Growing up, I was an adventurous, fun-loving kid. I did well in school, was on the track, basketball, and swimming teams, and pretty popular. But after I moved from Iowa to Georgia at age 17, I felt alone for the first time. I didn’t know anyone at school, so I turned to the Internet for people to talk to.
I can’t recall which social media network it was where I met the guy who became my boyfriend. At first, it was nothing serious; we bonded over a common interest in hip-hop music and both liked Jay-Z. He was easy to talk to, understanding of my feelings, and a good listener. I didn’t care that he was in his 30s, because he made me feel special and comfortable it just felt right.
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So, after talking for a few months online, he asked me if I wanted to meet for the first time and go to South Beach, Florida for Memorial Weekend. I was so excited! He said he’d pay for everything, no problem, so we made plans for him to pick me up from at my house one morning around 3 a.m. while my mom was asleep.
“What’s up?” were his first words to me. He was cool and laid-back, so I felt relaxed. He popped the trunk for my bag, and I got into the car. “Are you ready to go to South Beach?” I replied, “Yeah!” I was determined to get there; I had never been before but I’d seen it on TV and heard people talk about it. Plus, I didn’t have to pay for anything, so what better way was there to experience South Beach? We picked up a girl and another guy at the Greyhound Station before leaving town. I slept most of the way there.
I woke up at one point and heard my boyfriend and the girl we picked up whispering in the front seat.
When she noticed I was awake, she turned around and told me how fun South Beach was, how she knew so many people there, and how they took trips down there often. But I got a really weird vibe from her. For the first time, it hit me that I was going out of state with near-strangers and might not come back.
It wasn’t until I was in Florida that I called my mom and told her I went to Miami with some friends. “You’re in Florida?” she asked. “How’d you get to Florida?” She couldn’t believe I went all the way there, but she didn’t seem upset since I said I was with friends.
After we got to our hotel, my boyfriend left me with the woman from the front seat, who I later learned was his ex-girlfriend. She asked if I wanted to go out and walk around because Memorial Weekend was lively at night, and I said sure.
I was underage, so I couldn’t get into any clubs or parties. Instead, we just walked around. She’d flirt with guys and get their numbers. I didn’t say much of anything; it was so awkward. I just stood to the side. Once I asked what she was doing, but she didn’t answer me.
One guy complimented me on my eyes, and she asked me to flirt with him. I looked at her, like, “What are you talking about?” She knew I had a boyfriend! So, she took over the conversation, got his number, and told him she’d have me call later to see what he was doing. But there was no way I was going to do that.
I didn’t realize it then, but that was the beginning of her setting me up to be prostituted. She had me follow her around all night, collect numbers for her, and put them in my phone.
Whenever I asked her when we were going back to our own hotel, she just reassured me like everything was fine and totally normal. It didn’t feel normal.
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Then she called the guys whose numbers she’d collected and took me to another hotel, telling me to just follow her and not say anything. When I got into the room, there were four guys there. I got a really bad vibe. I tried to leave, but she told me, “We’re only going to hang out for a few minutes DON’T leave me here by myself.” She was so aggressive just the way she looked at me was threatening; it was like, “You better not do anything or say anything unless I tell you to.”
All I kept thinking was that no one knew where I was and anything could happen to me. And it did. She started ordering me around and made me do sexual things with the men that nobody should ever have to do. Then she took money from them and said we could leave.
I was numb as we left the hotel. She walked off to another hotel to “make more money,” and I was desperate to find my boyfriend so that he could help me. I didn’t know where our hotel was, but somehow I found my way back there. When I arrived, my boyfriend was there and I just wept I was so afraid he’d be mad, or wouldn’t believe me! I finally admitted that his ex had forced me to have sex with men in another hotel. “I’m scared and I want to go home!” I told him. He held me and couldn’t believe it. He told me she was crazy, money-hungry, and a little “off” because she took pills.
But when his ex did make her way back to our hotel, he left me inside and I overheard them talking by the door about how to split the money she’d made off me. “Where’s all the money?” he asked her. “I know you made more.” He accused her of lying about how much she’d made so she could keep more for herself. As I sat on the bed crying and watching them argue, I saw clearly that they’d planned this. This must’ve been what they were talking about in the front seat on our drive down. I felt so ashamed.
