My name is Holly Austin Smith, and I am a survivor of Human Trafficking.
When I was fourteen years old, I ran away from home with a man I had met at a shopping mall in Ocean County, New Jersey. After exchanging numbers, this man called at night while my unknowing parents watched television in the living room.
We talked more than once.
Convincing me to runaway with him was not an overnight accomplishment. He took his time. He got to know me. He analyzed my troubles, and he asked me my dreams. I wanted to be a s songwriter. I wanted to meet Julia Roberts. I wanted to see Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris, France.
The year was 1992.
I was on summer break from eighth grade middle school, and my freshman year of high school loomed in the distance like an angry bull.
I was severely depressed.
And as the pressures of my fourteen-year-old-world boiled to the surface, I fled. I laced up my size-five sneakers, and I ran toward opportunity, toward possibility, and toward freedom.
In reality, I ran right in the inexorable clutches of a sex trafficking ring. Within hours of running away with what turned out to be a manipulative and menacing pimp, I was coerced into working Pacific Avenue in Atlantic City, NJ until dawn the next day.
The following night an officer on the street recognized me as being underage and arrestHi my name is Dai,* I’m a survivor of human trafficking and exploitation. I have experienced the harm that these forms of violence inflict on those of us who have been sexually exploited. Let me tell you a little history about my life. I have been an American for nearly 21 years. Abused as a child, I made a promise to myself that I would never be abused again. As I continue with my speech, I’m here to share my story specifically regarding my traumatic experience in the sex trafficking.
One question that has always perplexed me is the need to share my experiences, and what I witnessed in Las Vegas without exploiting myself. An integral part of my story is that I, and many other minority women, whether American or not, were shipped from state to state in order to provide specific services for men. It has been stated by many that the sex industry has been divided into two distinct classifications: prostitution and trafficking. I encourage you to listen to my story as I reveal to you why I believe they are one and the same.
In 1995, I fell in love with a military man, who persuaded me to move with him to an undisclosed remote area. There, I was raped and beat continually while handcuffed to a door of an abandoned house. Eventually, through circumstances, I made my escape, but not before he had confiscated my naturalization papers, driver’s license and social security card. With no proof of my identity, I could not acquire adequate shelter. I felt like an animal that has been cast into the street. My life became a scenario of sojourning from one homeless shelter to another.
One day, I was approached by a middle-aged woman who had been watching my every move. Unaware that she was a (Female Pimp), she insisted that I come and work for her in the Escort Service (she assured me that it was only a dating service). My unawareness of this proposition was so overwhelmed by my need for food, money and clothing that I desperately accepted her offer. After several weeks I found myself well provided for and economically stable. Then the unthinkable happened: a client bargained me for sex. After I refused his offer, he grabbed me by the hair, forced me on the floor and raped and beat me. In terror, I fled to the police to report the violence. To my astonishment, the police informed me that I had no rights because I had attained the status of a “street-walker”.
Eventually, the female pimp who recruited me sent me to this gentleman who worked in Nevada where my experience in Human Trafficking began. To this day, I am still haunted by flashbacks regarding certain smells, as well as cold floors which numbed my bare feet. Many times, panic ensues when I find myself in a line of women; it resurrects the nightmares of all the humiliating inspection line-ups I had to endure. We were constantly paraded before a potential client; their lustful eyes examining and perusing us before we became final choices for each predatory customer.
Being Korean, I remember the time when a prejudiced ‘john’ demanded that I dress as a Japanese prostitute/geisha. My vulnerability was made complete when I was taught to speak broken English, fulfilling the racist image of exoticism. Although, I was one of the few that spoke and understood English, my required masquerade as a foreigner brought more money to the Master through harboring of immigrants.
There is no difference between trafficking and prostitution when innocent women and children are being harbored for the sole purpose of the commercial sex trade. Exploiters and pimps are always violating the rights of these victims who are pursuing their freedom to escape from harm.
In reality, no female desires to be a part of this nightmare. Most of us were incarcerated in basements, underneath casinos and in abandoned warehouses. Our desperate cries for help were silenced by the walls, which separated us from the rest of the world. While tourists roamed the streets of Las Vegas admiring the architectural beauty and the celestial lights, which permeated the night sky, we, the victims, were in perpetual fear for our lives.
The Master, knowing full well that I was an American, forced me to work both the Escort and the Trafficking. If I refused or didn’t comply, I was taken underground and sentenced to various methods of punishment. The vividness of this maltreatment brought back such childhood nightmares of the times I was locked in a closet. Each of these two scenarios mirrored the same cries for freedom; after all, I was the submissive little foreign girl who was threatened not to tell anyone. In both cases, my guilt-ridden confessions of bad behavior resulted in my temporary release. On my knees, I had to convince my Master that I would be on my best behavior. After hours of interrogation, I was given permission to return to do what I did best; being a concubine, and deluding myself into thinking that I enjoyed it.
I was involved in trafficking for more than six months. I compare that time to being held hostage in a timeless existence where my mind engaged itself in disassociation with my soul. This mental state was the only way in which I could keep any sanity. Repeatedly, I witnessed the beatings, rapes and murders of innocent women. At times, my tears of hopelessness would drown me into a pathos of my own execution. How could my own country not be aware of these cruelties? How could this kind of discrimination and slavery be given the power to blind immigrant and American women of their rights? The frustration of these and other questions echoed within my catatonic mind.
