A few years ago, while attending a community event, I had a life-shaping encounter. A woman came to greet me, and as we were talking she learned I was a therapist.
“I was sexually trafficked for 12 years of my life,” she said.
Trying to come to terms with what she just shared, she proceeded to elaborate on scattered details of her story, as well as her strong sense of burden for the vast issue of human trafficking around the world.
As it happens, I had been spending time learning about this issue and was already considering how to take action. I told her about a group of people working to start a coalition in the Lehigh Valley, Pa., in order to raise awareness and provide training for aftercare services to victims. Her response was full of emotion. She seemed burdened and desirous of action, but overwhelmed with fear and hopelessness.
During that night, and several forthcoming visits, she would have much to share, and I would have much to learn.
First and foremost, this woman taught me that understanding an issue is not enough. I am confident that we still must try to educate. But focusing a spotlight on human trafficking alone will not move to action.
“People don’t want to know,” she said. “They don’t want to believe it’s true and is happening.”
She taught me about the hopelessness and brokenness that results from the trauma of sex trafficking. She is a successful entrepreneur, but feels fragmented. In order to live and survive, she has had to distance herself from this other part of her identity and her life.
What I learned from her is the importance of listening in this line of work. She described it as breaking the silence.
“Do you know what we need? We just need someone to listen … someone who cares without a face of disgust and without a look of blame that says there must have been something you did to cause this,” she said.
Meeting this woman has brought to life the hundreds of pages of stories and information that I had consumed over the previous years. These were humbling moments. In spite of all that knowledge, I had to put it on the shelf and learn to listen first — to be a student of one who directly knows and needs to be heard.
This woman would be the first of dozens of women our coalition leaders have met in our work over the last few years. Our coalition in the Lehigh Valley region was formed simply because there was a need. National statistics could not be denied — sex trafficking existed in our region, and we were ignorant, passive, unprepared, and complicit in the midst of its prevalence.
Our initial vision included a basic goal of raising awareness and seeking to coordinate efforts for a unified response that would comprehensively address this form of modern-day slavery through prevention, awareness, action, and aftercare. But as our awareness efforts soon led many trafficking survivors to us, statistics and stories were replaced with personal, local faces that would need our help and in turn, would change our lives.
Interacting with trafficking survivors is a cross-cultural experience. Many of their stories are riddled with addiction, abuse, neglect, out-of-home placement, loss, rejection, and suffering. (And this does not even begin to address the culture of the commercial sex industry.) The language of “the life,” the rules of “the game”, and the many nuances of a relationship with a trafficker — whether known as daddy, boyfriend, boss, abuser, or lover — are only a few of the cultural differences for a woman coming out of the commercial sex industry.
As I sit with a woman who has secrets, stories, and experiences that are much different than my own, what can I offer? The world views her as dirty and as choosing this lifestyle. Others view her as to be pitied and a cause to be rescued. What does she need? What do we need to understand about women who have a history of prostitution or sex trafficking?
Recently I asked another woman this question. Separated from her trafficker for only two months, she had a fresh understanding.
“Because of the nature of the commercial sex industry, most women will feel like they will be judged. It’s shameful once we come to terms with the ugliness of our sin. It’s very difficult to feel that we are worthy of love and even understand God the Father’s work. What helped me was the tenderness — the fact that women came to my rescue and were kind. God revealed himself through these women,” she said.
Listening well acknowledges each person’s value and dignity. Effective listening magnifies their strengths, resilience, courage, and capacities to survive, which will in turn enable them to be restored. Listening well revives a voice that has been silenced. Listening honors. Listening teaches and changes the listener because through listening we enter in to suffering, evil and darkness. Yet, it will bring us closer to Christ, who entered in, that we might be changed, redeemed and glorified.
Listening brings healing to the speaker and to the listener as it can make us more like Christ.