There are an estimated 403,000 people living in modern slavery in the United States (GSI 2018). Sex trafficking exists throughout the country. Traffickers use violence, threats, lies, debt bondage and other forms of coercion to compel adults and children to engage in commercial sex acts against their will. The situations that sex trafficking victims face vary, many victims become romantically involved with someone who then forces them into prostitution. Others are lured with false promises of a job, and some are forced to sell sex by members of their own families. Victims of sex trafficking include both foreign nationals and US citizens, with women making up the majority of those trafficked for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation. In 2015, the most reported venues/industries for sex trafficking included commercial-front brothels, hotel/motel-based trafficking, online advertisements with unknown locations, residential brothels, and street-based sex trafficking.
Brooke Axtell was seven years old when she was trafficked for sex by her nanny. Her mother was in hospital and her father travelled for work. She was taken to houses and hotels and sold to strange men. She was forced into pornography with adults and other children. The trafficking finally ended when her mum came out of hospital and fired the nanny, but Brooke’s trauma followed her into adulthood.
Last year, at the 2015 Grammy Awards, I collaborated with pop singer Katy Perry and President Obama to address the issue of gender violence. After the President highlighted the White House “It’s On Us” campaign, I was invited to speak.
I shared my personal story of overcoming domestic violence and how I found healing. I encouraged those struggling with the pain of abuse to reach out for help. But what I didn’t share that night was how my history of early sexual assault and child sex trafficking prepared me to accept partner violence as an adult.
Like many survivors of domestic violence, my abuse started long before I met my then-boyfriend. Sexual exploitation trained me to believe I was unworthy of the love I so desperately craved.
I was 7 years old when I was trafficked for sex.
My favorite color was pink and I loved to dance. My room was filled with books, dolls and art. I read for hours on my white chair surrounded by stuffed animals, listening to my white music box with the delicate roses and gold edges.
When I took baths, I would rest on my back and sing my first song, “Flying wings, angel sing, strawberry dreams.” Over and over I would sing the same chorus, moving my arms like an angel. Hanging from the bathroom wall was a framed scripture from the book of I Samuel. It is known as Hannah’s Prayer, but in this version, my name replaced the son she prays for. The calligraphy read, “I have prayed for this child, Brooke, and the Lord has granted me what I have asked of him, so now I give her to the Lord for her whole life she will be given over to him.”
My mom taught me God is love. But she was in the hospital and I feared she would never return. My dad travelled for work to take care of our family, so I also had a nanny.
My nanny talked about God, too. He said it was God’s will for him to punish me for my sins. What punishment did I deserve? He did not say the word and I did not have language for what was happening. I could not tell anyone what his deity demanded on my white iron bed with the pink sheets.
He called me a “worthless whore” and said I made him do this to me. When he raped me, repeating the Lord’s prayer, I flew outside my body. Sometimes his voice still echoes within me, “Deliver us from evil. Deliver us from evil.” A part of me split off to survive, to guard the truth, to carry the unbearable weight of this. I multiplied and disappeared.
The first rape was my initiation, my rite of passage into his underworld. A place filled with secrets and shadows, people with dead eyes.
From that initial violation, he secretly took me to houses, hotels, and parties to sell me to men for sex. I was forced into pornography with adults and other children. I was caged and taunted like a trapped animal.
When they filmed me I flew outside my body to take refuge in the beautiful worlds I created: one with a white horse, one where I danced with the angels. Each time they invaded me, I soared above them. I was passed from man to man, hand to hand, like a doll. My soul travelled and retreated, crossed oceans, centuries. I lived a thousand lives in a single night.
This rhythm continued. During the day, I attended school. At night, I belonged to him — and whoever was interested in buying me.
The buyers were always wealthy white men who were insatiable in their appetite to inflict pain. I numbed myself, circling my life as if it belonged to someone else. I became a spectator of the abuse. This is happening to some other little girl, the evil one, who needed to be punished, I told myself. I created a wall, so I could live on the light side, be the good one and continue without pain.
Finally, my mom came home from the hospital in a wheelchair. I was too terrified and ashamed to reveal the abuse, but she sensed something was wrong. She listened to her intuition and fired my nanny.
The exploitation ended suddenly, but my shame did not. No matter how much I accomplished in life, I was still haunted by his lie about me, “Worthless, worthless, worthless.”
I lived for many years concealing the secret of my trauma. What I witnessed felt unspeakable.
Faced with an abusive boyfriend as an adult, I sought out help from a brilliant counselor specializing in sexual violence and resolving developmental trauma. It was there, with her, that I finally felt safe enough to admit what had happened to me — beyond the domestic abuse— and find my healing path.
Eventually, through therapy, an inspiring community of other survivors, and my own creative expression through poetry and music, I found my way back to my original worth. But my recovery has also given me a greater understanding of sex trafficking and how it’s perpetuated.
We live in a culture where women and girls are reduced to sexual commodities, where sexual and domestic violence are not aberrations. For many of us, they are rites of passage, the training ground for internalizing our own oppression.
Child sex trafficking is part of this continuum of violence. It is rape for profit. The appearance of consent is merely a performance the child must enact to survive. Even if a child is actively trading sex for money, food or shelter to survive, this still qualifies as statutory rape. There is no such thing as a child sex worker or child prostitute. There is only child rape.
It is easy to blame those who profit from the exploitation of children — as well we should. But they are not the whole problem. In a country where one out of six American women are survivors of sexual assault and one out of four women are survivors of domestic violence, traffickers are simply monetizing a culture that normalizes violence against women and girls at epidemic rates. This brutal reality along with the pervasive cult of victim-blaming has created the perfect marketplace for the buying and selling of children.
In my work as an advocate, I’ve learned that facing the truth is the beginning of freedom. To be free, we have to bring everything into the light, so our shame and our secrets no longer have power over us. As survivors, we may never see our perpetrators held accountable for their crimes, but we are creating our own justice. Our justice is to overcome, to know our worth, to rise up as leaders, transforming pain into the power of compassion.
Narrative provided by Global Citizen