Most of the time we were transported by trucks with drivers who were not naive to our purpose, and well informed of our identity. After months of these transports for trafficking our self-images had been reduced to cattle being loaded on a cattle car. Thousands of dollars were exchanged on these cross-country trips which kept us silent and our existence a secret. There were times that the warehouse truck would stop, the tail gate door forced opened, then two or three were summoned out.
We were given shoes and clothing so we would not appear as homeless refugees. We had to walk a block down to a near by truck stop, given fifteen minutes to bathe ourselves, then return to the truck. In degrading humiliation we had to beg for toiletries and other personal items. Sometimes, a policeman would appear on the scene and I would be so tempted to cry out for help, but fear of jeopardizing my life and the lives of the other women prevented me. The quick shower and change of clothing signaled our soon “rendezvous” with the ‘johns’ who requested for us. The women were released a few at a time so as not to raise any suspicion.
Selections of adult-aged women and minor girls (who were under the age of sixteen) usually numbered between twenty and fifty. The adult women were expected to resemble a late teen. If they would not comply they were discarded, cast-out, and some were never heard from again. We were constantly monitored, forbidden to make eye contact with anyone in public areas. When we arrived at our destination, the women were separated into motel rooms. We traversed the very rural area of Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas, California, Florida, and New York. We were never paid directly, however, later on I discovered that it would turn more money if clients were deceived into thinking that all of us were immigrants.
After months of ongoing physical and mental agony I became apathetic regarding my life; I did not care if I lived or died. With convincing death threats from my Master, I remained silent. If he suspected that I was going to expose him he would verbalize threats against my family and friends. It was at this time that I soul searched an alternative way to reveal this horror to the public.
Anyone can locate escort services, brothels, bathhouses and strip clubs in the yellow pages, newspapers, and brochures which detail the variety of girls they have to offer. As for the Trafficking business, they sought out clientele by word of mouth, on the Internet, personal references and very powerful people who were involved on the inside. This creates a distraction for the sex trade businesses, which continually harbors immigrants as slaves. The sex trade pimps are incredibly organized, know how to blend into society and stage criminal activity as though it is “business as usual.” The scary scenario is not the every day casual clients, but it is the established businessmen, the upper echelon trustees and the government officials which are also clientele.
America needs to have its eyes open to this reality which is happening twenty-four hours a day. People need to understand that the master minds behind the sex trafficking are very clever, creative, deceptive and cautious regarding their services and the way in which they enslave women against their will. It is important to understand that pimps emerge from diverse social backgrounds. The majority of the ones with which I had contact, (who were responsible for the trafficking recruitment) had attained status and wealth.
Even though language barriers prevented my communication with these women, we shared the same relentless fears. Somehow, we also shared the dim ray of hope that maintained our survival. I remember, at different times, holding each of them in my arms letting their tears stain my clothing, while all along, sharing the same pain. Though English was my one advantage, I was just as lost, confused and terrified. However, within the depths of this hell I was experiencing, my will to survive was the fire which kept alive my vision of exposing trafficking to the public.
Finally, I was able to escape from my master through a wealthy client who bought me for an undisclosed amount of money. He was an older gentleman with considerable influence. Through his kindness I planned my way of another escape. He admired my oriental beauty and encouraged and coached me to be a (female pimp). He bought my companionship with jewelry, money and expensive cars: He never physically abused me. With ulterior motives he taught me how to make my own money as a Las Vegas Madam (Female Pimp). Therefore, to escape the daily abuse of the sex industry, I found myself recruiting women and leading them into the same vile profession which had terribly traumatized me. I was deceived and controlled by the power it gave me.
Down the road, I got to the point where I could not stomach what I was doing; repeating the very pattern which held me captive for so long. I may not have abused these women the way my Master did to me, but I did sell them. I used large amounts of narcotics to escape the reality of my immoral empire. When I realized I could not escape the recurring nightmares of women locked in basements, warehouse trucks and cheap dirty motels. I was hurled into a major mental breakdown. Coming to terms with my situation, I ran away from the ‘john’ who bought me. Fearing the possibility of being kidnapped and returned to Las Vegas, I began to seek refuge in churches, seeking their assistance in my quest for deliverance and freedom.
Upon leaving Nevada, I was constantly on the run from former pimps. My life resembled a fugitive fleeing from one location to another. In the fall of 2000, I made contact with an advocate through the Internet, she advised me to relocate to a different state. Since then, I slowly began to heal, trust, and reinvent myself to return to society to make positive contributions. I long to reach out to those who are still imprisoned in the revolving door of sexual exploitation. Truly, their shackles can be broken by people who are willing to tear down the walls of silence, and offer them the hope of freedom. They robbed me of five years, they thought they could break me. Yet, I am still standing and I will stand and voice my experience for the victims who are still held in captive of human trafficking.
*Names have been changed for security purposes.d me. Although I was soon recognized to be a victim, the specialized aftercare needed for a trafficking victim did not yet exist. The journey toward healing was a long and bumpy road, indeed.
Twenty years ago, there were no anti-trafficking laws in place. This pimp, who raped and lured a child into prostitution, served only 365 days in jail. Two additional traffickers were arrested; however, one (a woman) posted bail and fled. She is still considered a fugitive in the state of New Jersey.
Today, I advocate for stronger anti-trafficking laws and greater protection for survivors of all forms of human trafficking.
To learn more about Holly, and to read an excerpt of her memoir, please visit her blog and website at www.HollyAustinSmith.com.