While I’ve been part of the anti-sex trafficking movement for more than a decade, my exposure to this dark world began much earlier.
Growing up, no one used the term “sex trafficking,” so I just thought my mom was a prostitute and always with abusive men. Sexual exploitation was just a normal thing in my family — and we never talked about it. Seeing my mom invite men into our home, whether that was a hotel or an apartment, became something so common I didn’t even question it. But I knew it was something I wasn’t permitted to share at school or with friends.
I did eventually learn the truth, and that my mom would never have chosen that life for herself. No little girls or little boys dream of selling their bodies for sex when they grow up.
Now, after working in the anti-sex trafficking field for more than 10 years, I’ve seen how textbook the stories are, most often stemming from a root of childhood sexual abuse. It grooms children from an early age to say “yes” to things down the line that they never would have said “yes” to before. It steals their voice and their self-value, and boundary lines become blurred. By the time my mother had me, she was just a shell of the person she once was and didn’t know how to get out of this painful cycle of abuse. She certainly didn’t know how to be a mother.
We’ve seen that sexual abuse is cyclical and generational — it continues because it’s silenced and people don’t talk about it. Generational abuse had roots in my family line. My mom, without even realizing it, was grooming me to follow in her footsteps. The subtle messages began when I was about 12-13 years old, regarding how I dressed, how I viewed the purpose of men, and how to get what I needed in order to survive.
If I could have understood earlier what was really happening, it would have changed our lives dramatically. Sadly, for a long time, no one saw the signs that we were hurting because they weren’t equipped to recognize them, either.
I was fortunate enough to be pulled away as a younger child to live with an aunt and uncle who were safe and loving, but as many know all too well, the child welfare system is incredibly flawed. I was repeatedly given back to my mom, back to living in the dangerous cycle of abuse and exploitation. Thankfully, I was finally taken from that world just in time, at age 14 (the average age of entry into sex trafficking is 12-14). Realizing the danger I was in, my aunt and uncle, who were pastors, brought me to live with them and changed my life forever.
I always say only God could take the daughter of a prostitute and make her a pastors’ kid. I’m so grateful they rescued me. I know the cycle would have been repeated in my life had they not intervened.
The reason my mom and generations before her fell victim to sex trafficking is that no one was equipped to address the topic. People weren’t saying, “This kid in my class has some red flags,” or, “She’s behaving differently than she did last year.” Our society often throws labels around, deciding, “She’s just a promiscuous girl,” but here’s the critical thing to understand — there’s no such thing as a 7th-grade slut. Our founder and CEO makes that point often, and it’s eye-opening. The young lady in question is just a little girl who was robbed of her boundaries. No one at school recognized the signs. No one at church took the time to look deeper. No one talked about what went on behind closed doors in her home.
If we can equip people and systems to recognize and address the issue, whether it be law enforcement, healthcare, education, the church, then sex trafficking won’t continue to be generational. Thankfully, we’ve come a long way since my mother first became a victim. There is more awareness today and far more resources to educate and empower those who want to help eradicate this issue. The Foundation United, for example, offers a variety of training programs through partners like Operation Underground Railroad and Global Strategic Operatives. Free with E provides “REAL Talk” for churches, equipping adults and children alike to recognize warning signs and put protective boundaries in place.
While my mom passed away when she was 51, she did eventually get out of that dark world by what I consider a miraculous series of events. She was never fully healed of her pain, because there weren’t adequate resources to support survivors at the time. If there had been people and programs that understood how to help her recover, things would have been very different for her.
Although it’s been a difficult journey, I’m now able to use our story as a catalyst for change, doing my part to raise awareness of the realities of sex trafficking. If we can learn how to talk about these difficult subjects and have important conversations with our children, we can save future generations from this devastating cycle and bring freedom and healing to those who are hurting.
Vanessa Morris is the Communications Director of The Foundation United, a global umbrella organization scaling best practices to fight sex trafficking and abuse, and a ministry partner of Free with E. As the daughter of a survivor, Morris is passionate about eradicating this issue worldwide. The Foundation United is using creative outlets to educate and empower the masses, especially the faith community, to take action, recognize the red flags and give a voice to those who are not free to speak up for themselves…yet!