I met Kathy in late 2015 when our daughters were in the same preschool. She was very kind and funny. I immediately liked her, and our daughters got along in school. In the spring, when the preschool threw a Mother’s Day party, I waited in the hallway with Kathy and the other moms until we were called in. Her makeup was on point that day, and I thought she looked effortlessly beautiful and happy. I was stressing about work and barely pulling myself together, and here was this woman who, on the outside, looked like she had her life together. Or so I thought.
I didn’t realize then how much looks can be deceiving. Kathy, who is a few years younger than me, would go on to attempt suicide a year later and spend more than four months in a treatment center away from her precious family. Her daughter’s first memories would be of her in a hospital.
I later learned that Kathy is a survivor of sex trafficking. She has attempted suicide more times than she can remember. She has gone through years of trauma counseling and she still sees an amazing therapist. As I’ve come to know her, I’ve learned that Kathy is a wonder of a woman, a survivor and fighter, and a good, good mother.
The Secrets We Keep
I sat down with Kathy recently to learn more about her story. With her permission, I’m sharing it here, in hopes that it helps others develop more understanding for the lifelong challenges survivors of trafficking face. And to remind us to show compassion to those in our community because we often don’t know all that they’ve been through.
I was floored when I started to learn more about what Kathy had endured. This woman is smart with a witty sense of humor. She’s a writer by trade who has a child the same age as my own. I could not wrap my head around the woman I knew compared with the one who carries scars from tragic years of rape, beatings, and threats that we only hear about in the news or in some foreign country.
I wondered how many other women I know have faced nearly insurmountable obstacles and have overcome them. I wondered how many other women like Kathy are in our communities all around the country.
In the United States, sex trafficking is defined as any commercial sex act involving force, fraud, or coercion, or any commercial sex act involving a minor. It’s hard to know how many women and girls (and men and boys) are exploited in this black market, but we know it’s more than many think. According to reports by the Department of Justice and the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, as many as 300,000 American children are at risk each year to be trafficked and sold in prostitution, often as young as 14. Many are trafficked over the age of 18, as Kathy was; in either case, the traits of coercion and manipulation are consistent.
Given how prevalent trafficking is in the United States, it makes sense that there will be women and men in our communities who have survived these atrocities and are trying to start again and reclaim their lives. After getting to know Kathy, I felt moved to help others recognize the signs of trafficking, but also to be compassionate and understanding should they ever encounter a survivor of trafficking in their community, so they might be a part of the support that helps that person get back on his or her feet.
How did this happen?
That’s the question everyone wants to know, right? How could a well-educated, smart, funny, and independent woman end up as a victim of sex trafficking?
In Kathy’s case, she met her abuser as a freshman at a fundamentalist Christian university in the South. They dated all throughout college and became engaged their senior year. But it was during the summer between their junior and senior years that something changed: the relationship grew more and more controlling.
Kathy’s boyfriend wanted to know what time she would be done with her job at the local newspaper, where she was if she was even five minutes late, and encouraged her to cut off communication with her family incrementally. He succeeded in isolating her. Kathy ended up not speaking to her family for almost two-and-a-half years. Kathy’s therapist explains this process as grooming, a technique abusers use to slowly cut off their victim from their families, isolate them, and force dependence upon the controlling party.
Her abuser proposed marriage after they graduated. While Kathy had a job in town, he was was unable to find anything, so he moved back to his home three hours away to do odd jobs. Kathy visited almost every weekend. Her abuser was the first person to rape her, but she eventually was gang raped regularly in a trailer on her abuser’s property by his own brother and his friends.
That’s when the trafficking began. Against her will, Kathy was sold in prostitution to men in the basement of the church where her abuser’s dad was the pastor, as well as in the trailer on the property of her then-fiance’s family. Her abuser and his dad kept the money earned from exploitation; meanwhile, they forced her to spend her own money on sexy lingerie, escorting her to the store and back. When she got back to their property, she was blindfolded and raped repeatedly by men she didn’t even know. Her abuser even coerced her into having an abortion when he found out she was pregnant—a child she misses to this day.
Her abuser had a deadly grip on her. She took that three-hour trip up and back every weekend because he threatened, in excruciating detail, how he would kill her family if she didn’t come.
It can be hard for people to understand what trafficked women go through, how they’re hidden in plain sight, and why they don’t escape. The psychological component of their abuse is strong, and many develop a Stockholm-syndrome type dependance on their abusers. Since many feel like it’s their own fault or that they did something wrong to deserve this, it can be difficult for law enforcement to identify when prostituted women are trafficked. For this reason, survivor-led groups are a huge component in helping women escape trafficking today.
Kathy wasn’t rescued by her family, co-workers, or law enforcement. Her family didn’t know of her ordeal and she made up excuses to her editor and colleagues when she was late for work or had unexplainable bruises and appeared groggy and disoriented.
She was trapped, until one day, she was thrown a lifeline when her abuser broke up with her.
She began to re-establish her relationships with her family. She started intense therapy, which took her away from her family for periods of time while she was in in-patient treatment. She has found great peace in reconnecting with her Christian faith. Only recently she started working again. The scars are long and deep in this woman, but her strength and determination to overcome the demons that nearly destroyed her life is powerful to witness.
I have come to view Kathy as a real-life superhero, a mother and wife and friend who has pushed her way through hell to be where she is now. Words are insufficient to describe this woman.
In Our Midst
Do you know a woman like Kathy? You might be surprised. She is probably really good at hiding her scars, no matter how perfect she appears in public. Or maybe, she just hasn’t been asked the questions that reveal a little bit more about her story.
Kathy’s story has led me to think about the women I know. I’ve started to ask different questions, even of those who I’ve known for a long time. If someone seems like they’re in a controlling relationship, I might ask more about if they’ve ever been forced to do something against their will or if they think their relationship is worth discussing with a therapist or other trusted source. If they’re going through something I’ve never gone through, I might ask if they’ve ever considered finding other women in a support-group setting who have been through similar challenges. Overall, I’ve begun asking, “How are you doing, today,” knowing that Kathy struggled to get through some days without thoughts of suicide. Not everyone will feel comfortable opening up about their deepest hurts and challenges right away, but we can at least start a process of listening, understanding, and support for each other.
Having gotten to know Kathy, I’ve learned to never assume I know what another person has experienced. But I’ve also learned we can have a lot in common, even if we’ve experienced very different paths in life. That’s a really beautiful thing about women—we have a multitude of layers and through authentic conversations, we can peel back those layers, revealing difficult experiences that can continue to be healed, because of the love of others.
If you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, get help at the National Human Trafficking Hotline.