Guest Blog by Harmony Grillo, MSW, Survivor, Educator, Founder and Executive Director of Treasures
Editor’s note: Many victims of human trafficking end up in the commercial sex industry. They may start out dancing at strip clubs or working in illicit massage parlors, then become pressured to perform sex acts by their employers. Others are trafficked into pornography or escort services. Harmony’s story of survival is one we are so lucky to share.
Like the thousands of women and girls trafficked into the commercial sex industry each year*, the thought of leaving the sex industry crossed my mind many times before the day I finally walked away. There always seemed to be a reason to stay—for one more day, one more month. Before I knew it, years passed and I felt like I was stuck in the same place as the day I started.
The money was one of the biggest factors preventing me from leaving. The more I made, the more I spent, and the more the vicious cycle perpetuated itself. How else could I sustain the lifestyle I’d created? And then there were all of the questions and unknowns. Could I actually transition back into the “real world?” Would anyone hire me? Would people find out about my past? How do I explain the gap on my resume?
I’ve heard that until the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of change, most people prefer to stay the same. That resonates with me. It finally got to the point that the pain of continuing to work in the industry was greater than all my fears of leaving.
My view of myself and the people around me was deeply impacted by my time in the industry. All my relationships—even my friendships—were sexualized. I began to feel hopeless about being valued for anything other than a sexual object.
My alter-ego was Monique. Hiding behind her made it easier for me to do the work. Monique’s job was to become whoever the fantasy required her to be. She was full of smiles and rhetoric about how she loved her job. Sometimes, she even convinced the real Harmony of this. The problem was, everything about Monique was a lie. Eventually, I lost my true identity.
Aside from walking away from the people and settings that had become so familiar, I walked away with no potential employment and a couple of decades worth of trauma and abuse to “unpack” and heal from. I couldn’t look men in the eye. I cringed when anyone tried to hug me or shake my hand and I was plagued with nightmares and intrusive, sexually violent thoughts throughout the day. I couldn’t ride in an elevator without imagining the man next to me trying to rape me.
I would like to tell you that I had this well-thought-out plan to successfully leave the business. I didn’t. I just left.
Before You Leave, Please Read These 6 Steps
Since founding Treasures, an outreach and support group for women in the sex industry, I’ve walked alongside hundreds of others who have lived similar experiences. For each of us, the day came when we could no longer show up for work. When that day comes for you, here are some ways to make a successful transition:
1. Get Support
In all my years of supporting survivors, I’ve noticed that those who left for good have one thing in common: We didn’t do it alone. We had a trusted friend, family member, therapist, support group or organization in our corner encouraging us along the way. Before you walk away, find at least one safe, caring person to be a consistent ally for you throughout this process.
2. Know What to Expect
I would be lying if I told you leaving was easy. At times, you’ll be tempted to go back. You may miss the money and the adrenaline and the attention. There will be times when the work it takes to recover and rebuild your life may seem daunting. Know that this is a completely normal part of the process. When you feel overwhelmed, lean into your support system. Let them remind you that although the process can be hard, it’s worth it because YOU are worth it.
3. Find Healthy Ways to Process the Pain
Many women in the sex industry come from backgrounds of sexual abuse. These histories are often compounded by our trauma-infused time in the industry. Without addressing it, moving forward in building a new life can be extremely challenging. Finding healthy ways to process the pain is an important part of the journey out. I am a strong believer in facing pain to overcome it. I’ve gone to great lengths—participating in support groups, individual therapy, grief recovery and 12-step recovery—to work through the impact of abuse and trauma on my life. I am happy say that I feel healthy and whole and my past no longer has a grip on me!
4. Keep Your Goal in Mind
Remember not only why you decided to leave, but the life you dream of creating for yourself. Keeping this vision fresh in your mind will help you push through the difficult times. You may find it helpful to write a list of all of the reasons you left/want to leave. What would it cost you to stay or go back and what kind of life do you imagine living in the future?
5. Know Your Triggers
Spend some time identifying the people, places and things that either cause you pain or tempt you to return to a dangerous and unhealthy lifestyle. If you can, try working with your support system to develop avoidance strategies as well as replacement behaviors and activities. For example, you may want to go for a walk or call someone in your support system when you find yourself facing a trigger.
6. Create a New Budget
Most sex industry and human trafficking survivors find it necessary to reevaluate our spending habits. For me, my new budget involved getting a roommate, selling one of my two cars and drastically cutting back on eating out and shopping. This free budget tool is a great place to start.
It’s a long, difficult road, but with trusted support, I believe you can leave and build a life of freedom and security for yourself. Treasures is here for you. If you need encouragement or resources, you can reach out in privacy. You can also sign up for a FREE care package.
I also want to share a free training on “How to Help Someone Who is Stuck” that you can access here.
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If you are in immediate danger, call 911.
* 2019 U.S. Human Trafficking Hotline Statistics, Polaris Project