In 2013, I was working with the homeless population in Springfield, MO. One encounter took place that will always stay with me. We were serving lunch to the homeless demographic, and after the meal was served, we would sit and share a meal with the people we served. One man, who had been homeless for several weeks, told me his story of how he arrived at a state of homelessness.
He was an over-the-road truck driver, and he lived in the semi cab that he drove. The owner of the company was suddenly found guilty of a crime, and this truck driver lost his job and his place to live overnight. The paychecks that were due to him never arrived, and he was without money, family to help, and any place to go.
It is common for people to see someone like him, an able-bodied man, in line at a food pantry or in a homeless environment, and think to themselves, "He must not want to work." Without knowing the backstories of those in distressed situations, society is quick to pass judgment. The same is often true for victims of trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. They experience the brunt of harsh criticism from those who are positioned to help them based on their exterior appearances and their circumstances. "No reasonable, upright person would be caught in this situation. She must have done something to put herself here." Meaning: She got what she deserves. It's her fault.
As members of society, it is easy to look at a woman in prostitution or hear of her situation, and then quickly dismiss her as a morally-loose woman who made bad choices and now has found herself in an undesirable situation. "She must not want to help herself," people frequently say.
Since beginning GO:61, I've worked with a woman in her 30s, who was sold since she was nine years old. I've worked with a woman in her 20s who was sold since she was 14 years old. Our team has worked with multiple people who have experienced years and sometimes decades of uninterrupted abuse, exploitation, terror, and violence. All of this lends itself to trauma which impacts the body, mind, and soul. It smashes emotions and decision-making skills and leaves every aspect of the health of a person in complete distress. This trauma also lays a mountain of shame upon its victim and often creates a nearly impenetrable barrier to freedom.
Those positioned to help such individuals, or when society hears about their situations, frequently respond to what is only visible to the eye, and that can seem like a harsh exterior and failed example of a person. "She should have made better decisions."
What if we could see past the labels we are so quick to put on people and think, "What did she go through to end up here? How did she arrive in this situation? What can I do to better understand this person and her situation? If she were my child or my sister, what would I want someone to do for her?"
Lending ourselves to compassion and placing all temptation to judge harshly aside positions each person to potentially be someone who can intervene on behalf of a current or former trafficking victim. I mention former trafficking victims because there are multitudes of victims who have managed to escape from their traffickers but who now find themselves wandering aimlessly, struggling to deal with life and the impact of trauma, terror, and shame. In this mode, they are positioned to be repeat victims without intervention, care, and assistance.
Recalling that trauma is a vast cloud that covers lives of victims of exploitation, we can humbly acknowledge that we have not walked in their shoes and therefore it is both wise and compassionate to withhold criticism. This allows us to offer loving assistance without strings attached. In doing this, we're doing for another what we would want to be done for ourselves or our loved ones. In doing this, we've rendered humanity and grace to a person and have looked at them as more than a label or a number. It's looking through a new lens and understanding that each person has a backstory, and it's worth our time to understand the backstory so we can best offer help and mercy.
Author: Casey Alvarez
Casey is the Founder and Executive Director of GO:61. She enjoys leading community citizens and professionals to find their footing in leveraging their talents and knowledge to combat trafficking. Casey coordinates the GO;61 teams, provides human trafficking training, creates anti-trafficking curriculum, and serves as a victim case manager. Apart from abolitionism, she loves being a wife and mother and enjoys getting away to remote places with her family.