Commercial sexual exploitation (or sex trafficking) can happen to anyone regardless of race, age, education, or gender identity. This is something that must be taken into consideration when working with survivors of sexual exploitation and prostituted individuals. Despite the rich resources now available to the public about the nature of commercial sexual exploitation (CSE), we are often still confronted with old stereotypes and biases.
The work that I am fortunate enough to do is both challenging and rewarding. When clients meet with me for the first time, I conduct an intake to identify areas where I may be of support. Many survivors may present a myriad of behaviors and emotions such as fear, anger, severe anxiety, hypervigilance, or distrust. Not knowing what to expect, survivors may be unwilling or hesitant to disclose CSE. On the other hand, many clients have already gone through systems where they have been asked to repeat their “story” multiple times. The manner which an Advocate initially communicates with the client is very important, because it could mean a trusting connection or a wall may be built before any beneficial advocacy can take place. I have found that communicating with clients at the onset that “I don’t need to hear your backstory to help you” sets a good foundation for relationship building. This simple statement has opened dialogues that lead clients to trust and build an advocate-client allegiance.
Working at the YWCA, I am equipped with key resources that clients may benefit from, including but not limited to: housing assistance and referrals, education resources, job training options, and job placement. The agency also provides Chemical Dependency and Mental Health assessment referrals, with a quick turn-around-time for appointments.
With the mission to empower women and eliminate racism, the core of the YWCA’s work is embedded in social justice. We ensure that our clients understand the intersectionality of CSE and Domestic Violence (DV). This is an important element of our educational model, and we have found that providing women with this information strengthens and empowers them in every aspect of their lives and relationships. I’d like to share with you a story which reflects the impact that YWCA services have made on the lives of women and girls in our community. It’s the story of a client I will refer to as “Tiana”.
Tiana is a client that I’ve worked with for some time now. She first came to her intake/initial appointment with a hoody covering her face, shoulders slumped forward, head hung down. She did not say a word. After spending over an hour with the client, when she left I still only knew as much about her as what was provided by the referral agency. That was how it began. Over the last six months, Tiana has participated in support groups, completed mental health and chemical dependency treatment and assessments. She has become very engaged in therapy. And most recently Tiana completed the FareStart program and attained employment as a barista as a local hospital.
Upon our initial meeting, Tiana had many barriers. She was homelessness, fleeing her pimp/boyfriend, her child living with a caregiver, and she had several prostitution charges. What it took was someone to believe in her. The YWCA believed in Tiana until she believed in herself. We helped her moved “the big rocks first”. It has been several months now and Tiana obtained permanent housing. She has been reunited with her 2yr old daughter, who is now living with her. She also garnered the strength to testify in the trial of her pimp, which put him behind bars for a long time.
It is working with Tiana, and many other Tiana’s that keeps me doing what I do. It’s for all the Tianas that are still out there that I’m here. I am honored to have the opportunity to share their journey, and want to be here to assist them in opening whatever door they choose to walk through to move forward.
Mille Byrd-Nisby is a Commercial Sexual Exploitation Victim Advocate with the YWCA of Seattle, King Snohomish. The YWCA provides a wide spectrum of services for women and girls including, but not limited to: domestic violence, sexual assault, and commercial sexual exploitation victim/survivor support services, legal assistance, housing, and employment. For more information about the YWCA: www.ywcaworks.org.