Human Trafficking Case Manager and Research Analyst Focus Group

Survivors of Sex Trafficking: It’s Not as Simple as ‘Get a Job’

What happens to individuals in underserved communities who have survived sex trafficking and exploitation? According to the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, a great number of these individuals have been coerced, forced, or engaged in ‘The Life’ due to poverty and other conditions prevalent in marginalized communities. As such, they have not been brought up in a school system in which they were given opportunities to explore and pursue careers at a younger age, or even to develop employment readiness skills.

When they try to leave ‘The Life’ behind, survivors find themselves with no inner compass and no map. As a case in point, in a recent focus group with teens and educators in underserved communities, the consensus among both groups was that youth need positive relationships with adults who are willing to listen and provide mentorship and support for their dreams. In addition, they need their schools to provide practical opportunities for career-related learning experiences. Participants in the focus group felt that these qualities were lacking in their areas.

In association with Journey Out, an organization in the Los Angeles area that advocates for survivors of human trafficking, a panel of five survivors were invited to provide their recollections regarding their exposure to career exploration opportunities in middle school and high school. All of the participants had grown up in impoverished situations. The survivors were also asked to share their career dreams from childhood to the present time, as well as any obstacles they may have encountered in reaching their dreams (other than the period of exploitation itself). Their thought-provoking responses follow each question below.

When you were very young, was there any type of career that you really wanted to have when you grew up?

Survivor 1: I had two dreams. A chef and an artist.
Survivor 2: A scientist. Science is so fun.
Survivor 3: An animal doctor.
Survivor 4: An artist. I loved painting.
Survivor 5: A teacher. When I was real little, I liked school.

When you were in Middle School, were there any types of programs in your school that helped you think about a career you’d like to choose?

Survivor 1: No
Survivor 2: Nope.
Survivor 3: No, are you joking?
Survivor 4: Not at all.
Survivor 5: No.

When you were in High School, were there any types of programs in your school that helped you think about a career you’d like to choose?

Survivor 1: No.
Survivor 2: Nothing at all.
Survivor 3: Nothing.
Survivor 4: No.
Survivor 5: Only one thing I can think of. One time they told us about the military. That’s it.

What is your job now?

Survivor 1: Wine-pouring.
Survivor 2: I’m a drug/alcohol peer. I like it, but it don’t pay well.
Survivor 3: I’m doing repairs on ranches. Had to get out of the city.
Survivor 4: I’m dealing poker whenever I can. But sometimes I’m still in The Life if I’m broke.
Survivor 5: I’m not working.

What type of career path are you on today?

Survivor 1: I want to be a manager in the wine industry.
Survivor 2: Something in social services. Because I like to help people.
Survivor 3: I guess to co-own a repair business since I’m doing repairs these days.
Survivor 4: I want to be a licensed beautician.
Survivor 5: I have no idea.

What type of career path would you like to be on, if you had no obstacles?

Survivor 1: I’d be a successful artist.
Survivor 2: A scientist.
Survivor 3: I’d be a business owner – but something with animals instead.
Survivor 4: I’d own a beauty shop.
Survivor 5: Maybe I could be a 911 operator. But I probably can’t because I have a record.

What do you think are the most difficult things about finding a new job outside of The Life?

Survivor 1: Knowing what I am actually qualified to do. I wish someone would have taught
me how to write a resume a long time ago.
Survivor 2: I have a felony record because of (stuff) my pimp made me do. Also, no skills
mean no decent pay. And no one ever taught me how to write a resume.
Survivor 3: My felony record. Also my lack of skills, and stuff I carry around mentally because
of The Life.
Survivor 4: Getting paid enough to live on. Not having skills that would pay me more. And all my
psychological stuff because of The Life. Also, I don’t know how to write resumes.
Survivor 5: Competition with other people who have more skills and no criminal record. Also, my
age. It’s harder to start over, the later you get out of The Life.

What do you think is most challenging about continuing to work at a job outside of The Life?

Survivor 1: Motivation, if you don’t know what you want to be yet.
Survivor 2: Feeling undervalued at work – not being paid enough or treated well.
Survivor 3: Regular work hours, when I’m used to staying up late and sleeping in. Also not being
paid enough to live on without skills. It takes time to learn skills to get paid more. And
working with other people is hard when in The Life you did the work alone.
Survivor 4: Regular work hours are hard to get used to. Making less money than in The Life is
hard, too. And it takes a lot of time to learn work skills. Also, working with other
people is hard when I’m not used to it.
Survivor 5: Interactions with others are hard! And it’s also hard to stay if there’s a negative work
environment.

What would make you want to stay in a particular workplace?

Survivor 1: Loving the work.
Survivor 2: Liking the work. Because how do we know what’s even some choices if no one ever
helped us with that before? Also being respected and paid decent money.
Survivor 3: Fewer people to deal with, and good pay.
Survivor 4: Feeling fulfilled and making enough money.
Survivor 5: I’m still figuring that out.

These thought-provoking responses illustrate various struggles experienced by survivors of exploitation from underserved communities – not only in becoming financially stable but also, in feeling personally fulfilled within a career. There is a clear need for fairness of choice and opportunity for those in underserved communities, starting within the educational system. Such opportunity could reasonably lead to empowerment over coercion into sexual exploitation.

Published by

Lisa Rymshaw

Lisa Rymshaw, PsyD works with survivors of human trafficking and exploitation in the Los Angeles area, in conjunction with the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office. She is also a freelance writer. In addition to working in social services, her career background includes serving in public safety and special education. View all posts by Lisa Rymshaw

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