By Rebecca Bender
Rescued victims. Have you heard this term? Maybe your heart fills with excitement, passion or joy when you think of being able to be the hands and feet of Jesus. We imagine a child like our own, taken, abducted, hopeless and helpless while trapped in a room with her teddy bear. It becomes unbearable to think of what may happen next, as a captive victim of sex trafficking. The righteous fury rises up inside us and we stand, as the army of God to fight this injustice.
Well, what happens when it doesn’t quite look like this? I am a survivor of trafficking. I was forced into prostitution for nearly six years at the age of 18- an “adult.” In my time as a trafficking advocate, I have helped dozens of girls, consulted safe home staff across the world and trained more than 5,800 community members just like you. Do you want no know how many times I have encountered the above scenario? None. Does that mean trafficking doesn’t happen? Absolutely not… trafficking is very real in our country. But, unfortunately, most people have the very wrong idea of trafficking and end up being disappointed or hurt when running to the “rescue.”
Imagine this scenario instead: your neighbor girl next door is 7. Her parents fight and dad, because of his alcoholism; is verbally abusive, yelling and throwing things against the walls most evenings. She spends her time hiding under bed, hoping his fury isn’t taken out on her. At 9, her parents divorce, and mom gets a new boyfriend. Mom has no time for her because she is enthralled with her new romance. Your neighbor begins fading into the background of importance. When she turns 10, her new step dad begins sneaking in her room at night and touching her inappropriately. She is scared and doesn’t want to hurt her mom. She puts up with it until she is 12. In middle school, she starts drinking at parties, both to escape from her home life and simply as a predisposition to her father’s alcoholism. Her mom notices the change and begins grounding her. Unable to tell her mom the truth out of fear, she runs away in the night to a party. Her step dad “just happens to notice” and calls the police who put out a pick up order on her. Cops are called because the party is too loud and she gets picked up as a runaway and put in juvenile hall. Inside, she is bullied because she is clearly “new” and the girls who are in juvie often can pick up on “fresh meat.”
Your neighbor is lost and lonely and hurting. She doesn’t know her way out, she has never seen another life modeled for her and at 13 now, lacks the cognitive reasoning to understand cause and effect. This cycle of running to avoid step-dad and stay self-medicated at parties continues, where the pickup order and juvie spirals. She is hardened. Callouses have developed around her heart. At 14 she meets a guy a party who is 24. She is flattered that the older, cute boy at the party is paying attention to her. He takes a real interest, making her feel valued, listened to and adored for the first time in her life. He asks when she has to be home and she tells him she isn’t going home. He invites her to travel, to get away for a couple days. She wants nothing more than to run to something better and this appears to be the first and only invitation in her life to escape…
Your neighbor arrives in a new city with her adult boyfriend. She is excited until he gives her a new pair of bra and underwear and tells her to go to the strip club across the street, that they need the money for the hotel. She feels pressured, afraid and doesn’t want the dream of escaping to end. The boyfriend coerces her, reminding her that it’s just dancing and her dad use to force her to do more. At least now she’s in control. It’s an empowering feeling for her to turn it around on men. Her boyfriend picks her up from the club at 2 a.m. for a week. He tells her how proud he is of her, how he knew she was special. She makes enough money to support them, even though he takes it all because he is the adult and “knows what needs to be paid.”
One night, he picks her up and there are men are in the backseat. He tells her how much they need this extra cash to get out of town and rent a home not a hotel. He wants to be a family with her and marry her when she turns 16 in a different state but they need the money to move. Just once he begs…
Her boundaries have already been expanded to a further point than most children and a small shove from her “boyfriend” pushes her over the edge. This continues and no longer is it the strip club, but now it’s Backpage ads or he’ll hit her– a far step from the verbal abuse growing up. She gets picked up by law enforcement and ends up in Freedom Place at 15.
She isn’t running from the hotel thankful to be “rescued.” She wasn’t kidnapped, nor does she have her teddy bear. She’s hardened and hard. She cusses and wants a cigarette. She misses her abusive boyfriend, which we know is a trafficker, but she doesn’t see the fraud and wants to be the family he promised. You want to help her, but she looks at you like you’re one of her school teachers, annoyed and untrusting.
Why does this situation not make us want to run to help her? Because we don’t see the back story the day we arrive to help? We see an angry young girls who flips you off and cusses saying she’s going back as soon as her time here is done. Why invest? Why get close? I’ll tell you why:
We must reach our youth with the same love and compassion and empathy that Christ calls us to. We must push the “rescue victims” out of our thoughts or we’ll be disappointed. She is hurting and needs time to let her hardened heart soften before she’ll let you in. She asks herself, “Why did the volunteer get the hand of cards dealt to her while I got a life of pain?” She is jealous and mad at you for the privilege you were born with. She is afraid of what her life holds when she gets out. Will she be back with her step dad? Will she live in a foster family who doesn’t get it? What really does the future hold with a drop-out education, a minimum wage job and no job skills to really put her in a position to be economically empowered.
It’s not the kidnapped version, but it is the majority of what we deal with here in America. We need people to look past the tough façade, and see a hurt child who has built walls around herself. We need to stop acting like we have it all together and share a bit of our struggles, proving more and more that we haven’t had a silver spoon either. We need to help identify resources in the community for her exit plan: an internship, a home where she can go to college or technical school, incentives for completing programs and a career/life coach to help her make choices for her future that will keep her out of poverty. We need her to get counseling to understand the complex trauma of exploitation and healthy ways to stay connected to an unhealthy family for the rest of her life. This is the reality of the work. It’s complex, it’s individualized for each girl and it’s hard. But, it is also incredibly rewarding. Being diligent and watching the transformation of lives. No, we don’t win every one but we do win many! No greater love is this than to lay down your life for a friend.
“She’s the daughter of a king and even though she doesn’t know it yet, we will love her until she does know.” – Christina Rangel: Trafficking Survivor and Advocate
Rebecca Bender is a nationally known and recognized Survivor Leader in the efforts to eradicate modern day slavery. She has trained people such as directors of FBI and former President Jimmy Carter. She is the author of Roadmap to Redemption, a faith based work book for survivors. Her organization, Rebecca Bender Ministries is the first to offer online mentoring classes and webinars and specializes in rural America. In her free time, you can find her finishing her Master’s Degree at Bethel University and spending time with her husband and their four lively daughters.