Violence isn’t the exception in the sex trade. It’s the rule.
I didn’t know what it meant to be cared for. My life began in Southern California. When I was two years old I was sexually abused by a member of mother’s family. It was an unfit home. When I was five I was placed with my dad and his new family.
Having your basic needs met doesn’t mean you’re safe. I was fed and clothed, but tortured daily. From the outside it looked like a healthy environment. My parents were involved in their community and church. My stepmom spanked me sometimes. But as she and my dad started doing more drugs, the abuse became extreme.
Some wounds don’t leave a mark. My stepmom punished me for doing well as much as for making mistakes. Although I went to school every day, my teachers never helped me. When I told them my stepmom hit me, CPS investigated and found nothing.
Accepting the worst was all I knew how to do. My stepmom told me my mom didn’t love me, or want me, and I believed her. She said I was worthless and disgusting. She made me eat dirt and lint mixed into my milk. For months she made me stand in the corner with my nose against the wall. When I left the corner to use the bathroom, she and my father beat me for every second I was away.
I learned the language of exploitation early. I was 11 when a friend of my father’s began making sexual advances towards me. My stepmom locked me in my room all summer. When she brought me food she told me I was disgusting and worthless and called me a dirty whore. I had to look up “whore” in the dictionary.
Home was not a safe haven. I moved to my mom’s home when I was 13. It was a two bedroom apartment with six people, I made seven. Everyone else had a bed, but I slept on the floor. I felt as unwanted as my stepmom said I was.
When your loved ones exploit you, where do you go? My older sister was my best friend. She said she knew two guys who would take care of us and we should run away. I went with her, but soon the men said we had to earn our keep. My sister showed me how to turn tricks. It was a means to an end for her drug habit, but I was trapped. I didn’t believe I could go home. After two weeks they took me to my mom and she put me in a youth recovery program.
Everything changed when I met an older man. He told me I was special. When I opened up to him about my trauma, he wiped away my tears. I thought he adored me, but he was grooming me for trafficking. I would do anything to maintain his love. Soon he started putting me on the street, and then imposed quotas on me. I had to earn him $1,000 before I could go home. I walked the streets after school, unsuspicious with my backpack, just another kid waiting for the bus.
The truth is they didn’t want to know the truth. I told johns I was 19, but I was 14. A lot of johns want you to lie so they can feel better about what they're doing.
Abuse is an endless cycle. The longer I was with him, the more he expected me to earn each night. In Anaheim, I had to make $2,000 to come in and get food. I would work, eat, and go back to work. Everything belonged to him, I only had a few changes of clothes and no money. Eventually he became violent. When I was robbed, he made me stand with my arms straight out for an hour, yelling and cursing at me. Then he sodomized me.
Violence isn’t the exception in the sex trade. It’s the rule. One john in Arizona trapped me in the car, held a knife to my throat, and raped me. Another john held a gun to my head. Another tried to kidnap me and chased me for half a mile. My nails were broken and my face was covered in blood when I got to a gas station.
It’s hard not to be defined by your trauma. I saw my reflection and heard my stepmom’s voice in my head, “You're worthless, nothing more than a prostitute.”
I had been brainwashed to believe it was my choice. My pimp and I were a family unit, and I thought I was contributing to my family. Even after I was arrested and sent to juvenile hall for six months, I tried to find him. He moved on, but I believed we had a future together. I thought he needed me.
Telling my story helped me heal. When I got out of juvenile hall, I went back to school. I got good grades and started doing art, which allowed me a lot of self reflection. I started feeling better about myself. Once I started going to church and found the Hidden Treasures Foundation, I started doing human trafficking outreach.
It’s not just about feeling compassion, it’s about taking action. The reason many girls are so easily trafficked is they only feel attached to their trafficker. We have to make them feel like they’re part of society. They need a reason not to go back. They need to know they have immeasurable value, and this does not define them.
Despite the bad, you can feel blessed. I have experienced so much sadness, but I’m a strong, vibrant, happy person. I’m not struggling and barely coming through the smoke; I’m victorious, jumping and shouting. I have bumps and bruises, but I have overcome what happened to me. I got my GED, went to SDSU, and got my diploma. I got married last year.
I am proud that I can use my story to inspire others.
Tiffany Mester works at a residential treatment facility for high-risk youth with behavioral and mental health issues. She is also on the board of Hidden Treasures, an organization supporting women who are being trafficked, and speaks to media and the public to raise awareness about trafficking.