Q&A with an Ex-Stripper, an Ex-Porn Star and an Ex-Prostitute

by Michelle Brock on January 23rd, 2013

harmonydLast week in LA’s San Fernando Valley, where 95% of the world’s legal porn is made or distributed, Jay and I met a wonderful woman named Harmony.  Harmony used to be a stripper and now runs Treasures, an organization that comes alongside women to help them discover their worth and purpose in an industry that leaves so many empty.

Recently Harmony joined up with Crissy, an ex-porn star, and Bronwen, an ex-prostitute, to launch a short film series called X-Girls. In it, these three women answer questions about life in and after the sex industry.  (Note: I usually use the word “prostituted” instead of “prostitute,” but for this post I will let it reflect the series).

How did the three of you meet?

I met Crissy soon after she made the bold decision to walk away from porn. At that point, she was still under contract and had already signed away the rights to the content her website was using. She was making at least $15,000 a month in residual income from her website alone. After unsuccessfully trying to get them to take the site down, they asked her where they should continue to send her checks. She told them she didn’t want any money from them and decided to never take another dime from that industry. She has been courageous since the beginning and has always had a heart to use her story to inspire others. It has been an honor to be her mentor for the past 6 years.

As for Bronwen, I was in Australia at a conference and met someone who knew Bronwen. She was determined to connect us, saying “I met someone just like you! You have to meet her!”  I hear that from time to time, but in this case, it was true. In Bronwen I found a kindred friend. It’s like our heart beats to the same drum. The fact that we live on opposite sides of the globe hasn’t stood in the way of our friendship thanks to Skype and airplanes! She has become like a sister to me.

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Why did you create this series, and why now?

The strategy of Treasures has always been to reach locally and think globally. That is why we have offered Sex Industry Outreach Trainings for leaders interested in developing sex industry outreaches in their communities for the past 7 years. My desire is to see an outreach happening in every major city across the globe. So far we are up to 60 cities with Treasures-trained outreaches!

At the same time, given that there are more women in the sex industry than any other time in history, there are thousands upon thousands of women who don’t have local support. This became especially clear to us when we were featured in Glamour Magazine. We were so inundated with calls and emails from women around the world looking for help that it crashed our website, email and phone lines!

Since then, we have always been thinking about strategies that would help us reach and serve these women. When we started offering workshops for the women here in LA, a light bulb went on. I realized that if we could create something web-based on the same topics we were developing workshops for, we could reach a much broader audience. Because we believe that story is so powerful, I thought who better to be a voice in this than women who have “been there”. In order to capture a wider range of experiences, I thought it would be a good idea to get a couple of friends together who had worked in different areas of the sex industry. And that is how the idea of X Girls was birthed An x-stripper, x-porn star and an x-prostitute answering questions about the impact of the sex industry and life after sex work.

What has the response been so far?

My hope for X Girls is that not only will it reach women who don’t have the benefit of local support, but it will also be used by sex industry outreaches to facilitate support groups in their communities. To help with that we are developing a curriculum that will be released in March, 2013.

So far, the response to X Girls has been awesome! I am so thrilled to have this tool available and am really believing that it will bring breakthrough to our viewers. In just two weeks we have already had over 4,700 views. I believe that this is just the beginning!

scars and stillettos book coverYou can watch the rest of episode 1, which includes Crissy’s and Bronwen’s stories, as well as episode 2, in which the X Girls talk about “getting out and staying out” here.

Episode 3 coming soon!

If you know someone in the sex industry, or others who would be interested or encouraged by the X-Girls series, please spread the word.

For more on Treasures, you can check out their website.  Harmony has also written a book called Scars and Stillettos, which is currently sitting on my night table as my next read!

Harmony, thank you for your incredible courage, your contagious joy, and your passion to love others as you are loved.

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Journey to Freedom Fundraising Gala

by Michelle Brock on January 22nd, 2013

It is my pleasure to promote this Sunday’s fundraiser for Walk With Me, a fantastic survivor-led organization that is providing aftercare for trafficking victims here in Ontario.  Here are the details!

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I personally know the Walk With Me team, and promise you that your investment will go a long way. Check out the website to buy tickets and find out more info.  If you can’t make it this weekend, you can make a donation instead!

