For years, so many people abused me that I started to feel like I deserved it. But part of me stayed clear that I was made for a better life, and I kept telling the truth. Finally I found people who took me seriously and helped me escape and heal.
I grew up in Jamaica, where kids who stepped out of line got lashes across their backs. We were told to keep quiet. The first time I tried to speak up, I was 5. I said “Stop! Stop! Stop!” to my mom’s boyfriend. But he wouldn’t listen or stop.
It took me months to tell my mom, but when I did, the words flew out of my mouth like fire from a dragon: “He’s been touching me in my underwear!”
She looked at me like she believed what I was saying, but her actions showed something different. She called my father, who I hadn’t heard from in months, to come remove me from her house. I didn’t want to leave; I wanted her to beat her boyfriend’s ass. I wanted her to be there for me. Her failure to protect me or get rid of the abusive boyfriend told me it was my fault.
My father came to get me in a beat-up old white car. Even though I hadn’t seen him in a long time, and even though I had no idea where we were going, I was excited to be going with him. We drove for what seemed like forever to a nice community behind a red shiny gate.
My dad told me we were at my Aunt Bev’s house—an aunt I’d never met. She was tall and beautiful and seemed too sophisticated to be my aunt. My dad hugged me and said, “I will be back for you later.”
He never came back. Telling the truth to my mother landed me in the home of a stranger.
Not My Home
Aunt Bev bought me what I needed and enrolled me in a good school and after-school activities, but sometimes she hit me. By age 12, I had adjusted to my new family, but I never forgot that I was in a household that was not my own. I wondered why my mother or father hadn’t tried to get me back.
Nor did I forget what my mom’s boyfriend did to me. I felt lonely and had flashbacks and nightmares. Finally, even though Aunt Bev scared me, I told her what had happened.
She asked a lot of questions: “Are you sure? When did this happen? Why didn’t you say anything?” That told me she believed me, but instead of comforting me, she shrugged and said, “We all go through struggles.”
I wanted the earth to open up and suck me in. I went to her for help, and she acted as if my pain meant nothing. Bottle up your feelings and keep them a secret was what I learned that day. Again, I got the message that it was my fault that a grown man sexually assaulted a 5-year-old.
I began fighting at school, skipping classes, and getting suspended. I didn’t want to live with Aunt Bev anymore, and I didn’t understand why my mom didn’t want me. Aunt Bev told me that I was “becoming too expensive” over the years. Neither of my parents contributed any money to the cost of raising me, so she got frustrated and beat me. When the beatings became unbearable, I asked my mom if I could come back and she said yes. I was 12.
Is This What I’m For?
It was a terrible decision. My abuser was still living with my mom: She actually had children with him! He touched me once again, and again she did not protect me. I tried different things to make him stop, but nothing worked.
I was enraged at my mother. How could she call me her baby and say she loved me but allow him to hurt me? We often got into physical fights because she wanted me to respect the man who was assaulting me. We had an especially terrible, violent fight the December after she admitted she’d known what was going on when I was little and didn’t stop it. After that fight, my mom packed up all my stuff and put it on the front porch. She kicked me out.
It was cold, and I had nowhere to sleep, no money, no food. I called my great-uncle who lived up the hill and asked if I could spend the night at his house. I did not expect my great-uncle of all people to try to rape me, but he did. I went down the hill and stayed out the whole night.
How could this be happening to me again? I was only 12, and already I’d gotten the message that this is what I was for. I bounced around from home to home and began to have survival sex, a term I later learned. It means the exchange of sex for money, food, or shelter. I did it so I had a place to sleep. I also began drinking and getting high.
It’s hard to talk about that time. I worry that people will think either that I was “fast” or that I was a victim, and neither of those feel true. I was surviving.
Soon after, my grandmother in New York City asked Aunt Bev to bring me to the U.S. so she could place me in a boot camp or foster care.
I Didn’t Know How to Feel
I was 14 when I arrived in the States. My grandmother and I argued a lot and never had much of a relationship. I still expected her to care about me, so once again, I told the truth about the childhood abuse. I guess because she was my grandmother, I expected her to hug me and to tell me she loved me.
But what she said was, “Nothing like that ever happened! How am I just now finding out about this? Why you lying?” My bottom lip dropped; I couldn’t believe it.
My mother knew I was telling the truth but chose her boyfriend; my aunt said everyone goes through things like that so it’s no big deal; and now my own grandmother didn’t believe me. I was confused and didn’t know how to feel. I didn’t know if I should be sad that no one believed me or even cared, or just accept the fact that what happened to me meant nothing to anyone.
Not being able to speak to my grandmother about my issues made me feel very alone. I had a hard time in school fitting in with other children. I made friends with a girl named Trisha, and we consumed a lot of weed and liquor. Then I got into molly, Xanax, Percocet, and cocaine. Drugs helped me not care and to escape from my family issues. I skipped more and more school to go get high.
My grandmother and aunt threatened to have me arrested and deported after we had a big fight. I didn’t want to go back to Jamaica. Trisha had told me about a guy called Bob who she said could help me get money. I called Bob, and he gave me an address. My friend Shelia said I could stay with her, so I packed two suitcases and took a cab with Shelia to Bob’s.
