We Were Slaves: The Jewish Community Unites Against Sex Trafficking is a multi-organizational anti-sex trafficking initiative. Spearheaded by National Council of Jewish Women New York and co-chaired by Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty , these organizations and coalition partners have come together to address the critical issue of sex trafficking in the community. We Were Slaves intends to educate, advocate, and create a dialogue about the impact of sex trafficking has on our society and what we can do to prevent it.
The Federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) defines sex trafficking as the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act, where such an act is induced by force, fraud and coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age. While transportation or movement can be involved in human trafficking, trafficking isn’t simply forced/coerced labor; it doesn’t require transportation or movement across borders.
I was only 14 years-old when I met my abuser. I had left my hometown to live with relatives who helped me get a job a seamstress. One day, a friend of mine introduced me to a young man she knew. We hung out a few times, and everything seemed alright until, in one encounter, he took me back to his home. Sitting in the kitchen with his mother, I heard how wonderful and special her son was. Little did I know that I would not be allowed to leave that house after that evening. This supposedly wonderful young man immediately began to mistreat me and tried to guilt me into helping him repay a debt. He told me all I had to do was work at a bar.
I was afraid; I didn’t know what a bar was. But, I agreed because he was intimidating and it seemed I had no choice. Working at a bar, it turned out, meant being forced into prostitution. I couldn’t believe what had happened. My trafficker commanded me to obey him and his family—or else. Shocked, I begged him to let me see my mother, and he agreed, but on the condition that I tell her horrible lies about the conditions I was living under. I had to pretend that this man, whom I already knew to be a monster, had not abducted me and was simply a new companion. Once that was through, things only became worse.
A few months later, I was informed we would be moving to the United States. What choice did I have? It was a harrowing, circuitous journey done mostly on foot. No sooner had we arrived in New York than I was introduced to a new set of my trafficker’s relatives and given new instructions that “work” would begin the next day.
And it would continue—a constant nightmare—for over five years. Shuttled from client to client day-in an d day-out, I felt like a plate of food in a delivery truck. My trafficker did everything he could to make me feel horrible about myself and to make me fear an attempt at escape.
Finally, a stranger one day noticed that I was in bad shape. She gave me her number, and I worked up the tremendous courage to take my life in my hands and leave that worst of situations. Despite persistent threats, I found my way through a thicket of fear and vulnerability to service providers who offered me nonjudgmental, caring help. They assisted me in getting me back on my feet, in learning English and gaining legal status in the US, in getting a job and in bringing my mom to live with me in New York—in seeing the light through that impossible thicket.
I was 19 years old when I met my abuser. At the time I was living at home with my mother, going to college full time, and working part time in retail. He approached me at a busy train station. It was around noon time. He came up to me from behind and started asking for directions. He was very handsome and very charming. His manner of speech was soft and he had a happy smile on his face. He continued to talk to me while waiting for the train and got on the same train as me. I did not see it as strange. He seemed so harmless and nice. He complimented me on being beautiful. We talked about books and about religion. He had asked me how old I was, and laughed when I told him my age. We exchanged numbers before I exited the train. He insisted, “Princess, we have a lot to talk about.”
Friendship quickly progressed into romantic relationship. I fell madly in love with him. I never had a real boyfriend. He treated me as if I was the most special woman on earth. Things took turn for the worse, few months into our relationship. He became moody, verbally abusive, controlling and neglectful. He criticized my physical appearance and intellectual ability. He controlled my finances. I felt like it was all my fault, that I did something wrong. I was afraid to lose this great guy.
The sexual exploitation took place year and a half into the relationship, when I was already stripped of my independence and identity. I no longer had the will or the ability to fight back. He frequently told me that he owned me head to toe and I believed him. I felt like his property. I did not feel like a human being anymore. In my eyes I was worthless, just like he said I was.
