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.
Sarah grew up in California. Her cousin was the leader of a gang and its members were often guarding the house. One of the gang members abused Sarah as a child and when her cousin found out, he was forced to retaliate, and Sarah now owed him. After this incident, she became a source of income and was put to work trafficking drugs. One day, her cousin bought her new dresses, took photos of her to sell to older men. When Sarah tried to seek help at school, she was locked up for a week as punishment. Later, when she was seventeen, Sarah’s cousin was arrested and though she was free from his control, she had nowhere to go and she was soon trafficked again by an old friend into adult entertainment. When she was 23, Sarah stole her second trafficker’s car keys and escaped. After living a life of abuse, trafficking, and drug abuse, Sarah struggled to go about ‘normal life.’ She talks about her journey overcoming her trauma and moving forward.
I'm a survivor. I didn't choose to be. But I am. I didn't grow up in a poor family, in some third world country. I come from a middle-class family in Southern California. I grew up right down the street from Disneyland. I went there once for a field trip when I was in fourth grade. The darkness and the angry men's voices in the Pirates of Caribbean ride were so triggering, that I was curled up in a ball, crying, with my hands over my ears even way after getting off the ride. I was at the "Happiest Place on Earth" and I was terrified. Nobody asked me why.
I was a good kid. Though I've always been told I was never a kid. I was born "grown up and mature". I never talked back, I got straight a's, and I never made noise. I didn't eat. I didn't talk. I thought if I was invisible, I would be safe. My cousin was the leader of the gang in our area, so he was feared by many. I didn't know why.
When I was 8, he was 19. He always had his "guys" around, guarding the house. My home had bars on the windows and doors made of steel. All of which could only be unlocked by a key. That was normal to me. I thought I was safe. One day, one of his "guys" molested me. I held it in. Invisible. It happened every time he got the chance. One evening, my cousin walked in, he was furious, and I found out why everyone was afraid of him. He had his "guy" beat up and thrown into a pool. I had to watch. It was my fault. His actions of retaliation were a result of my existence, and now he owned me. He had to act because that's what family does. Family protects each other. Now I owed him. And he owned me.
I was no longer invisible. I was a resource of income. Supply and demand. He put me to work. It started with drug trafficking. My fingers were so small so I could fill the tiny baggies and balloons easier and faster than any of the guys. Sometimes I would be packaging the drugs until the sun came up. If I got tired or said a word, he would get upset. It was my fault. If I was faster, I could be done and I could go to my room. If I said anything, he would stuff a tiny bit of black tar heroin up into my nostrils to make me be quiet. He would smuggle the drugs into jails for lots of money. His guys would turn themselves in, to get into the jails. They would unload the product, and then they would be released because they were in for minor offenses and the jails are to overcrowded. It was a cycle.
Men don't just want drugs though, they want more. And my cousin, well, he just wanted money and power. He came home one day with a rack of brand new, beautiful, frilly dresses. I was so happy. He said they were a gift because I was a good girl. I tried each one on. They were beautiful. I still remember the yellow one. It was my favorite. He took pictures of me in the dresses. I felt so special. The next morning I woke up and the dresses were gone. All of them. But he had the pictures. Now he was holding something that was valuable to a new set of clients. He sold those pictures to the highest bidders and his greed for money grew. After that, I went for two years being mute. I didn't say a single word. There was no point. Nobody asked why.
I was a money making piece of property and he was cashing in. I didn't want to. I had to. We were family, and family takes care of each other. Family has each other's back. I owed him. So he owned me. I wanted to be invisible again but there was no going back. I knew it wasn't ok. It hurt
When I was 11, I decided to reach out. I was terrified. I wrote a note to my teacher and held it. I held it for days. I was so afraid, but one day I had courage to give it to her. The note said, "Someone is hurting me. I don't want to get pregnant. I need help." One day as I left the classroom for lunch, I quietly handed it to my teacher. I waited all day for her to call me up. I was sweating. I couldn't breathe. As school was coming to an end, she called me up and told me I needed to go to see the principal. When I walked into the office, my dad was sitting there with the principal. He was holding the note. He was furious. He said I was so desperate for attention that I needed to create a scene at school and pull him out of work because I'm selfish and stupid. I was labeled a trouble maker. He handed me the note and we drove home in silence. When my cousin found out, he locked me up for a week and a half and punished me for embarrassing my family. That is not what family does.
