While the plight of the survivors of trafficking are brought up in modern discourse around whether or not sex work should be legal or good for women, little actual space is given for survivors to come forward and share their stories.
Mercedes is a survivor of trafficking who approached us to present her experiences of being a survivor of trafficking so that she and other survivors can be heard in a debate that so often pointedly excludes them.
How did you end up in the sex industry?
I was physically and sexually abused at home and regularly ran away and by age 12, had learned survival sex from a gang of older teenagers I’d met on the streets. I had a brief stint in foster care, but was soon put back with my family and started running away again. At 15, I met a charming man in a record shop who offered his friendship. He took me in and provided for all my needs, as well as offered a familial love and drugs.
Six months or so later, when I was completely dependant on him, he turned and demanded payment for his “kindness”. He kept me locked in a room and would send in his friends to rape and abuse me. I can’t say how long I was locked in the room for.
Eventually, he started to take me out in a van to other houses where I was raped, tortured, filmed etc. I now know all this was called “breaking”—it’s used by traffickers to kill your spirit and get you used to doing everything they hope you will “willingly” do for money later. One night my (soon to be) pimp pulled me out of the shower and kicked me to the street, chucking a t-shirt out after me and said I could come back when I had £50. I was frozen, wet, shoeless and needed a fix badly. By morning I had turned my first two tricks on my own and was banging on his door again.
This became the new routine, with the amount I needed to earn rising each time. I got better at it with practice, and learning from other women I met—my pimp seemed to get nicer the better I did. At first he was violent and threatened to harm me, or people I cared about if I tried to leave—as the years went on he didn’t need to use threats. When he was gentle and kind I bonded stronger to him.
I managed to convince myself that I was in control and turning tricks by choice—to feed my addiction, which was my own fault, and that my pimp was a friend.
I felt loyal to him. By the end, I saw myself as a prostitute and not a victim of child sex trafficking.
What was the impact of being in the sex industry for you?
I came out of the experience with P.T.S.D, scars from mutilation, a tattoo I didn’t volunteer for, STI’s, hepatitis C, and drug addiction. I’ve had several miscarriages and abortions and am now likely infertile. I have paranoia about being found and dragged back or punished for running away, along with Stockholm syndrome telling me I should go back. To top it off: I have a criminal record.
The worst daily challenge is the dissociation—feeling like my whole life is a dream. I often feel like I’m going to wake up locked in that room again. Sometimes I get panic attacks in my own apartment when the door is shut.
I also know what to do if I’m ever really short of cash, and I’ve no morals or “dignity” holding me back from doing it. It’s both frightening and freeing. I think for a lot of women, being paid for sex is another kind of virginity to lose. Once it’s gone it’s gone. But like normal virginity, it’s actually socialised, moral bullshit.
It feels like you can stop getting paid for sex but you can never stop being a whore once you’ve been one. It’s a badge you can’t shake. I’ve nothing against sex workers or being a sex worker, but I flitter between identifying as one, and saying I’m a trafficking survivor.
How did you get out?
My pimp was involved with a gang that was involved with a lot of drug deals. He was arrested when a plan went awry. I couldn’t get back in the apartment for three nights and didn’t know when he would be back but I needed a bed or a fix badly. I ended up walking and hitchhiking miles to get to a brothel I knew of in a town we had previously stayed in. Ironically it was Christmas Eve, I banged on the door and the owner let me in. There had been a police crackdown in the area and business wasn’t operating, so she let me stay.
I detoxed there on her conditions, hoping I could work there after the police cleared out, at least until I knew what I was going to do about my pimp. Once the drugs had left my body I quickly gained a new perspective and I was capable of imagining freedom from the industry.
The brothel owner helped me in more ways than I could have hoped. Within the space of a few weeks, she’d nursed me through withdrawal, introduced me to Narcotics Anonymous, and convinced me to go and stay with my father after contacting him on my behalf. Most importantly, she didn’t give me a job.
I’ve been free from the industry ever since.
Did you have resources that were made available for you?
The local sex worker outreach organisation didn’t work with women under the age of 18. The child protective services didn’t chase up vulnerable runaways over the age of 16. I hope they’ve closed that loophole now. Narcotics Anonymous and other sex workers were the only people who helped me. I was too afraid to risk it with anyone else. I distrusted the police and social services after they put me back in an abusive home. I knew the police weren’t much of a match for the syndicate my pimp was involved with. I don’t know what services could have helped me; I was probably incapable of receiving them due to fear.
The reason why trafficking works so well is because there are no resources that could exist to help victims out of their situation. It is majorly fear and conditioning that traps the victims after they have been ‘broken’. Short of kidnapping us and giving us intensive psychological treatment to stop us from running back, the best solution for trafficking is to stop it before it happens.
