NEW ORLEANS, LA, March 24, 2014 – Last week, my book, Walking Prey, was released by Palgrave Macmillan and is available via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound. Walking Prey is an academic nonfiction book about child sex trafficking in the United States. This week, another promising book will be released: Survivors of Slavery: Modern-Day Slave Narratives by Laura T. Murphy, Ph. D. In Survivors of Slavery, Murphy offers survivor narratives from Cambodia, Ghana, Lebanon, Macedonia, Mexico, Russia, Thailand, Ukraine, and the United States, all “detailing the horrors of a system that forces people to work without pay and against their will, under the threat of violence, with little or no means of escape” (description from Amazon). As a way of introducing this book, I’d like to include here a portion of the foreword written by Minh Dang of Berkeley, California:
An Open Letter to the Antitrafficking Movement, March 2013
Dear respected members of the anti-human-trafficking movement,
As a U.S. citizen and survivor of child abuse, incest, and domestic sex trafficking in the United States, I write to you to communicate my deepest wishes for how we approach our antitrafficking work. Over the past three years, I have publicly shared my story of slavery and freedom in venues large and small across the United States. I have met college students, teenagers, mothers, fathers, clergy, professors, service providers, and many others working to fight modern-day slavery. Through my presentations and conversations, I have developed a working set of guiding principles for the antitrafficking movement. I urge all of us to take heed of these principles because our adherence to or refutation of them will deeply affect the work that we do and the impact we have.
Principle Number 1: Rehumanize Survivors.
I have often described my experience of trafficking as being like that of a caged animal at a zoo—an exotic creature that people could see from afar but could not touch. People who paid my owner were given special privileges to use my body for their entertainment. My movements were restricted and monitored, and my environment was not native to me. I was isolated from others in my own species. Although this simile fits, I have come to find that I also often felt like an alien. I always knew that I resembled human beings because of my two eyes, two arms, two legs, and same general body shape; however, it appeared as if I were not thinking or living like other human beings I witnessed.
The majority of my healing work thus far has focused on reconnecting with my humanity and the humanity of others. I have had to learn (or relearn) that I am human, that I was always human, and that the people out there—you as well as those who hurt me—are also human. My basic relationship to who I am, what I can expect of others, and what is possible in the world was damaged. As we incorporate survivors into the antitrafficking movement and encourage them to be at its forefront, we need to recognize their humanity. In a recent training, one of the participants asked me, “How do we as allies in this movement love survivors the way they need to be loved?” I responded, “How do you love yourself? I do not need you to love me any differently than you love yourself, and if you do not love yourself, then you cannot love me.”
When people hear the stories of survivors, they oftentimes separate themselves from the survivor. Thoughts pass through their head such as, “Wow, I could never have gone through that. That person is so amazing. My life is nothing compared to that. My trauma was not that bad.” It is these thoughts that often lead to actions that further isolate and alienate survivors from common humanity.
Survivors are no different than you are. You are no different than I am. Just because I have stood on the street corner soliciting sex does not mean that I cannot understand you and you cannot understand me. If you were born to my parents and put in the exact same situation, you would be writing this letter right now. Find a way to relate with survivors. You do not need to have gone through what they went through to imagine what they might experience. Also, share your own story—your own story of learning to love and trust, to cope with shame, to experience joy, and to discover your life’s purpose.
One last thought on this point: when asking survivors to share their story publicly, pay attention to how this process may contribute to their continued dehumanization. What are your plans for the story? Are you merely curious and want to hear their story for personal consumption? Why must you see a survivor to believe the issue exists? Other than his or her story of slavery, what other knowledge and expertise might you ask the survivor to share? Are you compensating the survivor for his or her time and incidentals, just as you might a conference keynote speaker? What would you need or want for yourself if you were sharing your own story?
Principle Number 2: Get Out of the Box.
As I was growing up, my prized possessions fit into about four shoeboxes. These shoeboxes contained report cards, notes from friends and teachers, pictures, choir concert programs, and magazine clippings. These items were pieces of my identity that were not celebrated by my parents while they were busy abusing me. I had to hide essential parts of my identity. What did not fit in a shoebox or could not be represented by an object, I buried deep inside my soul, hoping to reveal it someday in my unknown future. My parents and perpetrators forced me into the boxes of bad daughter, prostitute, whore, hurtful child, and on and on. In order to fit those boxes, I was made to contort myself into unfamiliar forms and to put on a mask as disguise. In my healing process, I have come to adorn new masks and to hide in new boxes, primarily those of victim and survivor. Today, about seven years after my escape from slavery, I am learning that I need to let others know about the hidden parts of myself and the parts of me that do not fall under the label survivor. I am a lover, an artist, a social scientist, a friend; I love poetry and peer-reviewed articles; I enjoy being physically active and going to street fairs. Through sharing all parts of my story and who I am, I can free myself from a life confined to recycled shoeboxes.
I invite our movement to join me in breaking down the boxes that we live in. I invite us to challenge the restrictions we put on our ways of being and thinking. Let’s think outside the box about how we do our work. What is not being said? Whose story is not being told? Right now, awareness of domestic-minor sex trafficking, also known as commercial sexual exploitation of children, is growing in the United States. We need to remember the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth and the boys who are also subjected to sex trafficking. We need to remember that women as well as men are buying and selling children. Many people associate trafficking with people in Southeast Asia or abroad working in brothels or being sold into factories, but we need to remember the international citizens who are sold into slavery in the United States—those who were promised a legitimate job as a nanny or a restaurant or farm or garment worker and instead were tricked into debt bondage. Unable to speak English and not knowing anyone or anything about their new environment, survivors of debt bondage don’t talk to people about what has happened to them because of immigration concerns. Once these individuals are able to escape, they may be permanently dislocated from their home country and families. We need to remember that U.S. citizens are perpetrators of slavery, just as foreigners are.
What is human trafficking about when we look beyond sensationalized stories? How is human trafficking less fit a term for what is truly slavery? How is “modern-day slavery” different from historical slavery? Or is it different at all?
To read the rest of Minh’s letter and to learn more about Survivors of Slavery: Modern-Day Slave Narratives by Laura T. Murphy, Ph. D., please visit Amazon or Barnes & Noble online.
Written by Holly Smith, author of Walking Prey, an academic nonfiction book about child sex trafficking in the United States.