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A Walk Across the Sun: Interview with Corban Addison

by Michelle Brock on January 16th, 2013

Walk Across the SunJay and I have an interesting travel tradition: every time we take a long haul flight, we buy a John Grisham novel at the airport.  So imagine my excitement when I read these words last year:

“Since my first novel was released over 20 years ago, I have been presented with many opportunities to endorse the works of other authors hoping to find a publisher. I have always declined, until now. Corban Addison has written a novel that is beautiful in its story and also important in its message…”

-John Grisham

A book about human trafficking?  Endorsed by John Grisham?  I simply had to read it.  A Walk Across the Sun starts off with the 2006 tsunami in India.  It follows the story of two sisters who find themselves abducted by traffickers, and an American attorney whose pro bono sabbatical leads him to undertake a life changing personal mission.  Corban Addison was kind enough to agree to an interview with Hope for the Sold.

To research context for the book, you spent some time with an NGO in Asia. Can you share a story of something you experienced or witnessed there that had an impact on you?

I knew that to write a compelling novel on the global trade in human beings it needed to be as accurate as possible. So after reading everything I could get my hands on, I went to India and Europe and spent time with NGOs in the field. I was privileged to interview investigators from the International Justice Mission in Mumbai, to go to court with their lawyers, and to meet girls they had rescued with the help of the police. Also, I went undercover into the brothels of Kamathipura, posing as a customer. That was, by far, the most affecting experience of my research. I didn’t need a degree in psychology to see that the girls I met were not there willingly. I’ll never forget shaking the brothel owner’s hand after declining to make a purchase. I wished I could do something to save those girls, but anything I might have tried would have endangered them further. The best I could do was to come home and tell their story.

Judging from the feedback you’ve received, how are readers being influenced by this novel?

My hope in writing A Walk Across the Sun was to tell the kind of story that would enlighten people about modern-day slavery and compel them to take action to combat it. It’s been a joy, therefore, to see readers around the world responding this way to the book. People’s eyes have been opened and their hearts ignited to join the abolitionist cause. I’ve gotten the same sort of response whenever I’ve spoken on the topic. Human trafficking is that rare subject that transcends all of the barriers that often divide us–politics, religion, nationality, etc. Everyone is horrified by it, and everyone wants to know what they can do to stop it.

Corban Addison 694x1024How has your life changed since writing A Walk Across the Sun?

My wife gave me the idea for the book. If she had known what it would take to research it, to write it, and then to get it published, I’m not sure she would have opened her mouth. How glad we are now that she did. Not only have I changed my career path (leaving the practice of law to write and advocate full-time), but I’ve met the most amazing people, traveled to some extraordinary places, and gotten the chance to promote a cause I care about deeply. It’s a beautiful synergy and something I hope to pursue with many future novels on different human rights issues.

What is the one question you wish people would ask you?

The most important question people can ask about trafficking is what can we do about it? Not everyone can be an FBI agent, a human rights lawyer, or a social worker caring for survivors. But everyone can make a real difference. Parents need to educate their kids about trafficking. The average age of entry into prostitution in the U.S. is 13-15. Young teenage girls are targets. It doesn’t matter if they’re poor or rich, if they are from the inner city or a gated community, girls need to know that there are recruiters watching for them–at shopping malls, at parties, in chat rooms and social media sites, wherever kids hang out. They need to be wise about the friends they make, especially with young men.

Also, boys need to be educated about sex trafficking so that they don’t become purchasers of sex and fuel the trade with their cash. Educators need to bring the subject into the schools, like we’ve done with the drug issue. Charities like the International Justice Mission need our financial support to do their heroic work. The possibilities are endless, but it is up to us to engage.

Tell us something about yourself that most people wouldn’t know.

One of the unexpected consequences of writing issue-oriented fiction is that I don’t get the chance to read many novels anymore. I don’t read fiction when I’m writing (to avoid unconsciously borrowing from the story or style of another writer), and my research and travel schedule are so intensive that they don’t leave me a lot of time to read for pleasure. I hope that will change as my career matures.

What’s next?

My next novel, The Garden of Burning Sand, is in the hands of my publishers and will be released sometime this year. It’s coming out in Canada at the end of March, but it won’t be out in the rest of the English speaking world until the fall. It takes on a variety of interrelated human rights issues in Southern Africa and the United States and is part mystery, part legal thriller, and part family drama.

You can purchase A Walk Across the Sun in bookstores or online.  A Kindle edition is also available.  I know that Corban would also love if we all supported the work of International Justice Mission (or IJM Canada for those of us north of the border!), so if you are feeling generous, please don’t hesitate to check out their important work and make a donation!

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What Happens in Vegas…

by Michelle Brock on January 13th, 2013

OnWay 768x1024We spent last week in Las Vegas, Nevada. We left Ontario early in the morning on Sunday, and in true Canadian fashion our plane had to be de-iced before we could take off!  We flew over the Grand Canyon and landed in the beautiful desert city of Las Vegas.  It never ceases to amaze me that a trip that used to take months or years now takes a few hours.

