First you lose yourself. Then you lose your dreams.
I had a wonderful childhood. My mom’s a lawyer. My dad is a church deacon. We had family vacations to Europe, Florida, Disney World, cruises. My parents had never argued in front of me.
I didn’t know what trafficking was. I thought pimps wore floppy hats and gold chains. I thought women chose prostitution.
My dream was to teach. I moved to Atlanta to go to college and become an educator. I was 20 years old, a Dean’s List junior at Emory, living in an apartment with my best friend.
A single night can change everything. One night I was dancing with friends at a club. A man with a nice suit and smile gave me his card, he was a modeling agent. Soon a pretty girl my age, Michelle, convinced me to talk to him. She was one of his models. He promised he could get me paid modeling gigs within a month. I called him the next day.
He kept his first promise quickly. He booked a paid modeling gig two weeks later and asked me to fill in a W-9. I gave him my parents’ address, my local address, and my social security number.
Then he drew me in deeper. He told me I had an audition for a major magazine in New York, but to go I needed money for the flight, hotel, taxis, and new clothes. He said I could earn the money stripping. He said it would be like dancing in the club, wearing a bikini like at the beach. He said it would feel awkward, but that was because I was uncomfortable with my body being the center of attention. He said if I could push past the discomfort and conquer my fears, I would be closer to becoming an elite model.
It was nothing like dancing on the beach. He continued finding me paid modeling gigs and gave me hope for a successful career if I signed with his agency. He told me his fees would be close to $25,000, which sounded like a lot, but I thought I could pay that off after a few months working jobs he’d already found for me. I signed the contract.
I didn’t tell my parents.
People who say the sex trade isn’t violent haven’t seen it up close. One night Michelle was driving all of us to an industry party and I was in the back seat. When she argued with our “agent,” he reached over and hit her. Her head hit the window. He cursed at her at the top of his lungs.
Getting out isn’t as easy as getting in. The next day I tried to backpedal out of my contract, and he said, “Bitch, I own you.” That night was the first time he came to the strip club while I was working. When my shift was over, he had a buyer lined up. He forced me into prostitution that night.
People need to understand: sometimes you stay silent to protect the people you love. My trafficker made it clear that if I went to the police or told anyone, he would kill me, or my roommate, or my parents. So I stayed silent.
Traffickers and cult leaders have so much in common. Gregarious personalities. Larger than life promises. The gift of persuasion. Convincing manipulation. They’re subtle. They seem invincible.
Your only value is a dollar sign. My trafficker was a modeling agent, but people who knew him understood he was actually an escort agent. Sometimes when I worked on music videos, rappers would purchase sex. When you’re with buyers you put on a great show because you’re a product and have to make money to survive. You begin to look at yourself as an object and don’t think you’re worth saving.
First you lose yourself. Then you lose your dreams. He would say, “You chose this. You signed the contract. You could have gone for help if you wanted to get out.” He made me strip most nights and sold me to clients at the club. I dropped out of my classes.
What got me through? Reading my Bible helped me cope with the depression and isolation but also kept me pacified and long-suffering. Sometimes I convinced myself this was what I deserved.
For ten months I was in survival mode. I had signed his contract and I thought when I’d pay him the $25,000, I would be free. It took three and a half months to earn the money, but he still didn’t let me go.
Getting out started with a call. The police contacted me. They thought I was an accomplice to trafficking another girl. When they interrogated me, I was so traumatized I couldn’t find the words to explain how I’d been victimized. I told the police he had sold us into prostitution across state lines.
Three months later they arrested him. Two years after that he went to trial. He took a plea for 15 years in prison.
This is a business built on brokenness. Everyone involved in the sex trade— victims, buyers, and pimps— are broken, hopelessly seeking to feel something affirming in a world built on objectification.
Telling the truth really can set you free. When I finally told my parents, they reinforced to me that I’m loved. With my hope for the future restored, I want to help others avoid being trapped, and help survivors overcome the psychological manipulation that keeps us ensnared for years.
Rachel Thomas is Director of Sowers Education Group, lead author of the Ending The Game Curriculum, and a writing critic. She has been teaching, training, and mentoring for ten years.