When we arrived, Bob helped bring my suitcases up to his apartment. Inside was a group of grown men of different ethnic backgrounds. I was nervous. They were passing around weed: Shelia indulged but I wanted to stay alert.
I asked Bob how I would be getting the money. He took me into another room, and I let him have sex with me. I was scared. I told him I no longer wanted the money and wanted to leave, but he told me I had to spend the night there. I was terrified. Then Shelia left me alone there.
The next day, I saw one of the guys from Bob’s house punch, kick, spit on, and drag a young girl because he said she was stealing his money. At this point, I knew how I’d be making money with Bob. I wanted to help the girl, but after the pimp took out his gun I stayed in the corner, sucking my thumb.
Bob took charge of me and drove me from state to state, selling me to men. He didn’t let me use Facebook and he took my phone away so no friends or family could call. I couldn’t eat, sleep, or drink without his permission. I was a prisoner.
My only view of the outside world was from a car or through a hotel window. Bob convinced me that he loved me by having sex with me after busting my lip or spitting on me or punching me in my face. The combination of violence followed by sex felt like love, and he used it over and over, telling me he was sorry and that he loved me.
I grew up watching my mother’s boyfriend beat my mother; both he and my mother put hands on me. I had learned that beating you doesn’t mean someone doesn’t love you. What was new was Bob telling me he loved me after the beatings. I didn’t hear “I love you” much growing up.
I was gone three months with Bob. I escaped when witnesses saw him beating me and called the police. This was in another state, and when I got back to my grandmother’s in New York, my grandmother called the police. I was too afraid of Bob to cooperate with the detective, but he still got caught and went to jail.
Life back at my grandmother’s was no relief. My older cousin Manny was there, picking on me and sometimes hitting me. One night, he gave me a black eye. I called the police and went into foster care.
Finally, Someone Listens
Child Protective Services placed me into Gateways, a residential program for girls who have been sexually trafficked.
At first, I was angry and bitter and didn’t want to talk to any of the other girls. I just wanted to get money and go back on the streets.
That may sound weird, but in the first two weeks, every girl there tried to run away. We had all been brainwashed to think that our pimps loved us, even though we were afraid of them.
Gateways has specific techniques to pull girls out of the life. A lot of us come in wearing wigs and colored contacts, which Gateways forbids. They even referred us to a special tattoo artist who would cover over tattoos of pimps’ names or girls’ own prostitute names. They told us “nobody should be branded.” There were also rules against dressing too sexy or too street. No outfits that would “attract negative attention.”
At first, I didn’t like all the rules, but then I, and other girls, realized that we wanted the good attention we got at Gateways. People woke us up for school; they took us on trips to Six Flags and Splish Splash; they did our laundry and cooked for us. The other girls and the staff felt like a better family than I’d ever had. I felt understood, comfortable, and eventually, even happy.
Miss Gwen, a supervisor, took me jeans shopping and showed me the curvy section. For the first time, I had jeans that fit. She taught me that “if you can’t squat, your jeans don’t fit.” I loved a lot of staff, but Miss Gwen was my mommy. My counselor Marnie met with me every day after school to talk about anything I was going through—relationships, school, my family. In Gateways, I finally felt heard and cared for.
At Gateways, they taught us the term CSEC, which stands for Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children. We all had to use that term instead of “prostitute,” “slut,” or “ho.” Gateways staff kept reminding us that we were sexually exploited and that it wasn’t our choice. They talked a lot about forgiveness of self and about mending family relationships.
Receiving and Giving Love
Before Gateways, my grandmother and I had no relationship. Then my grandmother started showing up for visits and having me home for weekends. For the first few home visits, my social workers came with me, and when my grandmother would throw my old behaviors in my face, they would jump in and say, “It wasn’t her fault.” Her harsh blaming didn’t completely stop, but it did slow down.
Gateways also introduced me to GEMS, another program for girls who’ve been trafficked. Lauren, my GEMS social worker, never missed a court date. (I went to court a lot for using drugs and fighting.) She encouraged me to stay in school and out of trouble.
Eventually, I realized that I was receiving love at Gateways and GEMS. Besides Gwen, Marnie, and Lauren, many other Gateways staff helped me grow. They taught me household skills such as cooking and cleaning; how to manage my emotions; and how to make safe, responsible decisions. They taught me that I don’t need a man to make me happy and that I could aspire to more. I got off all drugs, even cigarettes. I learned to love myself.
Now I’m in a foster home that’s OK. I’m 19, and though I got better in Gateways, I still have a lot of anger from being betrayed and used by adults since I was 5. I fight and I’ve been arrested. I don’t have a high school diploma. Writing about my experiences and feelings helps me. I learned instead of getting angry and acting impulsively, I could just write how I’m feeling. This helps me calm down.
I want a future that’s very different from my past. I don’t want to be institutionalized. I want my own space and freedom. I’m in a high school equivalency degree program, preparing to take the TASC test. I used to see selling my body as the only way out, but not anymore. I’ve worked at several restaurants, and I work really hard at staying away from drugs and try to keep myself busy by working and writing for Represent. In Represent, and other places, I advocate for girls who don’t have a voice. Even when I’m hard on myself, I can still be kind to other girls. I can let them know they’re not alone, that it’s not their fault, and to keep telling the truth.