Las Vegas surprised us.  Generally speaking we do not like big cities, but found ourselves drawn to the unique desert landscape, gorgeous mountains, sunny skies, lack of traffic, beautiful hotels, and flashing lights.  We were hosted by a wonderful family just outside Vegas proper who spoiled us with good local food! When we arrived, we took in the sights and watched the dance of the Bellagio fountains with awe and delight.  I felt like a tourist.

While driving around, we would sometimes see an illusion of water in the distance, which ended up simply being a patch of dry earth.  The name of one Vegas hotel perfectly describes the city – MIRAGE. Behind the glitz and glamour there were some darker themes that began to emerge as the week progressed.

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We had the opportunity to meet with two trafficking survivors, one of who bravely told her story on film for the very first time, and the other who has started an organization to help at-risk girls.  We also met with a detective who deals with pimps, a woman who used to be a dancer in a club, and a mother whose daughter is still being sold by a pimp in Vegas.  Unbeknownst to us, we landed just in time for trafficking awareness week, giving us a chance to sit in on a task force meeting and attend a human trafficking summit at University of Nevada.  We could not have come at a better time.

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On the main strip where the big hotels are, people wearing T-shirts saying “GIRLS DIRECT TO YOU” handed out cards that had phone numbers and pictures of naked women – often just body parts of naked women.  They would discreetly try to hand it to the men without their wives or girlfriends noticing.

There were two things that stood out to me.  First of all, every person I saw handing out cards was Hispanic.  I saw one man arrive at his corner and reluctantly pull his T-shirt over his clothes, and I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a job taken out of desperation.  The second thing I noticed was that some of the people handing out cards were women themselves, who looked embarrassed when I made eye contact.  Our host told us that one night she went with a group of people to give out gift cards and notes of encouragement to those handing out cards, and some of them actually cried because someone showed them kindness.  It deeply saddens me that even those advertising the industry are being stripped of their dignity and humanity.

Ad 1024x753We were told that many of the pictures of women, on the cards as well as the trucks that would go by with big letters “GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS” were in fact decades old.  They would recycle the same images over and over.  It’s all an illusion.

I personally experienced a man in his 50s trying to proposition me and bring me to his $400 room at the Venetian Hotel.  When he finally got the message and left me alone, I noticed my hands were shaking – mostly from being furious and disgusted that he thought he had the right to even approach me.  I was also a little frightened, since the first question he asked me was whether I was alone.  I wondered who he would end up with that night, and couldn’t help but think of the mother we had interviewed earlier that day whose daughter was still under the thumb of her pimp in the very same city in which this man was now prowling.

“What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”

 

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Part of a pimp's text that threatened those who helped a girl leave the trade

Unfortunately, this motto draws hordes of bachelor parties and other groups of men into town, and traffickers are now recruiting girls at malls and schools to meet the booming demand for paid sex. Though prostitution is only legal in the rural areas of Nevada, excluding Las Vegas, the culture of tolerance for purchasing women’s bodies makes the area ideal for exploitation.  While some women say they have made a decision to be in the industry, a woman we met who used to be in it now tells her son that he must “respect women even when they don’t respect themselves.”

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I leave Vegas with hope.  The incredible community that is looking out for the at-risk and abused is gaining momentum, and I have no doubt that someday the motto of Vegas can someday be quite different.

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Unexpected Gifts: Discovering the Way of Community

by Michelle Brock on January 10th, 2013

Unexpected Gifts1Despite its imperfections and challenges, Jay and I have always valued authentic community.  In the last three months we have been to 9 countries to examine effective ways to prevent sex trafficking, and we keep hearing words like this:

Lonely.  Abused.  Disconnected. Vulnerable.  Enticed.  Desperate.  

Ironically, these words can often describe both trafficking victims as well as their abusers. Everyone is longing for a sense of belonging, a “tribe,” a home.  And for this reason, being part of healthy community in itself can prevent trafficking.

Enter Chris Heuertz.  He was mentored in India for three years by Mother Teresa and has been to over 70 countries to serve and love the poor and exploited.  He has recently written a book called Unexpected Gifts: Discovering a Way of Community.  I had a chance to interview Chris this week, and here’s what he had to say.

In a nutshell, what is Unexpected Gifts about? 

