BOSTON, February 22, 2014 – My name is Zoe Kessler, and I am both a clinical social worker and a survivor of commercial sex exploitation as a minor. As a clinician and an advocate against all forms of commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC), I have witnessed a gross misunderstanding for CSEC on the side of mental health professionals.
First of all, in order to provide effective mental health services to victims, mental health professionals must place value on “insider survivor knowledge.” Put simply, “insider survivor knowledge” is an understanding that can only be attained through personal experience. Without collaboration between survivors and service providers, the understanding for any victimization will be limited. This is because survivors can offer victim-centered insight into the potential effects from trauma, potential signs and symptoms of victimization, and those aftercare treatments that may be most appropriate and effective.
One common misunderstanding, not just among health professionals but among the general public, is that victims of CSEC have a “true choice” in whether or not they are commercially sexually exploited. This belief can affect the ways in which mental health professionals view survivors of CSEC, just as it once did for the way in which professionals viewed survivors of domestic violence. For example, if a girl (or boy) runs away and is “turned out” by a pimp or continues to live at home while simultaneously under the control of a pimp, this child is a victim of exploitation and manipulation. Without “insider survivor knowledge,” professionals may place blame on those girls and boys. They might ask these victims: Why didn’t you ask for help?
Mental health professionals must collaborate with survivors in their attempts to understand the complicated traumatic effects of abusers’ tactics. Pimps and other traffickers hold power over their victims. It is not just the bodies of victims that pimps control, but also their ways of thinking and personal views of themselves.
One young woman’s story stands out as an example of how “insider survivor knowledge” could have benefitted a mental health worker. At age 14, Tanee was placed in a group home in the Boston area after experiencing abuse and neglect in childhood. Later, Tanee ran away from the group home while under the influence and control of a pimp. This pimp beat, raped, and forced Tanee to “turn” 10-15 “tricks” a night. He isolated her and deprived her of sleep, food, and water. On one particularly brutal day, Tanee reached out to her former group home for help. She hadn’t eaten in three days and was mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted.
A mental health worker responded; however, this professional immediately passed judgment onto Tanee’s situation. As she got into the car, Tanee was met with negative comments about her “hooking behavior.” Two days later, Tanee left the group home and returned to the pimp. Three years later, at age 17 and still under the pimp’s control, Tanee was picked up by an ambulance. She had been gang-raped and beaten so badly that she almost died.
Reflecting on her experiences, Tanee says she believes the horrors of those three years of abuse and repeated trauma could have been avoided if that mental health worker had received her with compassion and understanding. “Instead of asking me if I was okay, [the mental health worker] just assumed I was selling my body,” Tanee stated. “I already felt disgusting. She had two choices… she could have made me feel safe and accepted, or treat me like everyone else had at that point in my life… worthless.”
Unlike many girls in her situation, Tanee’s story has a happy ending. She began receiving services from My Life My Choice (MLMC) of the Justice Resource Institute in Boston, Massachusetts. MLMC is an organization that works with survivors of CSEC. Unlike many service providers, MLMC embraces the concept of “insider survivor knowledge” in their efforts to help victims of CSEC recover and transition to survivors. They provide both group and individual survivor mentorship and survivor-led counseling. Through these services, Tanee began to feel accepted and worthy. She is now a survivor mentor and group facilitator helping other young women in the MLMC program.
The survivor mentorship program at MLMC is a unique and vital service. Women who have had experiences of commercial sexual exploitation are trained to mentor other young women through their journeys of healing.
I grew up in a culture where therapists had never heard the term “commercial sexual exploitation”. I underwent traditional talk therapy where diagnoses and labels only further supported what I believed, which was that the abuse I endured as a child was my fault and defined me as a person. As a clinician, I see that traditional models of therapy often project the client’s problems or diagnoses onto the identity of the client.
Young women in Tanee’s situation are often criticized and judged for re-subjecting themselves to more trauma and abuse. This often occurs when victims return to the people who perpetrated against them. One manipulative tactic much like brainwashing used by traffickers is to convince children of their love and devotion. Traffickers will say things like: Nobody understands you like I do, Nobody will take care of you like I will, and There is nowhere for you to go because nobody wants you anymore.”
Although mental health professionals may have the best intentions, they can unintentionally pass their judgments onto clients, thereby endorsing their traffickers’ tactics. This can be re-traumatizing to the victim. In my experience, this kind of judgmental response from counselors solidified a negative self-identity that held me back from healing. In Tanee’s case, the mental health worker inadvertently reinforced those beliefs imposed onto Tanee by her trafficker: that she was worthless.
Currently, I am unaware of any academic institution that consults or collaborates with survivors of CSEC in their education and training efforts with mental health professionals. Although the positioning of survivors at the forefront of an academic or professional platform challenges the traditional concept of mental health training, I believe it’s vital to understand the abuse in CSEC as well as what’s necessary from professionals for healing. If greater value was placed on “insider survivor knowledge,” I believe we could create more effective therapeutic practices and policies, and we could better protect our young people from the horrific abuse of child sex trafficking and other forms of CSEC.
Written by Zoe Kessler, CSEC Survivor and Licensed Social Worker. Zoe is pursuing a doctoral degree with research study in survivors’ experiences in therapeutic practices; she hopes to improve policy and practices to ensure prosperous futures for all survivors. Zoe lives outside of Boston, MA with her husband and children. Contact Zoe at email@example.com.
Edited by Holly Austin Smith, Author of Walking Prey. @Holly_A_Smith