Myth: Survivors don’t play well with others. They’re often uncooperative or hard to get along with.
Reality: When survivors first emerge from a life of sexual exploitation and abuse, our reactions to people and situations are often misunderstood and therefore, interpreted as uncooperative or hard to get along with. This is mostly due to the fact that those who have not experienced sex trafficking don’t understand what it’s like to have been treated the way we were. We refer to those people as “squares.” Squares are people who have lived the “straight life.” They have their houses, families and friends. They have their 9 to 5 jobs, weekly commutes, vacations, mortgages, family dinners, and church groups. All of those things provide structure and a sense of normalcy to you. We weren’t so fortunate to have that kind of predictability in our lives.
Our days were turned on their heads. We slept during the day; worked dark until dawn, (usually 7 days a week) and oftentimes, didn’t know where the next meal was coming from. Our homes were hotel rooms, and the threat of eviction and violence was always present. The only support we experienced came from other women, just like us, who were unsure themselves if they would survive the night. Making our “living” jumping car to car, hoping to be dropped off next to a pharmacy, etc. was the closest many of us came to public transportation. Mostly we walked in high heels, whether it was winter or raining, we walked.
Once we emerge from “the life,” there begins a period of reassessing our new environments. Where do I live now? When will they throw me out? What will they make me do? How do I protect myself? Will they judge me for where I’ve been and what I’ve done? Insecurity has become a lifestyle for us and though we see the hurt looks on your face when you tell us “you understand,” we find it hard to trust, given that you’ve never walked in our shoes.
The concept of community is hard for us to grasp at first. You speak of it as being a vast network of support available to us at no cost. This goes against everything we’ve ever known. We’ve been programmed to not trust or answer the intrusive questions asked by the doctors, therapists and law enforcement. And so we refuse to answer or are so embarrassed that we don’t know the answers that we say nothing. And are judged as uncooperative.
Over time, we begin to understand community through relationship. For us, it begins slowly. We find that one person who listens and seems not to judge, the one who doesn’t wince when we talk about our pasts, or the one who doesn’t reject us when we lose control of our emotions. We need to gain evidence to support the claim that we will not be betrayed again with false promises. It begins with that one listening ear, that one caring heart and soon we come to understand that you see us as worthy, powerful and able to overcome.
Survivors are amazingly resilient people. Once we find that we matter, discover a source of strength, develop agency over our lives, and learn to use the tools to overcome the false beliefs from years of exploitation, we begin to step out in very big ways. Some of us become powerful advocates, dedicated students, Phd’s, writers, and leaders of various groups. So the next time you are faced with the myth of an “uncooperative survivor,” ask yourself this, “What have I done to help this person know their worth, their power and that they are loved?” Because our faith in “community” has to begin with that one person who was willing to be in relationship with us.