Written by Kim Merrikin
on January 11, 2019
We believe everyone is worthy of love. That belief is at the core of every service and program we offer. For National Human Trafficking Awareness Month, we want to share what love looks like at REST and how it helps the process of healing from the trauma and wounds left by sexual exploitation.
For most in the sex trade, their lives have been marked and marred by treatment that told them they were neither loved, nor worthy of love. The abuse that sex trafficking victims endure is extreme, often repeated and long-lasting, and can include all types of abuse—physical, sexual, emotional/psychological, verbal, spiritual, and financial. Victims of sexual exploitation are more than twice as likely than a war veteran to experience extreme PTSD. Often the abuse begins in childhood, compounding its effects in adulthood.
The physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual wounds left by life in the sex trade require a great deal of care, intentionality, and love to heal. The pathway to freedom, safety, and hope is a long one, filled with ups, downs, twists, and turns—but it is one worth taking. The journey often begins with a small spark of hope, and as survivors come to see themselves as worthy of love and deserving of a life without abuse and exploitation, that hope grows, and with it comes healing and transformation.
To honor someone means to show them great respect or hold them in high esteem. Unlike the shame and degradation that gets heaped upon victims and survivors of sex trafficking, we send a different message: You are worthy of respect. Your voice matters. You survived for a reason. You deserve to be known. You deserve to be accepted. You deserve to be loved.
This kind of love helps heal exploitation because it chips away at the messages of shame that often keep survivors feeling stuck and hopeless. As they own these truths, they find their self-worth, and they become determined to fight for the life they really want.
To be present is more than just showing up—though showing up is critical. It’s about offering our full, undivided attention and taking the time to truly see someone—at their best and at their worst—without turning away. While exploitation says, “I’ll stay with you only as long as I profit off of you.” Healing presence says, “You are not alone. And even when the journey toward healing is long and full of obstacles, you are worth fighting for.”
“I looked for an advocate for over a year. I was just given the run-around over and over again and never received any actual help. I wish I would have met you [a REST Advocate] a year ago. Because this is exactly what I need. You showed up right away for me, near my home, you came and supported me when no one else would, and I feel supported by you as a fellow survivor.” - Survivor
When you trust someone it means you can rely on them to follow through with what they say they’ll do. It means that you believe they will not intentionally harm you. It means they won’t leave you to suffer alone. Survivors often show up at REST with a common thought: they don’t know who they can trust, us included. Years of manipulation by a trafficker, being harmed by people that should have protected, or having service providers or law enforcement offer help and then retreat when things get difficult makes trust a lofty, but essential, pursuit.
We start from the very beginning to build trust—not promising things we can’t deliver on, following through with what we say we’ll do, showing up when we say we will, and not letting a survivor’s heightened emotions or challenging behaviors on a hard day change the way we care. As trust is built, survivors begin to feel safe and secure, finding greater courage to face the years of trauma they’ve endured to find healing and pursue their goals.
“When I had no family REST became that, when I had no trust in humanity REST House staff help to restore that.” - Survivor
Tenacity, for us, is about never giving up, no matter the obstacle in front of us—it is the highest degree of determination and persistence. Surviving sex trafficking and the sex trade requires tenacity, and healing from the effects of trafficking and the sex trade requires just as much tenacity, if not more.
Tenacious love means that we refuse to give up hope and we refuse to stop taking action to help survivors overcome barriers, navigate complex systems, and work through trauma-related challenges on their road to recovery. This practice of love validates that every single survivor, regardless of their story or circumstance, is worth going the extra mile for. And when they start to believe that for themselves, they begin to fight harder for a life outside of the sex trade—a life without exploitation.
Belonging is about acceptance. To be known and fully accepted is a deep and vulnerable experience—but it has the power to heal the wounds of neglect, abandonment, and rejection that may date back to childhood and be too numerous to count for survivors of sex trafficking. In fact, it’s often a quest for belonging and acceptance that leads a victim into the arms and lies of a trafficker. We seek to provide a sense of genuine belonging that far outweighs the empty promises of any exploiter. Providing a community of support that welcomes, gets to know, and celebrates the unique strengths, needs, and culture of each person is key to helping survivors feel a sense of belonging and heal from exploitation.
We created a set of graphics for you to save and share on social media for National Human Trafficking Awareness Month—you can get them here! As you share, we invite you to consider how your post can show love and honor to survivors of sexual exploitation. In the words of our Executive Director Amanda Hightower, “It’s essential that we have services that are uniquely designed to give victims and survivors of sex trafficking a pathway to freedom, safety, and hope. But it’s love that makes those services work.”
“REST has shown me unconditional love and I can’t remember the last time, that I received love like this.” - Survivor