I would not have made it out alive, because the abuse intensified and I was stressed, depressed and isolated. A kind, observant neighbor intervened. She witnessed his wrath towards me- the guy was chasing me down the street in a fit of rage- and brought me into her house. We exchanged numbers and became friends.I confided in her and she did not judge me, but instead she told me that what my boyfriend was doing to me was wrong and that I did not deserve it. She spent time with me, talked to me daily, and ultimately helped me rebuild my self esteem, so that in time I could leave my abuser for good.
(The following testimony is excerpted from the We Were Slaves: The Jewish Community Unites Against Sex Trafficking Conference which was held in April 2013.)
Many of you may be wondering why there is an anti sex-trafficking conference directed at the Jewish community. You may believe that my experience is completely atypical, a fluke. It is easy to turn your head and pretend that slavery, especially in the streets of New York, does not happen today. I am asking you to open your ears to those who would speak out against the injustice in their life, if only they could. Open your eyes to the men who supported my pimp and continue to support other pimps, as they pay for our bodies to be used against our will.
Many of you here today, as doctors, social workers, business people, educators, religious leaders and even just as ordinary citizens, may come into contact with someone exploited in prostitution, if only you recognized the signs. You are also in a position where you can educate the men who pay for sex and who continue to make trafficking a lucrative endeavor.
It is hard to stand here today and tell you something that I long to forget. But it even harder knows there are people exploited right now, on the street, who come into contact with professionals and members of the community, yet cannot get away from their pimps as they continue to go unnoticed.
My experience is not unique. It happened to me, but it could have happened to any other girl. What sets me apart, and the only reason I am able to be here today, is because of the people who refused to pass the responsibility to someone else. But even the help I received did not come until after many years of abuse.
No one is born a prostitute. I was lucky to be born into a close-knit family, with parents who did their best to provide my siblings and me with good support and an education. Sex was not talked about in my house, and so when I was little and a neighbor molested me, I was embarrassed to talk about it. I hated Hebrew school because I did not understand why I dressed modestly only to have my tights pulled down, as I tried not to cry.
When the man who later became my pimp, raped me, I did not tell anyone because I blamed myself for giving into his beatings and placing myself in the situation. Eventually the line blurred between being beaten, being threatened, and choosing to have sex out of my own will.
If I were to talk to you a few years back, I would probably tell you that prostitution should be legal. I would have told you that working on the street is not so bad, and that is a personal choice. I would have told you that, not because I believed that, but because it was what I was trying to convince myself. After so many times of being set up with strangers and not being able to say no, even when a man was repulsive or violent, I began to convince myself I enjoyed what we prostituted girls called “the life”, so that I could live. I tried to convince myself that it was a game. The times I broke the rules by not cooperating or trying to believe that I could get away, a beating by my pimp brought me back to reality.
I had always set goals for myself, telling myself that by my next birthday I would be out of prostitution. My birthdays came, and went, leaving me still on the street. I always blamed myself for not being able to get away. I believed I was weak and should have been able to walk away from the nightmare I was living. The self-blame and shame stopped me from telling my family and others around me.I also thought it was obvious, but the people around me did not notice or chose not to care. I was kicked out of Hebrew school for hanging out with older men. My pediatrician commented on my injuries, but never identified me as a trafficking victim. I went to a free clinic almost weekly to make sure I did not have any STD’s, but no one there realized I was forced into prostitution, even though the staff noticed my injuries and I was honest about the number of men who had sex with me. I was beaten in several stores, but instead of reaching out to help me, both my pimp and I were told to leave. I was in and out of the hospital for injuries my pimps inflicted on me, several times. I was well known in the local precinct, as I was often robbed or assaulted. I also tried to go to the police for help, but I was turned away, because instead of seeing a crime victim, they only saw a prostitute. One store owner noticed the interchange of money between me and older men, and contacted my family. It was that small action that led to my family’s involvement.