By the time I was 16, his clientele had grown. We would travel up as far north as Sacramento and all the way down to San Diego. We would take the train because we could make money on the way and we rode for free. My cousin knew the ticket takers. I would take drugs and the ticket taker into the bathroom, and they would pretend they didn't see us riding on the train and pretend they didn't know what was in our luggage bags. I remember driving around the streets in the dark, not knowing where I was going or who would be getting into the back seat. Sometimes it would be raining so hard and the windshield wipers didn't work. I would be crying and scared because I couldn't see out the windshield. My cousin would be shooting up heroin in the passenger seat. There were so many times when he would pass out that I would think about parking somewhere and running away before he could wake up. But where would I run to. He would find me. I owed him and he owned me.
When I was 17, my cousin was put in prison and I was "free". By then I had nobody. I lived on the streets and slept in the parking lot of a 24-hour Rite Aid because it was well lit. It felt safe. When the police would come by, I would go inside and pretend I was shopping. I had nothing. One night I ran into an old friend. It was good to see a familiar face. I explained my situation to him and he took me in. He thought my cousin was a tool for treating me so poorly. It felt good to hear that. He became my new trafficker. He put me into adult entertainment and had me dance. I was beautiful, so I deserved to be appreciated. I was worth so much, I was lucky. He was now profiting from my "beauty" and "talent".
By the time I was 23 I has no reason to live. Life had run me through the ringer. I had attempted suicide several times, I was a cutter, I was reckless, I lived on cocaine and vodka.... I was jealous when people around me would die because they were done being stuck here. They were done suffering. I wanted to die too. I wanted to go to sleep and not wake up. I longed for peace. Then I met someone. Someone that was different. Someone that was happy. He filled my mind with love and light. He was unlike anybody I had ever met. He gave me the courage to run. I didn't know where I would run to, but I didn't care.
One evening, my trafficker told me to get ready. We were having company over. I said no. I didn't want to. He got angry. It wasn't an option. My body was not my own. I told him I had a headache, I didn't feel good. I snorted some cocaine and chased it with vodka. I started getting ready. He came in and handed me a handful of pills. I took them and he left the room. I quietly grabbed his car keys and snuck outside. I got in his car and drove off. I had no plan, I just needed to escape. As I was driving, I overdosed and crashed the car into a pole. I woke up in the hospital. I was severely malnourished, injured, sick from drug and alcohol withdrawal, and angry. I was so angry. I wouldn't eat. I wouldn't sleep. I was so combative that I had to be strapped to the bed. I wished I had just died. I was "away", I was "free", why did I feel this way.
I had to be in the hospital for a while. I had to gain some weight, start eating, get clean, and talk. That was so hard. The years that I've been out have been so much harder mentally than being in. Bringing someone out of "the life" of trafficking is the first step, but it's just the beginning of a lifelong process of working, growing, and healing. People think that once you're "rescued" and "free" you can just pick up the pieces and go about a "normal" life. I didn't know what a normal life was. I had spent so much time being told what to do and how to feel, so I struggled having healthy, safe, fulfilling relationships with others. I didn't trust anyone. I didn't know how to talk to people. I was so angry. And that had made me so hard. So aggressive. I had spent years being broken down and manipulated, I had lost touch with my emotions and self worth. I relocated to Utah, where I was able to start over. I had a new life and a blank slate but I felt like I had "Victim" tattooed on my forehead. I felt like everyone that saw me knew.
Being exposed to drugs and alcohol so early in life, I was used to not feeling anything. I missed the numbing effects of it, especially when the stresses of life were weighing down on me. I had no coping skills to help me deal with stressful moments. Coming out of "the life" is starting life all over, from the beginning. It's a painful process pushing through all of the mental and emotional issues... All the trauma and anxiety. The ptsd and dependency. The triggers. I was used to constant movement, always on alert and a fast paced life, so when that was gone, I would feel uneasy, anxious and even bored with life or stagnant. I would start feeling happy or settled and it was terrifying so I would sabotage myself and make wreckless choices. I was a victim. I had the victim mentality. I felt damaged and broken. For ten years I struggled trying to live a "normal" life. I struggled with my worth and just living.
