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.
Penelope’s* father became involved in criminal activity when she was a child which led to the repossession of their house. They moved into his friend’s house and when they became unable to pay rent, her father forced Penelope into child sexual exploitation, offering her to his friends as payment. One night when she was nine years old, Penelope was taken by her father’s friend and locked her in a room, where she was raped for days by adult men. After a few days of ‘breaking in’, Penelope was trafficked across the backroads of Mississippi, forced to see 15-20 men each night. After three years, Penelope’s mother came for her after being left by her father. It was a long road to recovery, Penelope entered into an abusive relationship as a teenager and suffered with alcohol addiction in college. She was finally able to receive help from a friend who introduced her to a church.
I grew up in nowhere Mississippi with a mentally ill father. We would go stay with specific family friends for long periods of time. Considering the mess my father put us through, staying with them should have been a relief.
The husband of one of our family friends liked to sneak into my room at night. One time on my fifth birthday, one of my first memories, he came home mad and took it out on me.
I remember him brutally raping me. Everything hurt. All I could do was look at the clock that shined on the ceiling and watch the time go by, even though I didn’t know how to read a clock yet.
I was in the hospital for a few days and my father wouldn’t come see me. I remember the day I was to go home he finally showed up and I was so excited. He looked at me and asked me if I was ready to apologize to Uncle Dan–the man that had done this. His best friend.
I began to cry and from that moment on it was ingrained in my head that this was my fault. My mentally ill father broke and began beating me everyday. He would lock me in this closet and rarely let me out. He would call me a whore and degrade me daily.
I learned to keep my head down and realized the less I existed, the less I was being hurt. My younger perfect sister was idolized and wanted for nothing because in my fathers eyes, she wasn’t a whore.
My father was a veterinarian, but soon lost his license. He would tell people their dogs had passed away in surgery and then sell them to dog fighters. Once he was caught and charged criminally, he couldn’t find a job. Money was extremely tight, so he got more involved in dog fighting.
Money continued to get tighter and our perfect southern home got foreclosed on. We moved in to one of his buddies’ houses and couldn’t make rent one month…So my body paid for it.
This became a regular occurrence. Those men began to be the only men outside of our family we saw. We never left the house because my father was so paranoid, and we were home schooled by my emotionally absent and scared mother.
Things escalated and my father began to experiment with torture on us. He would make us sit in an ice bath and hold us under until we passed out. Whoever could hold their hand over the stove the longest could sleep inside.
I had frost bite and burns so often that by the age of eight I had lost feeling in every finger and toe from frost bite. I slept in a cage every night. He would heat up mental spoons over the stove and burn our backs and our thighs.
He began to believe that there were dark spirits trying to take him and that they were getting their energy from the furniture in our house, so he got rid of literally everything and we were living on the floor year-round. He thought they would tell us secrets and would slam our heads against the wall if we didn’t tell him what they were saying to us.
If only I knew this wasn’t the worst of it.
One day he got so tired of me crying that he drove me to Uncle Dan’s house. The man who owned the house we currently lived in was over there, too. They drove me two hours out of town to a house in the woods. I was dragged in and locked in a room, Uncle Dan and Mr. Michael took turns raping me for days. They had me begging for food and my father by the end of it.
Eventually a woman that we call Momma Dahlia came in and helped me clean up and held me and shushed my crying, she fed me and gave me a bath. My scared nine-year-old self was relieved to have a gentle touch.
What I later came to know this tactic as “breaking in” and what I also would come to know very soon is that I was being trafficked on the backroads of Mississippi. I was dragged and forced to see 15-20 men a night, we got two meals and when we were outside of the room we could talk to the other children.
We never left the house and I lived there for about three years. One day my mom came and picked me up and told me that my father had left her, and she was going to take care of me now. “Take care of me” apparently meant us living in a car while she struggled to make a decision about her next move. She had an aunt in Louisiana but didn’t have the gas money to get down there.
I don’t really remember how this happened, but the cops got a hold of us and we ended up in foster care. I switched houses as the weekend would come. I was nocturnal at the time, screamed when anyone would touch me, vomit when a man entered the room, and would injure myself constantly.
No one could handle me and I sure couldn’t handle myself. I went through 23 homes in three and a half years and my mother eventually got custody of me again, I was 14 and a mess. We moved to Alabama and she got remarried… To my uncle…. My father’s brother, he was always a sweet man the few times we had met but the whole scenario was strange to me.
They had already had a kid and were loving life. My uncle was very well off and made the mistake of giving my sister and I whatever we wanted. Coming into high school, I got involved in the wrong crowd and was rarely sober, I never came home and no one asked questions.
I had an abusive boyfriend and tried to kill my self twice in high school. When it was finally time for me to go to college I broke it off with him wanting a clean slate for college. I was drunk my entire freshman and sophomore year and then met someone at a back to school event. She was from one of those campus ministries I loathed so much and told me if I went and grabbed coffee with her she would pay… So I went and in that coffee shop for the first time ever I told someone my story.
I wept with relief and shame the whole way through it. She told me about a Jesus and a God who loves and treasured me despite my experience with “love” here on earth. I shut her down with the fact that if he existed I wouldn’t have experienced all the pain I did.
She invited me over for dinner and I met her husband who was the college pastor and somehow she got me in the doors of her church. She is one of those people you are naturally drawn to and she was honestly the only true friend I had at the that point.
One night before church my mother called me and told me they were getting a divorce. I still went in and sat in the back, my new friend (we can call her Autumn) sat next to me and I knew she knew something was up. After our night had ended she asked me to hang back.
I told her what had happened and she told me her parents were divorced. Up until that moment her life had been perfect in my eyes, and that one sentence helped me realize that she believed and followed this God despite her hurt. I made the decision that night that I chose Jesus.
Autumn continued to grow closer to me, she showed me what God’s love, grace, and mercy looked like through her actions towards me. I had never had a friend love and care for me like she did. She didn’t yell, she wasn’t manipulative, she didn’t think I was a whore or worthless, and was patient and forgiving of my short comings. She taught me how to love myself and others.
I now share my story wanting people to know that no matter how radical God’s plan seems, He does love you and He is watching over you. He will never leave you or forsake you. I thank God everyday for my experiences because it has made me who I am and gives me the opportunity to relate to so many different types of people and still be able to say “I chose Jesus.” I now consider myself healed from my childhood. I’ll graduate soon. I share my story regularly, knowing that Satan loses every time I proclaim Jesus despite my past.
What I also hope to tell people with my story is that it isn’t just Africa and Europe that has a trafficking problem, but the United States as well. Mississippi is the number one state in America for child sex trafficking. The Super Bowl is the number one trafficked event in the whole world yearly. I 20 which runs through the southern states is the number one trafficked road in America.
Be aware, do not look the other way, and act. Just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean that when you lay your head down on your comfortable safe pillow there isn’t a ten year old crying because it’s the beginning of her shift of having twenty strange men taking out their every sexual fantasy on her tonight.
In adding up the average of men I saw an evening and how long I lived there, I was abused at least 937 times minimum. Do what you can to make sure their aren’t more like me.
Organizations like A21 and The End It Movement are amazing and have the resources to stop this from happening. Thank you for reading.
Narrative provided by Breakthrough US