I spent my childhood being trafficked for sex. When I was five years old, I was raped by my stepfather and uncle. Soon, my stepfather began to pass me around to his friends. This quickly escalated into strangers paying my stepfather for time with me and eventually being sold to a larger client base across multiple states. My days were lived in sleazy motel rooms, in strange cars, and in the brief breaks between the pain. My life was numbered in how many men he would force me to service each day and the hours spent making his child porn movies and pictures. I didn’t know any life other than being perpetually exploited and abused. I had no dignity and no hope.
At age ten, I went into the foster care system for the first time. I was raped my first night at my first placement. For years I bounced around between different foster care situations and my mother’s (and stepfather’s) custody. Men continued to use me and take advantage of me. It seemed like no matter where I turned, I was raped and treated as a sexual commodity. I was numb from the years of pain and abuse.
I couldn’t imagine my life being any different. I saw other people living lives that weren’t marked by rape and abuse. Theoretically, I understood that it was possible for a person to exist without being a sexual commodity. But I didn’t know how to make that happen for me. It was as though these other people had some basic level of humanity that I hadn’t been granted. I lived in the world of Money-For-Sex and spoke only that language. People who didn’t live in that world were speaking a foreign language I had no hope of understanding. I desperately wished for another life, but knew it was some unattainable dream. Being prostituted for years crushed my soul, seemingly beyond repair. Being raped and harmed was all I knew.
Even after my circumstances changed and I was no longer being bought by men, my life was still in shambles. I hadn’t learned healthy self care skills or how to engage in positive relationships. I was driven and motivated to fight for my new life, but lacked a vision or roadmap for where I was going. In many ways, I was just as lost as I was before. I knew that God was real, but didn’t understand why he was relevant to my life. My grief over what I’d been through was always lurking just under the surface of my frantic attempts to manage my life. I lived in fear of what others would think when they learned my story. I was ashamed and anxious about my history. I simultaneously wished I was invisible and desperately ached to be known. Loneliness and fear consumed me. My husband knew the vague details of my painful history, but I couldn’t fight through my blind panic to allow him to actually know me. Even though he never raped or abused me, I was terrified of trusting him. We were still newlyweds, yet it seemed as though we were simultaneously strangers and enemies.
Through the fog of my pain, a single ray of light and hope burst through: Love. Love trickled into my life slowly, eventually turning into a flood that saturated every part of my being. My husband tempered his frustrated outbursts into loving efforts to listen. Accepting that he loved me as a person and didn’t see me as a commodity was transformational. There was a moment at the beginning of my healing process when I sat in my pastor’s office, grasping my husband’s hand for courage as I shared a broken piece of my heart and story. I watched a tear stream down my pastor’s cheek as he kept eye contact with me and carefully listened to my faltering words. It hit me in that moment: This is how God sees me. He sees my pain and weeps with me. I’m not invisible or insignificant to him.
I slowly accepted the truth that God loves me. I am his precious daughter. I’m not a prostitute. I am a survivor, not a victim. I’ve endured a mountain of pain and suffering, but I have survived. I have dignity and worth as a human being. Even though I often feel very weak and small, I know I am brave and strong.
It has taken an army of people to help me build a new life, far removed from the world of Money-For-Sex. Faithful friends surround me, offering both practical help and encouragement. A wise couple have become mentors and parent figures to me, lavishing unconditional love on me and my family. Another dear couple have become my older brother and sister, offering their listening ears and thoughtful counsel. A series of therapists and counselors have helped me understand the impact of complex PTSD on my body and mind, trained me in survival skills, and offered wisdom specific to my situation. My doctors help provide cohesive physical care to complement my emotional and mental healing. Solid legal advice has helped me untangle some complexity that remains from my past. I’ve been fortunate to have pastors that remind me of God’s love for me and the hope that is available to me as his precious daughter.
I begin to choke up with tears when I remember all of my helpers - the people who cheer me on, love me, and hope the best for me when I run out of strength to hope for myself. My helpers aren’t people with Christian platitudes, trite sayings, or judgemental attitudes. They are fellow imperfect human beings who don’t pretend they have all the answers. I’ve often been challenging to love, which makes it all the sweeter when people persevere in relationship with me.
I read this quote about love a few years ago and it has stuck with me.
“Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” -Fred Rogers
Over the course of my life, I’ve been horrifically harmed at the hands of other people. I find it humbling and beautiful to realize that I’ve also received incredible love and help from the hands of other people. Accepting kindness from others who respect my humanity heals deep wounds on my heart. Love doesn’t exist in a vacuum or in isolation. Love happens in connection and relationship with God and other people.
Healing my soul has been a slow journey. It’s not over yet. Even though I’ve come so far, my soul is still deeply scarred. Most days, I battle discouragement, isolation, and anxiety. Even though I have a new life and can stumble through learning a new language and skills, it requires all of my focus and determination. I need to cling to Jesus to give me the courage to face the day and get out of bed each morning. Life is often hard and full of challenges. Because of my story, I struggle to feel like I fit in with decent society. In the past month, I’ve been both gaped at and marginalized because of my history.
It still seems surreal as I look around my safe home at my husband and children. I can’t wrap my head around living in a place and with people where I’m not worried about being physically harmed. Is this real? Will this new safe life last, or will I get sucked back into misery?
But through it all and in the midst of my doubts, I can cling tightly onto love and hope. Love is what God feels for me. Love is embodied in the dear people who fill my life. Love anchors me in the light and assures me I won’t be swept back into terror and darkness.
If you are a survivor of sex trafficking or prostitution, know you are not alone. You are not defined by what happened to you or what you have done. You are God’s precious child. He loves you. There is hope. God will not abandon you to be destroyed by evil or consumed by your pain.
If you are stumbling along, trying to build a new life and often feel like you are lost, there is STILL hope. Jesus loves you, even when you feel like a failure. He cares that you hurt and grieves over what happened. Cling tightly to the love you find in the midst of your struggle.
The wreckage from sex trafficking is vast. It is as though a powerful bomb goes off, crumbling a giant mountain all around you. You’re standing there bloodied and weak, perhaps trapped under some debris. There are large boulders blocking your way every where you turn. It’s not an overnight process to rebuild your life and find a path that leads into the light.
Love shines a light into the darkness and grabs your hand to guide you to safety. Love stays by your side and won’t abandon you. Love listens. Love is patient and compassionate. There is hope because there is love. “Love is patient, love is kind. … It is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered… [Love] always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”-1 Corinthians 13:4-8
*While Mia’s words are her own, her name has been changed to respect her privacy. Thank you, Mia for your courageous and tender words. You’re an inspiration.