We all know the old adage “sticks and stones may break my bones, but…” [you just filled in the rest without me even asking you to]. We also know that statement couldn’t be further from the truth. Words bring life and words bring death, they build up and they tear down. Even now, I’m certain you can recall a moment when someone’s words gave you the strength you needed at just the right time. On the flip side, I’m sure you can think of a time that words did the opposite. Words have power.
When you think of this concept in the context of sex trafficking, it takes on a whole new, and frighteningly literal, tone. For the young women we work with, the words that they have ringing in their ears could literally mean life or death. With that in mind, let’s take a look at three of the ways that words impact victims of sex trafficking.
1. Words can be her chains.
These young ladies live in a world of chaos and fear where they are threatened over and over again. Often times they are stripped of their own names - essentially stripped of their humanity. People say that the most pleasant sound to a person’s ears is the sound of their own name. These ladies don’t even get that. Often, they are given some crude, demeaning name by their pimps - further degrading them and separating them from their humanity. So they live in a place of brokenness and hopelessness because they are told time and time again things like, “You’re nothing but a whore and you’ll never be anything else,” or “No one cares about you, no one wants to help you,” or “You’re not strong enough to make it on your own,” and I could go on and on. The point is this: even if she wanted to escape, a survivor typically has the abusive, manipulative, life-sucking words of her pimp in her ears. Those words kill her hope and keep her in a cycle of destruction and abuse. Those words become chains in her heart that are stronger than any physical chains.
2. Words can be seeds of hope.
Like I said earlier, I’m sure every last one of us can think of a time when words of life and encouragement were like little seeds of hope that produced the right affect at just the right time. In the words of Mother Teresa, "kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless." Well, contrary to popular belief, many young women who are being trafficked don’t self-identify as victims, so they aren’t actively looking for ways to make a change. (This is a topic we’ll explore in a future blog post about some common myths of trafficking). Yet if these young women were completely honest with themselves, they would admit that they want to leave their current situations. But still, when you’re that beaten down, it’s tough to find the hope you need to take that step. That’s where words come in. One of our dear friends was trafficked for two years in a terrible situation. She was beaten, abused, and verbally assaulted on a daily basis. But throughout her time in the life she said there were several instances when kind people spoke life to her. These people spoke scripture to her and words of hope and strength, and those words buried themselves in her heart like little seeds. One night her pimp beat her up worse than usual. When she awoke on the floor, she heard those scriptures and words of hope resounding in her head and she knew there was a fork in the road: stay or leave. Those little seeds of hope sprouted at the right moment and gave her the strength she needed to leave. She told us that she’s confident that if she had stayed that night, should have died in her situation.
3. Words can be catalysts for change.
Every once in a while, words of life can be the thing that push you over the edge to take the step you know you need to take. And that holds true with survivors of exploitation. Sometimes the climate in her head and heart is just right and a few simple words of life spoken at the right moment can give her the strength she needs to leave her situation. This is one of the things we love about our response bags project. Every one of our response bags is not only filled with basic essentials - new clothes, toiletries, and some snacks - but each one also contains a little note of encouragement written by a volunteer. (Click here to learn more about our Response Bags Project or click here to shop for products that fund this powerful tool.) Over the past five months we have worked directly with nine young women who are in that place of decision - stay or leave. Our co-founder, Season Russo and Outreach Director, Dawn Spang, say that the one time in those meetings at the police station that the young women show any emotion or tenderness is when they read that little card. That’s what happened about a month ago with one young lady. Season and Dawn were working with a minor and they were trying to convince her to leave her situation and enroll in a residential program specifically for survivors of trafficking. When she opened the card in her response bag, tears ran down her face as she read those words of hope and encouragement. That night, the young girl decided to leave and we had the honor of helping her start her journey toward healing and restoration.
While we may not get to see every girl leave the life, we are sure of this: each young lady is special, valuable, and deserving of words of life. You never know what words could be shackling her to her situation, what words are little seeds of hope, and what words could be just the jolt of strength she needs to take the first step. Our goal is to speak as much life as we can to every girl that we can, believing that at some point those words will overpower the voices of negativity and death in her head and she’ll find the strength to start fresh.