While living in Utah I got married to the most wonderful man. I fell in love with him and the way he loves me. The way he treats me like a queen. I had never had that before. It was scary and hard. The harder I pushed him away, the more he loved me. I didn't feel like I deserved to be happy. I was garbage. He knew I came from a hard life and he knew I carried a lot of baggage and issues, he didn't care. He saw me.
The harder I pushed him away, the more he loved me. I didn't feel like I deserved to be happy. I was garbage. He knew I came from a hard life and he knew I carried a lot of baggage and issues, he didn't care. He saw me.
I had always wanted someone to see me and now someone did, I wanted to be invisible. I could never be the perfect wife or mom. I wasn't capable of being able to love. I was always afraid to have children because I would ruin them. I'm broken. I didn't feel that I would know what to do with them and they would end up damaged and broken like me. With the support and love of my husband, my heart began to change. I became a mom. I have three beautiful kids and they are perfect. They are the best family anybody could ask for. They love me and support me through it all. You would think that one getting to that place in life, it would finally be perfect. It was hard. I struggled with always feeling unworthy and damaged. I carried a lot of guilt, resentment, and anger. All these things had happened to me, it was done to me, and I had to fix it. It didn't seem fair and I was angry. I felt sorry for myself and gave myself excuses to make stupid choices.
On March 22, 2016, was the last time I overdosed. My son, who was one year old at the time, saved my life. That was my rebirth and that was when I took ownership of my life and everything that came with it.
I came back to life, but I didn't come back the same. I didn't come back to live how I had lived. I was done blaming my life on others. I was done allowing others to hold my value in their hands. I woke up with a new purpose and I needed to do something with it. I started working with survivors. I started advocating. I started sharing my story. I started speaking to groups and educating people about trafficking. I started to love. Love hard. I started talking to everybody I meet. I started explaining to my kids and friends the importance of investing themselves in the people around them. People that are struggling but are invisible. People that don't know how to reach out for help or might not have the courage to do so. I started appreciating my days
As March 22, 2017 began approaching I was scared. I was in a good place finally but good things never last. It had been a year since my overdose, I knew I would screw up somehow. I looked for strength where I could. I commissioned the help of my friends. I had everyone that I know do something good for someone else that day, on my behalf. I had them take pictures on that day and I started a purpose board. I knew I was still alive for a reason and I knew I had to do something with it. I was done wasting time.
Every March 22, that's my day. I love the quote by Mark Twain "The two most important days of your life are the day you are born and the day you figure out why." People are my why. I love people. I love their stories. My house could burn down with everything in it, and I wouldn't flinch... My heart doesn't beat for things, it's people that give me life. I have found strength in verbalizing what I'm thinking and feeling. I find strength by empowering others. I listen to others. I see others. I wanted to be seen for so long. I wanted someone to see me. Now I see everyone.
I'm now working on being a life coach, specializing in trauma. I've adopted the nickname "the Misfit Whisperer" because I'm a magnet for people that have struggled or are struggling. I take them, I let them fall apart in my hands and I help them navigate through their struggles. Life is hard but we are not alone. I read people. I had to learn. I used it to survive for so long, but now I use it as a gift. I love to read people and I love to connect with people. I like to dive into their eyes and see what's inside. Many people are afraid to let people in. At first is hard to let me in. They're afraid I'll see them. That I'll see all their secrets. Their vices. Their guilt and shame... Truth is, I can see it when they walk into my presence. I don't need their eyes for that. And the truth is, that's not the part of them I focus on... they already know that part is there. It's the good stuff I bring light to... That's the part of them they need to see. I see it. But they need to.
I keep my circle small. There are still days I struggle. Some days there are flashbacks. A song will trigger something. A scent will remind me of someone. A noise will cause me to drop to the floor and curl up in a ball, some days I need to stay in bed in the dark... I could go on and on. It's a lifetime of healing, but I have a safety net now. It's small but very strong. They've caught me many times and I know they always will. I know how important it is to fill my cup. Self care and coping skills are my survival. Happiness is not terrifying anymore. It's my reason.
I'm not JUST a survivor, I'm a person.
Narrative source Youth Underground, a non-profit organization dedicated to preventing human trafficking through youth education, awareness-raising and advocacy.
Original narrative can be found here: