Sister Terry Shields, MSHR, one of the panelists at Cabrini’s showing of the anti-human trafficking documentary “Sex + Money” on Monday, shared with one of our editors the inspiring, transformational story of one of her clients that we felt compelled to pass on. Her client, a young woman, had been arrested 52 times during her heartbreaking experience as a victim of the sex trafficking industry – and yet, just last week, her criminal record had been erased of these arrests that made her out to be the villain, not the victim.
The arrests were erased because she’d been offered and had accepted a helping hand, one which chose to love her, not leave her; hers was a story of perseverance, of triumph in the face of modern-day slavery.
Sr. Terry is the treasurer for Dawn’s Place, a nine-bed shelter for the victims of both international and domestic commercial sex exploitation, an industry that generates $32 billion annually – half of which is made just in developed countries, in our own U.S. neighborhoods. Sex trafficking is said to happen in every city, even in the small towns no one suspects; no area is entirely safe; no woman, no child, is spared from the real threat of trafficking.
Dawn’s Place is located in the Greater Philadelphia area, though its exact location is undisclosed for the guaranteed safety of its residents. It’s a shelter that takes in women from all over the globe, even given its modest size.
But why do these women get trafficked? What makes a trafficking victim, male or female, vulnerable prey for the pimps and traffickers?
Sr. Terry shared with us an answer that we see as the double-edged sword which all humans face head-on in their lives: a yearning to belong – and to be loved.
Many trafficking victims come from home environments that aren’t bursting with love, ones that, in fact, are bereft of the stuff. “Sex + Money” paints for us a true portrait of victims’ broken families, which nurture in them a despairing desire, a critical need, to get the love they’re so clearly missing in their lives.
And, once that love’s finally offered, it’s easy to believe that it’s for real.
If your perception of what love is, of what is and isn’t respectful and genuine, is stunted through past experiences, who are you to tell the difference between a pimp’s seemingly generous promises of a warm bed, a hot meal, steady income and work, and a hand to hold yours when times get tough – when that’s all you’ve been searching for?
These women are looking for love, just like us all.
One of the most beautiful things which Sr. Terry’s work at Dawn’s Home provides, and which shelters like it provides, is an organic sense of community, of compassion. Sr. Terry sees the shared community of Dawn’s Home residents as critical in the process of rebuilding the women’s broken lives; after all, they share one common struggle, and one common goal: of being loved for who they are.
We believe that it’s important to regard the struggles of trafficking victims not as remote tragedies that happen in the background, but as active injustices that happen even in our own backyards.
During your next shopping trip to the King of Prussia mall, remind yourself that the glamor and innocence of window-shopping isn’t all it’s advertised to be: the mall is the largest trafficking “trading post” on the East coast. More women and children are trafficked at the mall in our own backyard than anywhere else up and down the eastern seaboard.
So, what can we do about this? Are we powerless to change this?
The most critical thing is for us to maintain a level of compassion for victims. It’s impossible at times to know the difference between a prostitute and a sex trafficking victim, as “Sex + Money” illustrates; some would even argue that they’re one and the same.
We must take this as a sign to be sensitive, and not to judge someone based on how he or she looks, or what they do – this needs to bleed into every area of our lives, as we’ll never know the whole picture of anyone’s struggle.
We must act with compassion; we must look for – and provide – love across all borders; we must recognize our shared humanity, and aim to ensure the guarantee of liberty for everyone.
It’s not always about donating to critical services like the one Dawn’s Place provides (although they do depend entirely on donations for their daily operations).
At times, it’s just about being with someone else, sharing your true self with him or her, and accepting their true self in return.
Without providing acceptance – without providing love – what good are we?