It Could Happen To You

MAJOR TRIGGER WARNING FOR CHILD ABUSE, SUICIDE, AND SEXUAL/PHYSICAL/EMOTIONAL ABUSE. VERY MAJOR. Even if this isn't a trigger for you, I'd suggest putting up a picture of a cute baby animal in another window and maybe taking a break here and there while reading.

For anyone who missed it, this past weekend, twenty-one vile "human beings" in Georgia were arrested for soliciting sex from children, a massive sting known as Operation Interception. Among those caught was a popular gaming personality who I, and many others, considered a friend.

It wasn't just an overwhelming feeling of disgust and betrayal at the actions of this person -- whose name I'm not giving the extra traffic/clicks -- that I felt. The more reports that began surfacing of his questionable behavior, the faster the room around me spun. I've spoken previously about how my complex post-traumatic stress disorder led me to obsessively study criminology and psychology in an attempt to understand how a person can perpetrate such evil deeds, to find some warning sign that I could cling to and ensure that it would Never Happen Again, either to me or anyone else out there.

What I have not spoken about freely is one of the major sources of my CPTSD. I tried to write a blog post about it multiple times. I'd get to the end and delete the whole thing once fear for my safety took over. I tried to submit an application to the RAINN Speakers' Bureau but never managed to hit "send," despite my desire to find some good use for what I survived. Once I even got brave enough to mention it in a tweet, but was instantly accosted by someone chastising me for saying such a thing because it could negatively affect my fiance's career and family. I ended up deleting the tweet and spent the next three days, sleepless, crying on the couch because I felt like I was a liability and a burden and would destroy everyone around me because of the actions of one disgusting adult when I was a young teenager.

Children of Operation Inception, I am speaking to you today as an adult survivor of sex trafficking. I am here to tell you that you can continue living after someone does something so unspeakable to you. I am here to tell you that there is hope, and that it is not your fault, and that although I can't make the nightmares and the hypervigilance and what feels like the complete and utter destruction of your soul go away, I can let you know that you're not alone.

The grooming process began when I was fifteen years old. I was already vulnerable thanks to reprehensible actions by my biological father, the very least of which was driving my prepubescent self past strip clubs and streets populated by sex workers and telling me "You'll end up there someday" (and trust me, it got much, much worse from there). I was otherwise very sheltered, raised in a conservative, pious family of either immigrants or first-generation Americans. I did not meet the European standards of beauty. I had spent my childhood being emotionally abused and used as a pawn in arguments between family members. I was born as the product of sexual coercion to a young mother who never wanted children but saw no other way to stop the various abuses of her husband. All I wanted was someone to take me away from my home life and love me the way I had always wanted to be loved.

It started like some kind of after-school special, on the internet. He'd found my chat profile and despite the fact that it very clearly stated I was underage, immediately began sending me sexually explicit messages and trying to convince me to engage in cybersex with him. I was absolutely disgusted and humiliated by what he was saying. I told him to leave me alone, that it was wrong for a man in his 20s to be going after someone my age. But he persisted. He wore me down.

I don't know why I didn't just block him. All I can say is that while Current Me, a woman in her 30s, is wise enough to reach for the "Block" button when someone is terrible, Teenage Me had no idea how to handle what I was experiencing. I didn't even know what half of the stuff he was referencing meant, it was so deviant.

In between the torrent of obscenity and descriptions of sexual acts he wanted to do to me so perverse they'd make the Marquis de Sade seriously consider a monastic life, he told me the things I'd always wished for: that I was pretty, that I was smart, that I was wanted. He'd also tell me I was worthless, that I was only good for sex, but then defend it by saying he was into BDSM and that was how you talked to a slave.

He told me he wanted me to come visit him. I lied to my mother because I knew she'd never let me go be with who, by that point, I'd been brainwashed into believing was the only person who'd ever love me and managed to convince her to let me visit a "friend" out of state.

I was a virgin when I met him in person for the first time. I consented to sex, but what he did to me was so rough that I could barely walk and couldn't pee for an hour afterwards. If I cried, he did it harder, and told me that he wouldn't tolerate being told "no" -- that he was doing to me what everyone does to whores. I later learned that this was referred to as "breaking in" a victim.

The games he was playing with my head increased once I returned home. He'd break up with me for displeasing him, only to suddenly message me two days later like nothing had happened. When I found out a year later that he'd had a local, serious girlfriend the whole time, he claimed it was polyamory and then started pitting the two of us against each other for his own amusement.

Remember that this whole time, I was still underage.

There are those who question why my family didn't step in or know what was happening. Reason number one is because at this point in history, I was a teenager with a computer of her own, a luxury that my parents didn't have growing up, so from a technological standpoint I was leaps and bounds ahead of my mother on what I could hide from her online. I never got into serious trouble as a kid. I was a handful, and at this point I was having some severe emotional and physical outbursts, but it was chalked up to typical teenage hormones.

Reason number two is because predators like this excel at convincing you that this is what you want. In reality, it is not what you want. Nobody could ever want this. Was I a typical teenager? Yes, and the majority of teenagers will lie to their parents and sneak off to see friends without having to worry about being turned into a sex slave. Hell, they should be able to do so. Testing boundaries and learning consequences for behavior is a major part of childhood development. But this is exactly what predators take advantage of. They know that kids are vulnerable and not yet wise to the ways of the world. They know that it just takes patience and persistence with the right kid, preferably one from a broken home or with prior issues of their own, to turn them into a sex slave.

Eventually convinced me to come live with him since now we could publicly be together. I still saw it as going off to a castle in the clouds with my Prince Charming. My relationship with my mother and her new boyfriend were at rock bottom. I thought I was escaping when in reality I was heading for something so, so much more terrible.

You see, now I was of legal age. I was less exciting, less interesting to him than I was when I was still a kid. Suddenly, "living with him" became "living with his friends" in a dingy apartment. I was only rarely allowed to visit his apartment or stay over, and if I did, he'd throw a blanket over me and tell me to stay quiet and still should anyone come to the door. He would tell them how irresponsible and troublesome I was to diminish my credibility should I ever try to complain. He would do things like lend them money, but then hold me responsible for part of or all of the debt, or "surprise" me with a cell phone I didn't ask for so that he could keep in contact with me 24/7 -- but of course, I was expected to pay the bill.

I tried working a part-time job at the mall. It simply wasn't enough money to pay rent and keep paying off the mounting debts I was handed.

I remember the day that he made his suggestion to me was a day he'd taken me out to lunch, in a rare show of affection. "I know a way you could put your talents to use and make some real money," he said.

The club he brought me to is no longer in existence. Turns out that since I escaped, it was raided and shut down by police. Given the fact that most of the women I worked with were desperate immigrants from South America who did not hold their own passports, who routinely disappeared to be taken to other, rougher clubs for bad behavior, and who would live with the club owner as his "girlfriend" for a time before he put them onstage and made another trip to recruit more "girlfriends," this was not entirely surprising. But when this is all being normalized for you -- when no matter how much your brain is yelling "THIS DOESN'T FEEL RIGHT!", you've got older, wiser people telling you that it's totally fine, and you've got nowhere else to go...

I was raped multiple times at the club by clients. Management turned a blind eye. I don't remember a lot of specifics about my time at the club. I remember managing to leave for what I thought was a reputable secretarial job I'd found in the classified ads, only to find that my boss was in tight with the owners of the club and the business itself was a front for other illegal activities. In retrospect, now I understand why they let me "get away" in the first place -- I wasn't going far. After they let me have my little bit of freedom, they fired me over a small typo in a document I'd produced, and I had no other options but to go back to the club.

No other options because at this point my breakfast was an 8-ounce glass of vodka and a cigarette, and I was having sedatives poured down my throat by the other girls who were trying to stop me from crying so that management wouldn't overhear and I wouldn't be sent off to one of the other clubs. I was strung out or drunk at any given time, so not exactly hireable. The predator who lured me there in the first place had lost interest in me at this point, claiming he couldn't be associated with a sex worker. He'd poisoned the tenuous relationship I had with my landlords in the first place, driving home the fact that I was nothing but a whore and an addict. They began destroying my property to punish me, emotionally abusing me, accusing me of trying to steal from them and demanding that I hand over more and more of my money. I couldn't have just packed up and gone home on my own. I was too far gone to know that I deserved anything else and I had no savings because of how much I had to pay out to everyone around me.

I had been in contact with my family via phone a few times to let them know where I was and that I was alive. They even knew what I was doing. When I got the courage to tell them, it had started as a cry for help. But I caved immediately afterwards. I swore up and down that I was happy with my lot in life while hoping that they would put their foot down and come get me anyway and then I would never have to admit how stupid I'd been, how much I'd been taken advantage of while still getting away. I fed the same lines to my friends who showed concern. To the doctors who expressed concerns about my constant kidney infections and physical appearance during exam.

I was, at least physically, an adult -- by this point I'd been so traumatized that mentally I was, and still am, closer to a teenager. This meant that every single one of them had no real choice but to take me at my word. If my family had stomped their feet and demanded I come home, sight unseen, they knew they risked losing me altogether because of how thoroughly my mind had been worked over.

Until my mother came to visit. I'd just gotten out of the hospital from a suicide attempt. She saw how skinny I was -- I didn't have enough money for food, so I was living off of whatever I could convince a client to buy me in exchange for sex, the only currency I had left -- saw the conditions I was living under, saw the hollow look in my eyes. She managed to get me on a plane to come home, and in doing so, saved my life.

We have never spoken about the details of what happened to me during that time in my life, and never will, because I know she will blame herself, even though none of it was her fault, and in the end she was the one who dragged me back from the brink without realizing it. I even warned her that I was making this blog post and that she should avoid reading it. Because the predators don't just destroy their victims; they decimate the families and friends of their victims. They torment people who have had similar experiences. They manipulate and ruin credibility and do everything they can to continue being able to pick off the proverbial sheep from the flock, undetected.

I never went to the authorities about what happened to me, and I never will. The statute of limitations has passed, and any evidence there may once have been is long gone, which is why I'm not naming names -- there would be no happy outcome where the predator ends up in jail and I get to move on with my life knowing he'll never hurt anyone again. He's not a celebrity. He's no one of great import. You wouldn't recognize his face in the crowd. I can't even prove that he ever did to anyone else what he did to me, although the statistics are pretty clear that offenders like this are rarely one-offs. If I gave identifying information, I'd likely just end up getting sued for libel with no way to prove my case.

I suffered for years trying to move past it and was only able to do so with intensive EMDR therapy. Even still, I occasionally have nightmares that I'm still at the club. I see the faces of the other women in my daydreams. At least I no longer see his. By speaking about the worst time of my life, I hope that someone else will realize they're not alone, that it is possible to survive. That this kind of thing happens every day, not in far-flung countries around the world, but right at home, in modern cities, in modern countries, under our noses. That you can have a real, fulfilling life afterwards, and that someday you will find somebody who really loves you instead of hurting you, and you will confide your past to them, and for the first time in your life, you will hear those precious words:

"It wasn't your fault."