In a few days I will join hundreds of anti-trafficking advocates at the United Nations to raise our voices in the fight against modern slavery. I worry the magnitude of our global cause sometimes obscures the depths of individual human suffering at stake here, but the youth of Covenant House never let me forget. That is especially true for Rose, whose name and small identifying information I am changing in this post to protect her privacy.
During the beatings over the six months she was forced to turn tricks on the street, Rose kept one innocent face in her mind -- her ten-year-old sister, nine years her junior. Day by day, the thought of her, "the sweetest little girl," kept her from giving up, while her pimp kept her under 24-hour surveillance and deprived her of food and of the medicine she needed to stay alive.
"That was my motivation -- I've got to get back to my little sister. That's my heart," she said.
Rose is now poised and unflappable as she tells the story of being kidnapped from a city street by two men. One had a gun and pistol-whipped a friend walking with her, the other pushed her in the car and punched her hard in the face. He was the one who became her pimp. She tried to call for help, only to watch them throw her phone out the window.
That first night, the pimp (I'll call him Sludge) took her to his grandmother's house. Rose thought maybe she could ask the older woman for help. Instead, after Sludge made Rose change into the kind of clothes a pimp would provide, he showed her to his grandmother, saying "So, how's this one?"
And the grandmother, aside from saying Rose needed a little more meat on her bones, approved. Rose remembers thinking, "Your grandmother's in on this?"
The violence continued that night. "I just kept crying and crying, and he punched me in the face. And I'd be crying harder after that, and he was beating me and saying, 'just shut up!' and I thought then I'm just going to keep getting beat, because I can't stop crying."
Soon, he took her to a distant, impoverished city, not realizing she had friends there.
Rose spiraled into a nightmare of exploitation, rape and servitude. The johns did not help her, as Sludge kept her in sight, and they never chose to notice that she was trapped. After one choked her for refusing a particular sex act, Sludge beat him up, and then proceeded to beat her as well. "You don't deny nothing," he told her.
She wanted to fight back, but he had threatened to kill her family. And he'd remind her he knew her address, and what her little sister looked like.
Sludge made sure his beatings never showed. He forced Rose to wear makeup to cover the purple splotches on her side. She remembers how she prayed, to get through her ordeals:
"'Lord please help me thru this day, put me under your wing, protect me right now, Lord.' I'd say that all the time, a silent prayer, to myself."
Sludge pushed her, making her sprain her ankle once, and dragged her by her hair until clumps of it came out, but none of the injuries required a doctor. That is, until she lapsed into a coma for a day, because Sludge wouldn't give her the seizure medicine she needed.
Rose thought the hospital would provide her a chance to break free. Sludge pretended to be her caring boyfriend, insisting on staying with her every minute. Rose tried to make eye contact with the nurses, and shake her head and silently plead for help, but it didn't work. Finally, after she'd left the hospital, an old girlfriend recognized her and helped hide her when Sludge stepped outside. The friend acted as a lookout and coached her to run to her relative's house. The pimp threatened to kill Rose, but couldn't find her.
Unable to reconnect long-term with any family or friends, she became homeless. Rose spent three nights on buses before entering the city shelter system, eventually finding one of our Covenant Houses via a Google search.
At Covenant House, we found in our recent study with Fordham University of commercial sexual exploitation that almost a quarter of the young people we serve in New York City have either been trafficked or have engaged in survival sex, the exchange of sex for something of value, usually a safe place to stay. And we know that more than three quarters of young people who are prostituted had run away from home first. (Thanks for the citation, Trafficking in America Task Force!)
Some of our kids have been kidnapped and treated as brutally as Rose was, but it's actually more common that young people are forced into prostitution not at gunpoint, but under psychological or emotional pressure. Often pimps will pretend to be boyfriends first, and treat the young person with more affection and generosity than he or she may ever have experienced at home. If a kid has been abused physically or sexually at home, or kicked from one foster care placement to another, it may appear that a pimp is the best alternative, at first. When the pimp turns violent and exploitative, yet still doles out occasional affection, the young person can be held hostage by the emotional manipulation, a kind of Stockholm syndrome.
Such bonds can be harder to break than handcuffs, especially when a young person has been told for years that they aren't worth anything, and they have few skills, no diplomas, and few prospects for supporting themselves outside the sex industry.
While Rose reported her kidnapping and exploitation to three different police departments, officers either passed her to another jurisdiction or refused to believe her. They asked why she was reporting the kidnapping six months later. She said she'd just gotten away from the pimp, and mimics their sarcasm when they asked her if she had simply walked out his front door.
With Covenant House's help, Rose is deciding whether to pursue prosecuting Sludge and keep him from exploiting other girls and young women. She's also searching for a job, finding it kind of fun. "You watch them, and they're watching you, and I don't want to blink, because you might win!" she said.
To help deal with the memories of her trauma, Rose keeps a journal and listens to music. It helps a bit she said, but not enough: "I really want it to take it away, make it all disappear."
Sludge stole something from her she'll never get back, she said, "from having sex when you don't want to, and being forced to do all these things for what? A little bit of money? I don't care if it's a million thousand dollars, I'm not doing it. That's not me."
Rose is telling her story because she wants to save other young people from having to go through a similar situation. If young people think of prostitution as a viable way to make money, she would counsel them against it -- she never saw any of her earnings, and can barely stand to be touched by a man, even now, almost three years after escaping.
"I just felt so nasty," she said, putting her hand over her heart, "knowing that I gave myself to a whole bunch of people. I wanted to end my life. I wanted to just curl up in a corner and die." She attempted suicide twice, but is glad she didn't succeed -- she has dreams of becoming a nurse and helping other people, including those closest to her.
"My little sister, my little sister," she said, smiling. "I'm not going to leave her by herself on this earth."
So what can we do to keep Rose and others like her free from the scourge of trafficking? We need to get violent and exploitative pimps off the street, and we need to place the shame where it belongs -- not on the victims, many of whom have few choices in the matter. Instead, let's shame the johns who can have sex only if they pay vulnerable, often trapped people for it. Let's shame the pimps for living off the profits of rape and slavery.
And we as a society need to provide safe housing for every at-risk young person. Otherwise, they come to believe the only way to shelter their bodies is to sell them. Then, we need to teach our kids how to keep themselves safe from exploiters, and how it's never ok to buy another person.
The lives of kids like Rose depend on it.