* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Nicole Demas is a survivor of sex trafficking and advocate at @KaranaRising
It was the night February 17, 2012, that changed my life forever.My trafficker told me I had to make $500 that night or risk being beaten and starved.
When a 'client’s' dark van pulled up at the gas station where I was standing in the cold rain, I asked him what he wanted. He told me to get in. As we drove further away, I told him I was starting to feel uncomfortable. When we pulled into the far end of a parking lot, I knew things were about to get bad. I wanted to leave. That is when he pulled out the knife and forced me into the backseat. When he threw me bleeding out of his van, he must have thought I would just die from the pain and shame. He was wrong.
I was terrified as I ran to a nearby medical facility. I was terrified both that he was going to come after me and for what was to come. First, I was scared of my pimp because I didn’t have his money after this rapist stole it from me. Also, I was scared of being arrested. Many sex trafficking victims and sex workers never come forward because they think that they will be arrested, mocked, or not believed. I am one of thousands of sex trafficking victims who was arrested as a result of their exploitation and abuse. I was 17 at the time.
When the police came, they just grilled me. I felt dirty and shamed because they were looking at me like I was just another raped prostitute. In fact, we are easy targets for rapists because of that attitude.
At the hospital, a detective named Alex came to interview me. He was the first kind person I met that night. He listened without judgment. Then, he called a victim advocacy group called FAIR Girls. They stood by me during every step of the almost two-year process of getting justice for myself and others this man raped, including two more sex trafficking victims.
When it came time to trial, I was so nervous that I couldn’t stop throwing up. What helped me finally speak was the incredible team of support, including my two mentors from FAIR Girls, Andrea and Priya, and even a therapy dog named Jewel.
He’s now in jail for the rest of his life while I work to rebuild mine. As a sex trafficking survivor, I had already been bought, raped, and sold hundreds of times. I helped put my traffickers in jail. Yet, it was this horrible rape by a serial rapist that tore me apart.
Every survivor of rape needs a support system and mentors who get what they are going through. I am lucky enough to have had that but I still struggled with depression, PTSD, flashbacks, and homelessness. I was also worried about my father’s reaction.
As time has gone on, I have started to see the light again. I can feel it in the way I can walk down the street at night and not be terrified. I can feel it when I sing. I felt it when I got my diploma and when my record was vacated for a crime I should never had been charged with as a child victim of sex trafficking.
I felt it when I was advocating for laws to help future survivors of sex trafficking access justice. I also feel it when I now look at the love of my life, my baby son.
More survivors need to be heard, without judgment. We need to put the blame where it belongs, which is on the rapists. We need safe healing places and more mentors. We need to go from being a rape culture to a survivor culture.
It’s taken six years to get this far. There is no time limit on healing. There should be no time limit in speaking up and coming forward. I have worked hard to be the person I am today. I am finally becoming the girl I want to be and not the girl who was standing there cold and scared that night on February 17, 2012. I am a survivor.