When you think of sex trafficking, what image comes to mind? Usually victims are depicted as young and White, but that doesn’t tell the whole story, not even close.
“The life…that’s what we called it. Most people know it as the world of domestic sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. It doesn’t take long before you no longer feel like you fit into the actual world and the life truly becomes, well, your life,” explains Jennifer, a college student and human trafficking survivor. She spent years in “the life” before finally breaking free.
“It became my new normal from the ages of 12-20. I was trafficked all over the United States,” she says. “Over those 8 years the one thing that remained positive and consistent in my life was GEMS. Even though I was fully in the life I knew I would still receive love when I walked through those doors.”
In the U.S., anywhere between 100,000- 300,000 children are trafficked for sex each year, and most of them, a startling 40 percent, are African-American, like Jennifer. After getting out of “the life,” she decided to work for the Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS), “The only organization in New York State specifically designed to serve girls and young women who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking.”
Hours before Jennifer, who declined to share her last name, shared her story with a room full of GEMS supporters for their annual Love Revolution Gala, we met in the greenroom to talk about her experience. The conversation flowed easily as we exchanged jokes about how to style our hair in a hurry and picking the perfect shoes for the elegant event. After hearing about her life, my admiration grew even more. Unfortunately, Jennifer’s story, laced with strength, resilience and heartbreak, isn’t uncommon. It’s a story that’s misunderstood at best and ignored at worst.
Jada Pinkett Smith, who often uses her platform, voice, talent and resources to combat injustice, received the Love Revolution Award from GEMS for her longtime commitment to girls’ empowerment and her work as an anti-trafficking advocate. Before the ceremony began the actress sat with EBONY.com to discuss everything from the way she and her husband, Will Smith, has chosen to raise their children and maintaining her passion, to what people can do to combat the trafficking of Black girls.
EBONY.com: You are so consistent and passionate about combating injustice. Where does this passion come from?
Jada Pinkett Smith: It comes from my grandmother. She was a community activist. It’s something that was just instilled in me at a very young age. It’s part of what my family does and what we still do today because of my grandmother. She had us involved in activism since I can remember. She started off as a social worker. She worked with women and families that were having problems. She would take me to work with her. She would come to our school and create after-school programs for youth who didn’t have places to go after school. It started very young. I can remember going to work with her when I was 5-years-old.
EBONY.com: Did you intentionally instill that same love of activism into your children? I read that you become an anti-trafficking activist after Willow brought some statistics to your attention.
JPS: Yes! Willow brought this to my attention. She saw a documentary and started to do more research on it. She brought me in and said, “Mom you wont believe this but there are girls being trafficked in the United States that are my age.”
EBONY.com: How old was she at the time?
JPS: She was 11. When she said it I thought she was confused, I was like no way. That’s not happening here, that’s not happening in the U.S. We started to do more research together and I was blown away. She said, “I want to do something about this.” I told her we absolutely will, but you gotta let mommy role with you on this and be the bumper because this is heavy-duty stuff. I got really passionate about it with Willow at my hip. I became obsessed. I didn’t know this was even happening and my motto is “One woman is all women.” If it’s happening to one, it’s happening to us all.
EBONY.com: How did you process this with Willow at 11-years-old?
JPS: It wasn’t difficult. With my children, I always treated them as adults and I talked to them on the real. I lived a very real life at a very early age. I was exposed to some very real things that I had to have very real conversations about with my mother or the adults around me. It benefited me. I realized in this world today you must have these conversations with your children because they are exposed to so much. I sat down with her and broke down why and how these things happen, but she was pretty well versed in it because of her own research.
EBONY.com: I feel like Willow probably knows these stats better than both of us, but I read that there are about 100, 000-300,000 thousand cases of sex trafficking in the US. Like you stated, when you hear about sex trafficking your immediate thought is that this isn’t happening here in the U.S. Yet we don’t hear about these numbers often in the media.
JPS: No we don’t see these stories often enough, and its not just sex trafficking; it’s labor trafficking as well. They say 100-300 thousand but think about all of the cases that aren’t reported. It’s getting to the point that human trafficking is about to outrank weapons trafficking (if it hasn’t already). Its’ a very serious issue and now its spread to our boys, which is talked about even less.
EBONY.com: I imagine those numbers are tremendously underreported for a number of reasons.
JPS: Absolutely. Even boys who are victimized don’t feel like they have the right to speak about their victimization. The positive thing is that there is more awareness. There are more people speaking about it.
EBONY.com: It’s a difficult conversation to have. I love that you had this conversation with Willow and with your family. Like you said, it’s an important conversation to have ( especially with our girls). How do you suggest we generate these types of conversations in our homes and communities?
JPS: I always tell Willow, even till this day, that I’m not trying to spy on you, and I’m not trying to know where you are because I don’t trust you. I trust you, it’s other people I don’t trust. I go with her on her Tumbler feed to get an idea of how she’s surfing the net and who she’s talking to and getting her comfortable enough to have real conversations. She tells me when she is feeling uncomfortable with somebody online.
We have to create a rapport with our kids in a way they feel comfortable to communicate. I tell Willow all the time that I have information that you simply don’t. Also, I don’t make her feel ashamed for the mistakes she’s made. As women, we have to make it clear to our girls that we’ve been through some things, and be clear and candid about our own experiences. We have to be open. It’s so much more complicated than just telling our kids, “Hey don’t talk to strangers.”
EBONY.com: That’s such a big misconception. Most of the perpetrators of trafficking aren’t always complete strangers in the bushes.
JPS: Yes! It’s the people you know. Family members, neighbors or friends of family members.
EBONY.com: Part of the reason this dialog doesn’t happen is because we have such huge misconceptions about who these offenders are, who is being trafficked and where it’s happening. What are some of the other misconceptions that you’ve noticed?
JPS: One of the huge misconceptions is the connection between how we show love in our homes and how that impacts what our kids experience outside of our homes. You would be surprised at the level of abuse young people are experiencing in their homes. When they go out in the streets, sometimes it’s not much of a difference.
One of the things we are mindful of in our home is the way we speak to each other. We do this intentionally, so if somebody talks to her (Willow) disrespectfully in the streets it’s foreign. She’s like hold up, this isn’t normal.
Sometimes we have to watch how we communicate with each other and what we call love because when people in these streets violate us we mistake those actions for love too because it looks familiar. To me, I think one of the biggest ways to combat trafficking (especially with our youth) on the micro-level is to look at how we show love in our homes. We have to pay attention to how we are actually loving our children so when they come across somebody that is manipulative, abusive, and violent, it’s not the norm.
Although sometimes they know it’s not the norm, but they just can’t get out. However, a lot of times our young people are out here looking for things that they just aren’t getting at home. This is why we need to have conversations in our homes about sex and violence without being afraid that we are exposing them to things too early. The truth is they can go online and get all types of info. But as adults who love them, if we are willing to share our testimony it’s powerful. I share things with my daughter that shows her I’m human and to convey that at the end of the day there is nothing you can do or come across that I haven’t done already.
Jada concluded our discussion by sending a message to any victim of trafficking. She added, “Remember that the experiences you’ve endured at the hands of trafficking is not you. There is beauty, power and magnificence in all of us.”
*Photo cred: Raul Espinoza