The only thing that I think could work is making trafficking a pointless venture by taking away demand. Legalisation of sex work could have saved me from traffickers before they got me. Then again: so would better child protective services and trustworthy options for teen runaways. As would a decent welfare system, or a universal basic income for adults engaging in survival sex, and better employment opportunities for sex workers who only entered the industry through a lack of options.
People talk a lot about consent and sex work. What does consent mean to you? Do you feel your experiences were consensual?
When submitting to sex is the best choice out of bad options, it can look and feel like consent.
For me at the time, survival sex as a 12 year old was consensual. I didn’t enjoy it at all, but it gave me an illusion of freedom and independence, unlike the sexual abuse at home. It’s still hard for me to think of that survival sex as rape, even knowing as an adult that by law (and common sense) it clearly was.
I always felt work was “‘supposed to be” unpleasant—no one wants to work, that’s why we get paid to do it. I grew up with this idea, which made it easier for me to ignore the fact that I was a victim of abuse, poverty or circumstance.
It’s funny how I was already in the industry when I turned 16 and over night, sex with me became un-criminalised. Nothing changed for me: I was still a 12 year old inside–having no more power, control or understanding than I did back then.
Suddenly it became “my fault” I was there, as if everyone gets a fresh start on an equal playing field the second they become a legal adult.
Living in such a victim blaming society, it’s hard not to blame yourself. If you’re to blame then you had control; if you had control then you consented.
I had a loyal attachment to my pimp as my caregiver. I was addicted to a drug that numbed all the pain. This was all “my mind” feeling this, but was it really me, or was it all manipulation? Brains do weird things to protect themselves.
I can see it all for what it was, now. I had no choice. Everything I did, I did to stay alive.
Telling a sex worker they are naive to their own exploitation feels like another way to assert control over them and dismiss their autonomy. It can’t help them.
I have one memory of my pimp and I running around the flat, throwing marshmallows at each other, having fun. I remember moments of kindness or times where I felt that I made him proud.
I also remember running away the first chance I got, even with the very real threat of death hanging over me, and not going back in 7 years.
I focus on that one.
What does the media get right about forced sex work? What does it get wrong?
I haven’t viewed much media on sex work because it’s triggering for me. I have noticed that films always seem to be about foreign women smuggled to different countries. Nearly all the women I met were local to the region they were working in. All the teenagers engaging in survival sex with me when I was 12 were from broken, British homes.
It’s well known in Britain that there is a problem here with gangs of predominantly Pakistani men grooming white girls—this was part of my story.
Unfortunately racists and right wing media often use this to promote their agenda and incite hatred against anyone Asian, Muslim, or foreign. They use my experiences, speaking for me, as if I would agree with what they are saying. It infuriates me.
The same thing happens with Nordic model supporters. They think victims of trafficking are silent and that they have a right to be our voice, saying criminalisation is best for us and that it’s what we would want, and how dare those privileged, high class sex workers not think of the poor victims here!
They really couldn’t be more wrong.
My experiences have been treated with much more sensitivity and respect by sex worker rights activists than those opposing them. However: I feel that even the pro-rights activists in some ways try to speak on our behalf by assuming we wouldn’t want to be part of their campaign.
It’s believed that we wouldn’t consider ourselves players in this debate because due to our trauma, we would be incapable of seeing the positive side to legalisation.
I’d like to see more survivors using their voices and being given a platform. I’d like to see an end to the ridiculous argument that victims all want to see sex work criminalised, and an end to the unfounded idea that it would actually benefit us.
I’ve been there turning tricks on the street, I’ve been owned like an object by violent criminals, I’ve been tied up in the back of a van with a bag over my head. Unless you have too, you have no right to tell me or anyone else that criminalising sex work will make life better and safer for the victims of sex slavery.
Trafficking is already illegal. You can’t double illegal it. I’m pro-legalisation on a political and personal level. I know that for traffickers, it would be really, really bad for business, and I’d love to see how fast their empire would crumble.
I stay out of sex worker activism more than I would like to because of the emotional conflict I feel as a victim. It is hard to engage in a subject so linked in with severe trauma, even with well-used trigger warnings, I still get burnt out pretty quickly from paying attention.
Still: I feel strongly driven to be a part of it somehow. I’d like to feel safe, welcome, and not treated or viewed differently because of the uncomfortable nature of my involvement with the sex industry.
I want sex workers to know I’m not going to be offended that they chose to do what I was forced to do, but it will always be difficult for me to be a part of the proud and celebratory, activist community.
It takes a lot of strength to stand up and say I want to see the industry legalised, because no matter how it is for other people, for me, and a lot of other survivors, sex work and abuse are intrinsically linked.