[Trigger warning: human trafficking, sexual assault, human cruelty].
Yesterday I gave a talk on human trafficking at Sixth Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh. It’s a presentation I’ve given a few dozen times, and it fits how I think about sex trafficking, and to a lesser extent labor trafficking, perfectly.
First, I introduce myself. I talk about my Fellowship with the Polaris Project, my work helping make Pittsburgh the first mid-sized U.S. city to introduce legislation to comprehensively combat sex trafficking in massage parlors, my internship with the World Organization for Human Rights USA. I’m usually a stranger to the people in my audience, and I want them to know that I know what I’m talking about.
Next, I give the legal definition for human trafficking.
In the United States, sex trafficking is anytime someone is in commercial sex because of force, fraud or coercion, or is a minor in commercial sex. (If you can’t consent to have sex, you can’t consent to have paid sex). Labor trafficking is anytime someone works because of force, fraud or coercion.
Then I pass out the stories. I have a collection of a dozen or so write-ups of individual cases of human trafficking, some of which I wrote when I was with Human Rights USA, some of which are from Polaris. I hand them to each person in the room. This time, I stapled this story (Headline: “Pittsburgh detectives arrest missing 14-year-old in prostitution sting”) to each of their packets.
I ask my audience to read the stories, trying to find force, fraud or coercion. I believe human trafficking prevention is where domestic violence prevention was 10 years ago: police still blaming the victims, more misconceptions than truths hanging around about what the crime entails, spotty legal and social support for survivors. (Not that we’re doing particularly well combating domestic violence). Human trafficking desperately needs more people, average, non-crazy activist people, people like the 10 people who came an hour early to church yesterday to hear me talk, people who will recognize trafficking if they see it in the paper and react.
I sit and wait for them to finish reading, and think about what I want of my audience.
I don’t expect them to give up their jobs and work for free to take care of survivors.
I don’t expect them to give money, though I told them the two best ways to get involved is to pray with their feet (show up), and put their money where their hearts are. I told them that, as a frequent Greyhound rider, I am a person with more money than time, and so I use my time and body and mind to combat trafficking because I can’t write a check.
I hope they might write a letter to the editor. Make a point of buying from a farm co-op which treats its workers well. Be offended when they see the term “teenage prostitute” in the newspaper.
Write a letter to the editor.
They’re done reading. I ask everyone to tell me the story they hold in their hands, tell me where was the force, fraud, or coercion.
Normal people, people who aren’t steeped in the horror of this crime which degrades our common humanity, stumble over the words to describe what happens to these survivors: “rape,” “13-year-old,” “23 years,” “sold for a couch.” I ask them to tell the stories, knowing the stories will stick like burrs in the soft parts of their heads.
We make it around the room, talking about the details of the stories. Yes, a survivor can only get a T Visa with the permission of an Immigration Judge. Yes, she was 13. Yes, it is all so awful.
I tell them that staying committed to this issue requires what Buddhist roshi Joan Halifax calls “a soft front and a strong back.” A soft front to let these terrible stories drop like black stones into our insides, distort us for at least a little, force us to reshape our worlds around their suffering. A strong black to stand up against that suffering, to let it pass through us, become within us, but not break us.
They look a little bored.
That’s ok I remember: my face goes blank when I am thinking my deepest. I charge on, explaining about how they can start helping combat trafficking today. How they can write letters to the editor, buy fair trade chocolate and coffee, report trafficking to the national hotline (“1-888-373-7888” I say from memory).
They look angry, dissatisfied.
Good, I think. This makes me angry too.
I tell them good stories–about how one woman received her visa and was able to bring her kids to America, get them away from the horrors she barely escaped. I make sure to give them stories to read with happy endings. My time is almost up. I don’t want them depressed. I want them hopeful and pissed that this still happens in our world.
I wrap up: pray with your feet, put your money where your heart is, write to your newspaper. They leave, some distracted, thinking about the service or groceries or what they’ll be singing in the choir. Some linger.
One woman tells me she buys from a local farm which takes care of its workers. I grin and bounce a little; I tell her how important it is to reinforce good employer behavior. I thank her for coming. A young woman tells me she’ll be in Haiti in a few weeks, working with children. We make a coffee date for when she returns. The host thanks me. I try to see from his eyes if I’d given the kind of presentation he’d expected, if I’d done what he’d asked.
He thanks me, and shows me the way out, walking past the sanctuary.
I give this presentation whenever I am asked to. I have another one which I use to introduce people to the issue of trafficking. I write numbers on the board (100,000; 27 million; 13) I explain them (number of trafficked youths and minors in the U.S.; number of trafficked persons worldwide; median age of entry into commercial sex in New York). If they’re inquisitive, I dive into the problems with those numbers (it’s an estimate; it doesn’t exclude those who self-identify as sex workers; it appears to be from people who don’t distinguish between “average” and “median”). I can do the numbers, I can data-dump about the laws, I can get into the morality.
But when I can, I always start and finish on the stories.
The stories, through the TIP Report, are how I got into this. The individual faces, case files, fact patterns. The individual pain and growth and healing and stories. I try to tell the stories because trafficking is a crime where people make other people into things and things don’t have nearly as compelling stories as people. Focusing on the stories, I can see each person’s humanity.
And that’s why I need to work to end human trafficking. Because it is a crime which denies our common humanity.
“All too often our so-called strength comes from fear, not love; instead of having a strong back, many of us have a defended front shielding a weak spine. In other words, we walk around brittle and defensive, trying to conceal our lack of confidence. If we strengthen our backs, metaphorically speaking, and develop a spine that’s flexible but sturdy, then we can risk having a front that’s soft and open, representing choiceless compassion. The place in your body where these two meet — strong back and soft front — is the brave, tender ground in which to root our caring deeply when we begin the process of being with dying.
How can we give and accept care with strong-back, soft front compassion, moving past fear into a place of genuine tenderness? I believe it comes about when we can be truly transparent, seeing the world clearly — and letting the world see into us.”–Roshi Joan Halifax, Being With Dying: Cultivating Compassion and Fearlessness in the Presence of Death