at a moment when I might not be ready to wade into my pain. Take a moment to put yourself in my shoes. I’m a human being with dignity, just like you. Do you want one of your most shame-filled memories broadcast to all the other parents at the park, your boss, or the waiter bringing your meal? It’s my choice when, where, and with whom I share my story.
9). “Is ____ your real name?” or “can I get your contact information?”
When I’m speaking at a venue, I’ve decided what I’m willing to share. If I choose to use a pseudonym or do not provide contact information, it is because I didn’t want to give out personal details. By asking for my real name or my contact information, you’re invading my privacy. I’ve worked incredibly hard to feel empowered and free to use my voice again; don’t use your voice to silence my choices. If there’s a legitimate reason or opportunity you’d like me to know about, contact the event coordinator who can ask me directly, so I don’t feel pressured to make a rash decision.
10). “Would you come and speak at my event for free?”
While most people would not be so direct, many people ask me to share my story without compensating me. Unless I offer, asking me to work for free is another form of exploitation. Instead, consider me like any keynote speaker and offer a fair amount. I’m reasonable and want to help, but I have bills too.
Note from Bridget: I wrote this blog with my dear friend, a survivor of sex trafficking. We want to honor the voices of several other women who contributed their voices and experiences to this conversation. We are grateful for their powerful contributions.