I glimpsed the post on the tail end of the Monday that involved a heavy dose of hearing about my girls’ sadness and pain: gang rapes, attacks, black eyes, homelessness, sleeplessness, weighted hearts and tough roads.
“Enslaved.” That choice of words, though… I didn’t relate to it.
I work in an anti-trafficking organization with girls and young women who experience various forms of exploitation in the commercial sex industry, including prostitution and pornography. Yet, “enslaved,” sounded empty and unreal.
At the end of a day filled with the brutal reality of trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation, the word “enslaved” felt foreign. I mean, what does that really mean, “modern day slavery”?
None of the 40+ girls on my caseload would call themselves a “slave.”
Exploited. Perhaps. Slave? Never.
Yet, as I thought about the word, “enslaved,” I thought about how people in my demographic (middle/upper class, educated, career-oriented professionals), could relate to my girls, the so-called “enslaved.” How many of you, reading this, would consider yourself a slave?
Few, perhaps. But you are a slave, if we are to use the word so liberally. You are a slave to your lifestyle, to the home you go back to each day, to the people you love, to warms meals, to your job, to the check that deposits into your bank account on payday, to the career you’ve crafted, to the family you’ve built, to the person you’ve fallen in love with, to the network of friends that support and encourage you.
You’re a slave in that you wouldn’t want to go without those things. You wouldn’t walk away from your home and choose the streets on these cold January nights; you wouldn’t say no to a warm meal when your stomach is empty; you would not abandon your job and income because it is your livelihood; not to mention, on a hard day, you would wrap yourself in the love of people that care about you. All these things sustain you.
You couldn’t live without a home, food, love. If you found yourself without those things, you would find yourself scared, vulnerable, lost. So, you find a way to get those things. The privilege is that you have something to help you secure those things, whatever it is, be it education, socioeconomic status, family, friends, or something else… Something gives you a leg up, so you are not on the streets, you are not starving, you are not alone, you are not exposed to the reality of domestic sex trafficking and the commercial sexual exploitation.
Now, imagine. Imagine poverty. Imagine heartbreak, abuse, terrifying trauma and chronic instability. Imagine homelessness. Imagine abusive love, no support.
Imagine a 16-year-old who has spent her entire life moving from homeless shelter to homeless shelter, hurt, and bumped in and out of the foster care system who meets a man who says, “I love you. I can provide for you.” (What if you’d never heard that before?)
Imagine being let down – or worst, blamed and/or criminalized – by everyone around you, including social workers, doctors, caseworkers, lawyers, and others in supposed “helping” professions. Imagine a grown-up smiles and says, “I can help. I will be there for you.”
Imagine needing the things you take for granted: a bed, fast food, new clothes, a phone, a friend.
A 12-year-old being sold for sex? Her slavery is the same as yours: she needs a safe place to stay, food to eat, someone to love her.
The slavery in our world is being a slave to love and needing it, a slave to hunger, a slave for a place to sleep, a slave to hope (that if I do this tonight I won’t have to do it again tomorrow), a slave to needing stability, a slave to needing healing.
In this way, the word “enslaved” just means being human. We all are desperate to be loved, fed, healed.
I hear these things every week:
“Where else can I go?”
“I love him.”
“After I was raped, I didn’t care what happened to me”
“I feel broken.”
“I am so tired of being alone.”
“I have to find a way.”
“I need a place to stay.”
“I feel abandoned.”
“I am so tired.”
You are not actually a slave. Nor is she. Needing a place to stay, needing love, needing food does not make you a slave.
Yet, “21-36 million people are enslaved worldwide.” That word, though. “Enslaved.”
What “enslaved” really means is at least 21-36 million people are oppressed, rejected, abandoned, brutalized by the world we live in and cast aside. They are vulnerable in the same ways every human being alive is vulnerable when it comes to love, home, hope, stability and healing. This is not a unique human struggle.
Trafficking is the result of the most age-old, classic, real, tragic, human struggle in the world. It is circumstances of abuse, poverty, mental illness, substance use, homelessness…. children and young people who look for love and find manipulation, who look for help and find a pimp, who run away and find shelter in the lies of an exploiter. The struggle is this: we need to make ends meet, be fulfilled, be whole, be stable, be supported, and find healing, understanding, and hope. That is all this so-called “slavery” is about.
What is tragic is that we sensationalize and distance ourselves from the exploitation by using words like “slavery” and “trafficking.” It makes it seem global and un-combatable, to talk about commercial sexual exploitation like it happens in shadows, chains, other countries, and dark alleys. It is much harder to palate the fact that this exploitation happens to children that sit in our public schools, grow up in neighborhoods in New York City, and stay in the youth shelter in Times Square. We don’t want to sit next to the problem and take their rapes home with us at night. We don’t want to look critically at the entire system that fails these young people.
We have to criticize the failings of our entire social, economic and political system, the oppression and oversight that allows the entire issue to occur and continue to thrive in the very streets we walk every day.
When I first started my job working on trafficking in New York City, I left every day at work in a vague, numb cloud where I felt that I could not relate to anyone around me. I felt that not a single person I passed on the street, not a single person I sat beside on the subway knew what I heard that day, understood what happened in their city that day. I felt like if they knew of the rapes and brutalization of children and teenage girls, they wouldn’t be sitting so still and so focused on their destination. They would be crying out, screaming, raising fists. I imagined.
I slowly got through the initial culture shock of leaving work every day, how it felt to walk into a world that didn’t understand the reality of trafficking. But at the end of a Monday in January, after listening to a day’s worth of assault, abandonment, pain, and looking into the eyes of tough children who tear up when they trust you, when a powerhouse organization like Clinton Global Initiative posted about trafficking and used the word “enslaved,” I couldn’t stay in my cloud, accepting that the world wouldn’t “get it.”
She’s no more a slave than you are. In fact, you are perhaps more the slave, if you have chained yourself to a contentment that absolves yourself of responsibility for her pain, her need. If you have chosen to accept poverty, homelessness, child pornography, hunger, prostitution, the education system, the welfare system, and foster care, social services, and essentially, America as it is, then you are slave to blindness, complacency and ignorance.