Former Sex Traffic Victim Becomes A Full-Time Advocate For Others

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In this encore presentation of a "Sunday Conversation," NPR's Rachel Martin talks with a former victim of child sex trafficking, who now works as an advocate and mentor for other victims.

SHEILA WHITE: Growing up there was a lot of domestic violence in my household. A lot of things that were, like, directly impacting me at a young age. And when I got into foster care there really wasn't, you know, any outlets to kind of, like, talk about my trauma or, you know, any of the things that I've been through.


That is the voice of Sheila White. When we spoke with her a year ago, she was working in New York with a group that helps former victims of sex trafficking. It's called GEMS, Girls Education and Mentoring Services. As President Carter said, human trafficking has become a multi billion dollar global industry. Much of that trafficking involves young women who are forced into prostitution. Our conversation with President Carter reminded us of our Sunday Conversation we had with Sheila White.

She was living in foster care in the Bronx as a teenager when she met a man who became her pimp. Despite her young age, Sheila was arrested several times for prostitution. Eventually, the court ordered her to start working with GEMS or go to jail. When I asked her if she experienced a low point, she described an overwhelming sense of helplessness.

Here again, our Sunday Conversation with Sheila White.

WHITE: You're going to go through many different low points. And you're going to be exposed to extreme violence and just so many different things that you begin to feel kind of numb. So what's actually happening and it makes it really feel like, you know, there isn't a way out.

MARTIN: Was your exploiter ever arrested?

WHITE: I really wouldn't want to get into details about that.


WHITE: As far as like the penalties for exploiters now, looks very different than during the time that I was involved. Even a couple of years ago this wasn't seen like something to be taken seriously. Like the girls were being arrested, they were the ones going to jails, doing the time and pimps and johns were basically walking scot-free.

MARTIN: I have read that oftentimes victims of sex trafficking develop a kind of attachment to their exploiters, their pimps. And that makes it complicated to get them out of that situation. Can you talk about whether or not that is true? Is that something that's a real challenge?

WHITE: I mean there is a sense of bonding that a girl can have with her exploiter. As awful as the situation may be, there are that are being met, right? Like, if a girl is coming from a place, if she's homeless, if she doesn't have nowhere to go and she doesn't have clothes or food or, you know, shelter or ultimately, she doesn't feel love, like, those are the things that her exploiter is giving her. And he's the only thing that's consistent in her life right now so, of course, there's going to be a level of love.

And on the outside, if society sees this young person as the bad one, the criminal, and that's reinforcing to her like everything he's telling her. Like, right, you can't trust no one, no one's going to love you. You know, no one is going to believe you. Like, those are the things he's telling you so it makes that bond even that much stronger.

MARTIN: I imagine that it's - it's hard to stop that narrative if you've been hearing that for a long time from this man, from your exploiter, to create a new story about yourself, that you are someone of worth. I imagine that's hard.

WHITE: It's about rediscovering your natural skills and your talents and all the things that, you know, you enjoy. And that's something that GEMS does. We celebrate every small step. You could have been anywhere else in the world but you're here with us. And no matter how many times you go back, we're going to help you grow.

MARTIN: You talk about rediscovering who you actually are and the things that make you happy. I wonder if you don't mind sharing one or two of those joys for yourself.

WHITE: I mean it wasn't so much that the things that I've forgotten. It was just being in a space where I can have relationships that made me question other relationships in my life, right? Like being in one central place where you can see leadership modeled in front of you, and that's something I really focused on, right? Like, the fact that girls can come in and see me, you know, running group or training. You know, like, that's modeling leadership and that's modeling what your life can look like.

MARTIN: Lastly, if I could ask you about your concept of family. Have you been able to develop yet another safe, healthier version of a family for yourself?

WHITE: I mean, something that I have learned over my own healing process is family is who you make it. And, you know, I feel like I've been very, very blessed to have a family at GEMS. It's not blood family but that's something I have to learn, like, family is who you want it to be.


MARTIN: That was former sex trafficking victim Sheila White.


MARTIN: And you're listening to NPR News.

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