The images we see make impressions on us. They tell stories. They swim through our consciousness, and some are so prevalent that they eventually become emblematic of global issues in the world. When I Google the term human trafficking, the trading of humans for sex slavery, forced labor, or sexual exploitation, the photos that appear mainly consist of young girls with their hands tied or chained together, while their mouths are gagged, or children held captive behind a fence. There’s danger in these photographs—not in the anti-trafficking cause they’re intended to support—in the information they’re omitting.
Author Holly Smith, a survivor of child sex slavery, was trafficked when she was 14. Afraid of entering high school, she ran away from home and was subsequently forced into prostitution.
“In my case, nobody beat me or drugged me,” shares Holly. “All they had to do was take me out of the surroundings that I was used to, and take me to a city that was hostile and scary, and just use a little intimidation to gain that control over me. So when we use images of girls tied to beds or drugged, people start to think that’s what child sex trafficking looks like, and in fact very often it doesn’t look like that.”
Holly added that when when there are no visible signs of a child being coerced into prostitution, not only does the community tend to look at the child as less of a victim, so does the child.
“When I was pulled out of prostitution I was treated more like a nuisance, like a problem child as opposed to a victim,” Holly shares. “After I was recovered I felt very judged by people in the community. I felt like I didn’t belong anymore.”
But that wasn’t the truth. The truth is that Holly and survivors like her were vulnerable in ways that aren’t openly discussed nearly enough at the time they were trafficked. The truth is Holly wasn’t consensually sold. The truth is that sex trafficking and prostitution are NOT the same thing. Prostitution is a business between adults. Sex slavery is the recruitment, obtaining, or transportation of a person for the purpose of sexual exploitation against the person’s will. The truth is a trafficker can sometimes be a family friend, a neighbor, or even a relative. The truth is sex slavery happens in places other than developing countries. In 2013, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline received multiple reports of human trafficking in every state in America. The truth is a young person down the street from you could be a victim of human trafficking or sex slavery at this very moment.
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act states that a trafficker’s means of controlling victims can include psychological coercion, trickery and the seizure of documents.
“This is really important because children are much easier to manipulate than adults,” says Holly.
Through her writing and advocacy work against commercial sexual exploitation, Holly educates the public and supports human trafficking survivors. As part of her activism, she advises the social enterprise TO THE MARKET | Survivor Made Goods, a marketplace that curates products and stories from women survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, disease and human trafficking.
Fellow TO THE MARKET advisory board member and artist, Margeaux Gray, is also a sex slavery survivor. She advises the company on healthcare and aftercare, including mental and physical health. She was five years old when she was first sexually exploited and trafficked until she was 18.
“I was trafficked when I was a young girl,” says Margeaux. My trafficker was a person I trusted, so it was easy for him to exploit me and ultimately traffic me. That went on until I was 18 years old.”
When Margeaux was 14 she told a healthcare worker about what was happening, but she was so traumatized that she didn’t talk and open up when a detective wanted to pursue her trafficker.
“The trafficking lessened, but continued,” Margeaux says. “It took me four years to really grasp what was happening to me and to sever that bond we had. I had developed this traumatic bond with a man who sold me. I was really lucky in that I was believed, but a lot of kids aren’t believed, and they don’t know they can keep speaking until someone hears their cry for freedom.”
Margeaux says what she appreciates about TO THE MARKET is that the survivors affiliated with the site understand that there isn’t just one kid of freedom, and that restoration is not black and white.
“There are different levels of freedom, and economic success is one of them,” shares Margeaux.
The need for economic independence is what inspired Jane Mosbacher Morris, founder of TO THE MARKET, to build the marketplace. As a former member of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism and Director of Humanitarian Action for the McCain Institute for International Leadership, Jane has seen the struggles of women all over the world who have been disempowered from some form of disaster, sexual assault or domestic violence.
“What I’ve continued coming back to is that it’s very difficult to manufacture an elevated role for women without providing them a legitimate power base on which they can stand,” says Jane.
While traveling in India with Cindy McCain in 2013, Jane visited businesses that were creating employment opportunities for human trafficking survivors.
“I loved the concept and that women were regaining control over their lives,” she says.
So she created TO THE MARKET to enhance the work of existing organizations working to empower women and help them gain economic independence. In addition to powering an e-commerce site for survivor-crafted items, the enterprise educates survivors in business strategy, and offers organizations employing survivors assistance in trend forecasting and basic mental health resources.
Like Holly and Margeaux, the survivors across the globe making the products featured on TO THE MARKET have been courageous and resilient enough to live to tell their stories. Their experiences have not been in vain, and their work is proof of that.
Jane and the TO THE MARKET board believe that the dignity of work is the most sustainable and empowering assistance that can be provided for anyone who has been a victim of human trafficking, or any crime for that matter. And that’s the truth.