Every survivor’s story is different. The month of January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, we’re using this time to educate the community about what a survivor endures, their path to breaking free, and how you can help. We will be sharing the stories of three survivors over the next three weeks. Each survivor has come forward with a unique experience and a different story, broken down into three parts: before, during, and after trafficking. One thing remains constant in each story, a trafficker used power and control to keep someone in the life. The women we are featuring were made to feel like products and not people, it needs to end.
Trigger warning: some events and descriptions in the following story are graphic and may be triggering for some readers.
The first story belongs to Jenny.
My mother was a devoted catholic and the one who did the disciplining in our family. My dad did not enforce rules and I don’t remember ever seeing him follow any rules either. His attitude was that rules didn’t apply, as long as you could figure a way around them without getting caught. My father was the one who would come home from work, tickle us, played fun games with us, and then he would leave again to go back to work. My mom was left alone to be the bad guy. She did things differently than most parents. Many people who knew us, most of my friends, and even extended family members, thought she was too strict and often teased her in front of me. About the age of twelve, I started to buy into some of their negative opinions. I began to resent her rules and often felt very embarrassed about her parenting techniques.
My mother never let it be known to us that there was trouble in her marriage to my father. We didn't know he had addiction issues or that he was unfaithful to my mother. She wanted to protect us and didn’t want us to worry. When my father told me he and my mother were getting a divorce, I took it very hard, maybe because it came as such a surprise to me. I immediately blamed my mother and had convinced myself that she had ran him away. I vowed to be nothing like her. Looking back, after thirty years of doing everything the opposite of my mother, I realize she knew what was best for me and she had her family's best interest at heart all along. She wasn’t the bad guy.
Who was the bad guy? Was it my dad? After the divorce, I was so angry with my mother so I made it impossible for her to control me. I wanted to be with my dad. I began to spend every waking day being disrespectful, blaming, rebelling, and was even physical towards my mom. My father's addiction caused him to choose the street life over our family. Since I wanted my father to chase me, I ran to the street. He did chase me and a couple of times he caught me and tried to convince me to stop running away from my mother. I told him I would stop running when he stopped, but his addiction was more powerful, so he did not stop. Him becoming sober and straight wasn’t as simple as my adolescent mind though it would be to “just quit.”
Maybe it was my pimp’s fault for taking advantage of me when I was only fourteen, angry, and vulnerable. He took me into bars and made me feel so grown up. I thought everything about him was so cool and believed him when he told me he was falling in love with me. He said if I really loved him, I should help him out and turn some tricks so we could have some money for him to take us to the movies and buy me a pretty dress. He never did get that pretty dress for me. Instead, he had me sleep with his friends and he lied to me when he told me they had given him the money. When I asked where the money was, he talked his way around my questions. He had a way of spinning my thoughts and would use intimidation tactics whenever I asked too many questions. I was looking for male attention and he said he would be my everything, my daddy, my best friend, and my lover. He promised to keep me safe and told me I should trust him and only him. But he was definitely not a very nice guy.
Then I told myself that maybe I was a just bad girl and a fool for staying with him for so many years. I kept thinking I would be lovable if I could just be that ride or die chick that he couldn’t live without. Now that meant I needed to stop making so many mistakes that made him angry. It also meant becoming a chick that took beatings and not calling the police afterwards, never talking to another man unless it was about making some money, taking care of him when he was sick, fighting and recruiting other women for him, taking the rap for him, going to prison for him, never snitching on him, and waiting on him hand and foot. Most of all, I had to make sure to get his money every night, rain, sleet, and snow. He would boost me up with compliments when he thought it was necessary, and break my spirit with hurtful words when he thought I was getting too full of myself. All my self worth came from him, and I hated myself whenever he was angry with me.
Maybe the police and the legal system was the bad guy for incarcerating me every time they caught me prostituting, stealing from and pickpocketing my tricks, or carrying drugs for my pimp. They would catch me drinking and driving because I couldn’t prostitute sober, but I had to go make money or I would be beaten by my pimp. They treated me badly when they arrested me and sometimes I took beatings and was sexually assaulted by them too. Every time I was locked up, I became more detached, more angry, and felt more hopeless for ever being able to get out of the life. And then they took my kids.
The lifestyle has left me many scars on my body and on my heart. I have serious trust and intimacy issues and a very long criminal history. Until a couple years ago, I only had a 6th grade education, with no work history or job skills. I had an addiction to drugs and alcohol. I had lost my kids and respect from my family. I couldn’t get a driver's license for seventeen years because of my five DUI's. I’ve been to prison twice and the workhouse five times. No one would rent to me because I had no credit, no job, a criminal background, and a horrible rental history because of all the domestic violence that took place behind closed doors. I tried to commit suicide five times and it’s amazing that I’m even still here. BUT......
Thanks to Breaking Free, I have now been out of the lifestyle for five years. They really challenged my dysfunctional thinking and began to deprogram me from thirty years of brainwashing. My pimp had convinced me that I was “born to be a hoe.” But in the support groups, I learned that wasn’t true. In the individualized therapy, I learned about other false beliefs I had about myself. They helped me create a resume that I could actually believe in. They helped me to see how some skills from the lifestyle were transferable in the professional world. Now I have completed four semesters in college, majoring in addiction counseling. Breaking Free considers me to be a valued employee and I am doing things today in the professional world that I never thought possible for someone with my background. Today, I have a two page resume and feel confident that I never have to resort to prostitution ever again.
I now have mended all of my family relationships with my boys, who are all grown and doing well. I’m still fighting for my daughter and she will be home with us soon. I was able to address all my issues at Breaking Free, because I felt safe and understood by staff members who were also survivors of the lifestyle. The thirteen other treatment centers I had gone to in the past didn’t work for me because I wasn’t able to talk about the prostitution piece of my life. Breaking Free gave me hope. I don't know who actually was the bad guy or who is to blame for the way my life turned out, but I do know now that I wasn’t born to be a prostitute, prostitution was something that happened to me and it's not who I am. I don’t know where I would be right now if it wasn’t for Breaking Free, because now I no longer think with the mindset of a victim but rather that I am a survivor! I now have the opportunity to be a part of an agency that is helping and providing services to three hundred to five hundred women a year. I am a role model for the women who come through our program and I am showing them that there is life after prostitution, because I am living proof.
Thank you very much.
How you can help
Jenny endured so much and has come so far and is now an advocate for other survivors. Breaking Free has provided services and training that helped her find opportunity and empowerment when she needed it. However, Jenny’s own determination and strength have played an equally important role. We see this strength and are grateful she is using it to help others in the aftercare of others who have broken free from the life.
- If you or someone you know needs help, contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline to find assistance close to you.
- Get involved in the passage of SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) by contacting your legislators and encouraging others to do the same.
- Donate to Breaking Free so they can provide services to hundreds of women every year.
Image Credit: A special thank you to Brandon Werth for capturing the images for this survivor series.