When I was being trafficked, I could not seek help from the police or those around me. My pimps told me that if I did, my family would be attacked and my sister would be raped. I could not see outside my world, and to me, my pimp was the most powerful person in my life. I also felt extremely conflicted about “snitching” on the man who forced me to have sex with other people. He isolated me from my family and friends. His friends became my friends. I felt really close to him. The more I stood by him, despite his violence, the more he seemed to respect me. When he hit me, I blamed myself for stepping out of line and believed that it was because he cared about me.
So my life on the street continued.
I was stopped by the police several times, but they ignored the signs that I was being abused. A few years ago, I was in a car that was stopped at around 3am. I was with men over ten years older than me, and the police asked me if everything was okay. Surrounded by the same men who beat me, I said yes. No more questions were asked.
There is no singular physical description that can describe the men who pay for sex. Nor is there a religious, educational or occupational divide. Some of the men who paid to have sex with me wore a kippah, a few men were Muslim. Some men had multiple degrees; others never even graduated high-school. Some talked about their wives and one even showed me a picture of his kids. Some Jewish men, like men of many other religions, also pay for sex. With some of the Jewish men I slept with, although not restrictive to Jewish men, I found myself insisting on condoms. Maybe they did not know much about condoms, or they assumed I was clean because I am white, Jewish or young. These men who pay for sex do not only promote trafficking, but they also put their families and others at risk for sexually transmitted diseases.
I drifted a lot further apart from my family and friends and plunged further into life on the street. As I got older, I realized that many of the milestones by which I had told myself I would be off the street, had long passed. I saw older women in prostitution, and realized that if I did not get off the street that would be me one day. After several harrowing experiences, I realized that I had to get off the street. I began to take things into my own hands, and try to get away. I thought I could do it alone, but I couldn’t.
One day I met someone, who refused to turn the other way. No matter how much I tried to justify my life on the street, he told me it was not okay. He helped me refocus on my goals and work on the practical obstacles that lay in the way of getting off the street, such as moving and dealing with law enforcement. He allowed me to see a bigger world, one in which I could live out of my pimp’s reach. I was scared about leaving prostitution completely because I did not want my family to be harmed. It seemed impossible for my family to move, as my siblings were in local schools and my family could not afford to move. The staff at the social service agency that assisted me assured me that I could focus on getting out, instead of keeping my family safe. They helped my family move, and provided me with therapy and support that enabled me to move on from the life.
Now, I am out of prostitution and have the luxury of being able to set the boundaries for my body. I learned that the quick racing heart I have had for so long, was not normal, but rather anxiety. I no longer had an ever-increasing pile of ripped jeans with the buttons missing, or shirts, ripped from being beaten. I find myself sitting in class, appreciating the fact that I am sitting there without having to make up for lost time, later that night. I no longer have bruises, burns or cuts to hide. The condom I carry, in case I get raped, is still the same condom I have carried for months.
I had always thought I would be able to walk away, unscathed. But somehow, my life on the street has found ways to seep into the normal life I had wanted for so long. The same principles that kept me alive on the street, are the ones that are contrary to living a so called, normal life. Nightmares jolt me up at night as I relive the same events that I had one time considered normal. I fend off every possibility of getting to know another guy, even as a simple study partner, for the fear of being raped again. Neutral interactions with the police leave me unable to think as my heart goes a mile a minute, fearful that he might subject me to the degradation I’m trying to leave behind. However, I now have the freedom that will enable to get past it. With the help and support of my professor, therapist, social workers, a prosecutor, a social service agency and my family, I was given the chance to get away from the person who forced me into prostitution.
I did not know I was a victim of sex trafficking, and it took me a long time to get help. You are here today, because any one of you could be in the position to help a sex trafficking victim get off the street, either directly or by putting her in touch with services that would help her. You are also in a position to educate others to recognize sex trafficking victims and to take a stand against paying for sex. Step back, and imagine you were in my shoes. I did not ask to be raped, nor did I chose to become a prostitute. What happened to me could have happened to you, your wife, your daughters, your nieces or your friends. It is time to take a stand against sex-trafficking and show support to those who believe they are all alone and cannot say no.