Growing up, I was always the funny child. I was the one who made my siblings laugh. I had such an innocence and joy emanating from me. Before being trafficked I was the bravest kid. My grandfather often spoke about how tough and strong I was, inwardly and outwardly. I was the essence of innocence. But this was taken from me. The bold, joyful girl I was lost all her sense of self-worth.
As you learned in part one of my story, my sister’s boyfriend began to traffic me at age twelve. He and my sister schemed and invited me to a “sleepover”—this was the night my virginity, and my innocence, was sold. It was the moment my world was flipped upside down. And sadly, it wasn’t a one-time incident. For the next two years of my life, my middle school experience would be cheerleading, tennis, soccer, and trafficking.
Read Part 1 of Stephani’s Story: My Sister Sold My Virginity In Middle School
Long before the night I was trafficked, my sister had abused me. One night, when I was 8 and she was 9, she pulled out a porn magazine hidden under her bed. I vividly remember sitting on our bedroom floor as she showed me these pictures, illuminated by the less conspicuous bathroom light.
Something in me automatically knew it was not okay. But she urged and pressured me. I did not do well with saying no or dealing with pressure from her. So I looked. It was like tiny little hooks were coming from the pages. It caught my eyes. It got inside me.
This was just a foretaste of the abuse to come. I can only imagine how porn may have shaped her own behaviors, and in turn her perpetration against me, from an early age. Porn always inflicts damage upon us. It alters who we are inwardly, and that begins to appear outwardly as the toxicity matures within us.
Every child in my household looked forward to middle school, because that meant you were going to get a cell phone on your birthday. Before being trafficked, I remember being so excited that I finally was able to be given some sort of responsibility and freedom in having a cell phone. But that symbol of freedom became a symbol of enslavement as my pimp began to call my cell to let me know he was outside my house, waiting for me to sneak out my bedroom window.
I felt I was to blame. That I was in this situation because I said yes to going with my sister to her “sleepover.”
In our home I was known as the “good one” or the one who was always helpful. I rarely disobeyed, so every single time I climbed out my bedroom window, or disarmed our alarm system, a deep sense of disappointment coursed through my body. I knew it was wrong. I knew my parents would not be happy, but I also knew that I was terrified of my step sister’s so-called friends. I felt I was to blame. That I was in this situation because I said yes to going with my sister to her “sleepover.”
Immediately after being trafficked on that very first night, before leaving to return home, my sister’s boyfriend, who had now become my pimp, sat me down to tell me the “rules of the game.” I can remember thinking: “how could this be a game?” There was nothing fun or exciting in any of this for me.
He made it clear that I must be compliant no matter what was asked of me from his team, his security guys, the sex buyers, and especially from him. He then instructed me how my future “pick-ups” would work, how a car would be waiting after I received a call from him. I was to open my window, climb out, and close it just enough to where it wouldn’t be noticed. Once I arrived at the car I would be given a blindfold or covering of sorts. Taking it off was not an option.
I remember my slippers, and how I’d keep them right next to my window before bed so I could slide them on before leaving. One night I ended up having to throw them away because the rain and dirt had ruined them. I still do not wear slippers at any time. On that particular night when they brought me home I had to run to my window barefoot. The bushes outside my window were the kind that are prickly and rough. The mulch in the flower bed was hard and it hurt to walk on without shoes.
I also remember noticing wedding bands on the sex buyers. I’d think about stories they’d tell their families of where they were while they were with me. I would always ask what they did for work, and would be shocked how many were pastors, priests, lawyers. Lawyers were always offering their services to my pimp in exchange for his.
Every night it was that same process, but each night felt more terrifying. I always wondered: Would my parents wake up to find me gone? Would my little sister get scared and come to my room? Would I survive the night? Surviving—that is what my life had become.
I’d be beaten for any number of things… small things like breathing the “wrong way” or wearing pajama shorts instead of a nightgown.
Beatings were a regular part of my life. One of the first times I was beaten was because I took the blindfold off before my pimp told me to. I’d be beaten for any number of things: speaking when I was to be silent, when my actions weren’t as my pimp thought they should be—even small things like breathing the “wrong way” or wearing pajama shorts instead of a nightgown. If my body didn’t respond like a client thought it should I would be beaten.