“Unexpected Gifts” is my 3rd book, and easily my most vulnerable and confessional. In the 11 chapters of the book I introduce the messy bits of community that make it hard to stay, but why it’s important to stay. If you stay in a friendship, relationship or community long enough you will face inevitable challenges–things like failure, restlessness, betrayal, entitlement–things that are legitimate reasons to leave a community. But sometimes the very reasons we leave are in fact invitations to stay. And, if stay, especially after things get tough, these inevitable challenges can become unexpected gifts.

Chris H 682x1024Why is it so hard to find (and stay) in community?

I think it’s hard to stay in community because so many of us are enamored with a sense of the enthralling, however, most of “real life” is mundane and undramatic. And I think staying in community is also marked by very ordinary and routine rhythms. Until we can find our centered self, and until we can learn to gratitude in the mundane, I think it’s going to be hard for most folks to stay rooted in community.

In addition, I think a lot of us idealize what we mean by community. We show up in communities with “scripts” for the roles we need everyone else to play, while maintaining ourselves as the central figure in the communities we participate in. When we realize that we’re not the center of community it’s an important assault on our egos and for many of us we can’t bear to have our egos exposed.

Finally, though we shouldn’t be, most of us are surprised when our humanity collides with the humanity of those we’re in community with.  Somehow we imagine this cosmetic version of community that only highlights and celebrates the best of us, while in true communities the worst of ourselves inevitably emerges–offering our community and ourselves a chance to learn to love and accept.  Sadly, most of us can’t accept the worst of ourselves and so we can’t accept the worst of those in our communities and so there’s usually a bad transition.

What’s the importance of being in community?

Fundamentally I believe the divine imprint in all humanity carries with it an existential yearning towards one another, we need each other and we were created for one another. Being in relationships and friendships and community is essentially human–beautifully human.

You can purchase Unexpected Gifts here, and read more about the fantastic work Chris and his wife Phileena are doing around the world.

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Year in Review: 2012

by Michelle Brock on January 1st, 2013

2012 flip2My birthday falls two days before Christmas, making the time between December 23rd and January 1st a unique opportunity to reflect on the last year of my life.

Every year for my birthday, one of Jay’s gifts is the TIME Year In Review.  I soak in every page, reading about people who have lived and people who have died – about the courage, creativity, and success of some and the mistakes, heartbreak, and failures of others.  In the midst of it all I have looked back on what 2012 has been like for Hope for the Sold.  What a year it has been!  And much of it is thanks to people like you.

Between January 1 and December 31, 2012:

Bill C-310 became law.  Many of you responded to our request to send letters to your MPs in support of Bill C-310, and in June of this year the bill received Royal Assent.  This means that Canadians who engage in human trafficking abroad are no longer exempt from prosecution in Canada.  Furthermore, the definition of human trafficking has been enhanced to include key factors to help police and courts to better identify cases of human trafficking.  If you made your voice heard during the process, this certificate belongs to you!

We reached our fundraising goal.  Because of the generosity of hundreds of people – including HFTS blog readers, friends, family, Ride for Refuge cyclists, and those who organized fundraisers – we raised over $20,000 in 2012!  This brought us to the $40,000 mark which enabled us to begin filming our documentary on legalization of prostitution, its connection to sex trafficking, and preventative models that reduce sexual exploitation.

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Local transport passes are the best

We began our project.  In mid October we headed to Europe to begin filming.

  • Countries filmed in so far: Sweden, Netherlands, Germany, Hungary, Austria, Switzerland, France, England, USA
  • Number of people interviewed: 42
  • Travel: Planes rides (6), train rides (22), subway/bus/streetcar rides (167), taxi rides (1), hours in car (39)
  • Wheels that fell off our luggage: 1
  • Interviews we were late for due to cancelled trains: 1

 

We’ve learned a lot:

  • Listening to trafficking survivors tell their stories required our full attention and drew our our deepest emotions.  Each time, I would spend the rest of the day in contemplation, in tears, or in a state of numbness and exhaustion.  If that was the effect on me, I can only imagine how drained the survivors themselves must have felt after recounting such trauma.  We hold their stories with tenderness and care.
  • Culture affects policy, and policy affects culture.
  • Issues surrounding sexual exploitation are complex, but that should not scare us from taking a stand.
  • You can learn a lot in split second moments.  Like the brief, tense encounter between a pimp and his “property” in a red light window, like men lined up at ATMs near brothels, like the small whimper from a victim when we asked her if she had been forced to have sex without a condom. Some moments can be caught on camera, while many happen so quickly that they can only be captured in words from memory.
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We continue our documentary journey in January, and look forward to meeting more great people. Thank you for your support in 2012.  Our work would not be possible without you!

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