Afterward, I begged him to take me home; I just wanted to go somewhere where I felt safe. They continued to argue over the money the next day, so out of his frustration with her, he ended up driving me back to Georgia, and she stayed down in Florida. Their heated argument and split saved my life, I’m sure of it. He texted me several times afterwards to ask me to hang out as if nothing had happened I couldn’t believe it! I felt lied to and humiliated. I never told anyone. My relationship with my mom wasn’t strong enough for me to communicate much of anything to her; I didn’t have anyone to tell.
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But you don’t forget something like that. It left me traumatized and kept me up at night, thinking. I started doing really poorly in school. But then someone told me about the education and training program, Job Corps.
When I was 20, I first told a Job Corps counselor about being assaulted in South Beach, and she referred me to the Circle of Friends Learning Resource Campus Collaborative for more help figuring things out. There, I had access to real counseling for the first time in my life.
One day, the resource center held a group discussion on the topic of courage. Its founder, Lisa Williams, told us girls about a brave young boy who reached out to her after he was sexually abused by a student minister he had trusted. I saw myself in this story, and a few days later, I let Ms. Williams know what happened to me in Florida. I’d never trusted another person enough to tell the whole story, and that’s when I found out what sex trafficking was and that I had been a victim. She answered my questions about everything I’d experienced and seen. After three years of secrecy, I finally knew what to call the awful things that had happened to me.
I learned that sex trafficking is when someone is forced into sexual activities to earn the trafficker money. We often hear about it happening overseas, but it’s also a problem here in the U.S, with 3,598 cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline in 2014. Anybody lured into the sex trade under the age of 18 is considered a victim of trafficking. I also learned that the woman who had taken me to the men’s hotel rooms was the guy who I thought was my boyfriend’s “bottom,” which meant she assisted him, trained new girls, and collected money.
I’d been blaming myself for what happened for going to Florida, for not being able to stop them from advertising me on the streets and the Internet and from selling me. But that day, Ms. Williams told me that I didn’t say “yes” to being trafficked.
Ms. Williams also has a safe refuge for girls under the age of 18 who have experienced sexual trafficking called Living Water for Girls, where she paired me up with a counselor. Through counseling and all the community partners of the Living Water for Girls program, I learned to see myself in a new light and to thrive in my own resilient and beautiful skin: I now tell people that my name is not Victim. My name is not Survivor. My name is Rachel and today, I am alive and truly thankful to say that I am thriving!
In addition to speaking before the Senate, I’ve spoken my truth at Atlanta’s 14th Annual “Call to Action” Prayer Breakfast, a 2014 National Human Trafficking Awareness Day event held at Spelman College, the United Nations 59 th Commission on the Status of Women, the Atlanta YWCA Salute to Women annual event, and Atlanta Hartsfield Airport in support of the Freedom of Expression Atlanta. I was honored with the Kathie McCullough Advocacy award from YouthSpark in May 2015 and was interviewed in the CNN Special Report Children for Sale: The Fight to End Human Trafficking featuring Jada Pinkett Smith as the host. The Special Report aired July 21 st. which was my birthday!
I share this deeply personal part of my life to help prevent others from experiencing what I went through. I know firsthand the trauma, stigma, and humiliation that comes with sexual violence and trafficking. I was targeted, befriended, and lured through social media. I was only 17! This happens every day to other people my age, and even younger. I want to give them hope. I pray that they all see something in me that will inspire them not to give up on life and to understand that sexual violence is a crime that was committed against them; they did not victimize themselves.
I also want young people to help keep themselves safe from predators. I want them to know not to give out their addresses or other personal and sensitive information to strangers or casual acquaintances who make them uneasy, not to send nude or partially nude photos of themselves online, and to ask their parents or guardians to help them identify trustworthy adults, like counselors or relatives, who can lend them a safe listening ear when they are in need so they don’t end up relying on an unknown person whose only motive may be to prey on them. Most importantly, I want people at risk for trafficking to love themselves. Self-love is the best love, but I looked for friendship and love in all of the wrong places and people.
I read inspirational quotes and books to inspire myself. One of my favorites is Daring Greatly by Brené Brown, who wrote, “Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.” This quote helped me realize that I am who I say I am and not who someone else presents me to be. I live by my truth every day.
During the period right after I was trafficked, I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere or with anyone. I felt lost. But now I am guided by the drive to prevent people from going through what I did. That, and to compose and produce music and become a private pilot! That is my dream.
Yes, I am a survivor of sex trafficking, but I am also much more: I am Rachel.
You can report suspicious trafficking activity and get help by calling the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1.888.373.7888. You can also call 911 for immediate help if you or someone you know are in danger.