And the beatings began to become more brutal. One night I was dragged out the door onto a porch and down the steps by my pimp all while still naked. He pulled me by my hair through the dirt and beat me outside of the house. One thing about the Louisiana summer heat is that often the ground is quite dry, so as he dragged my body along it became covered in scrapes.
Of course, my nightly trauma affected my days. I would sleep in class sometimes, and my dad would just tell the school that he’d handle it. So I’d get an early bedtime for a week and get a few hours of sleep before my pimp would call.
I hid things pretty well. I had a cheer competition once where my bruises and cuts were showing in the tank top we had to wear. It was the bruising from when he dragged me down the steps. One of my teammates asked me about it and I said I had gotten into an accident on our four wheeler. No one asked anymore questions.
Cuts and bruises were the least of my worries, honestly. The psychological toll that it placed on me was overwhelming. My mind was constantly racing. I was always on alert and every day’s abuse felt like it was the first time. Though what I suffered was a regular part of my life, it never felt “normal,” never something that I grew accustomed to. After all, my life was constantly threatened by johns and by my pimp.
Guns were pulled on me or put in my mouth. The security guys who were watching the door would come in the room and search for things a john might have left that could help me. They’d search me (even though I was normally naked), the side table, closet, and bathroom. One guy would always have his gun on me while the other searched. Johns would pull out a gun if I didn’t want to do certain sex acts or to see if it would scare me.
My pimp would also trade me for drugs. One guy bought me for a dime back of crack once. That was for my pimp’s habit. But the amount of crack I saw in the vehicles was crazy. Some nights he would pack crack on me physically. It would be in these bags and he’d use saran wrap to hold the crack baggies on me. Then I’d have to wear the blindfold and once we were in a house, business, etc. he’d have me strip down. Drug deals were constantly going on.
But there was one instance that has been particularly hard for me to process and work through. One night a police officer walked into my room. I dropped to my knees and thanked him. I begged him to help me. He grabbed me by the arms, placed me on the bed, and told me to undress. It was as though I could feel my heart stop. Shock does not even begin to explain the feeling I felt. Terror ran through me. I knew then I was not safe.
One night a police officer walked into my room. I dropped to my knees and thanked him… He grabbed me by the arms, placed me on the bed, and told me to undress.
I never thought about escaping. As strange as it may sound, I “followed the rules” of my pimp mostly. Or I tried to. At one point I did think about telling someone, but somehow my pimp knew. He put a dead cat in our driveway and I knew it was from him. Just something in my gut told me. He later informed me that it was him and threatened to kill my family. After that I was too afraid to say anything.
Growing up in a smaller city, where everyone knew everyone, it was difficult to know who I could trust. I made a survival decision to no longer trust. I was confused how even the protectors who are supposed to come in a time of need had become the very ones I needed saving from.
I am quite thankful to share that today, I don’t feel any grudge or anger towards police officers. Although there are some that use their power and badge to harm people, I have respect for them in a general sense. But I am always cautious. I am aware of my surroundings as well as their demeanor, whether they are men or women officers.
As I reflect on all of this, it becomes obvious that there was a lot cunning strategy and a much larger system at play. My pimp only trafficked me. Not my sister. They don’t always take any girls they can. Traffickers and pimps are not flighty. They have plans, teams, deals, and so many connections: hotels who don’t charge them, gas stations where they get free fuel, dealerships that sell them cars under the table.
I remember nurses would come in and patch us up if needed or clean up after a night. A gynecologist came and showed me how to take birth control. One time he hired a tutor for someone because of their school grades. He had all sorts of people who would help him. It was like he had a connection with anything. He knew judges. It was crazy. This system is so much more integrated than just johns, girls, and pimps.
I believe we have to be strategic and creative when it comes to combating this injustice. We need laws that target sex buyers and also that punish those who are accessories to commercial sexual exploitation. The more people we make aware the more ideas and aid we can gain. I am fully confident that if pimps can find ways to adapt and thrive then so can the abolition movement.
My trafficking experience was long and deeply traumatic, but freedom finally came through rather unusual means, which you’ll learn about in part 3 of my story…
Read part 3 of Stephani’s story: How I Escaped My Trafficker at Age 14