Why has Human Trafficking become an epidemic in the United States? There is big money in it and sex sells. Nobody truly knows the number of women that are sold into prostitution each year because not all cases are reported. However the State Department estimates that up to 800,000 men, women and children are trafficked across international boarders each year and globally 71% of that number accounts for women and girls. A statistic SHERO Jessica Kay knows oh too well. Today she speaks out publicly in hopes of helping others release from the shame of being enslaved.
Me: Jessica, tell me what life was like growing up.
Jessica: My childhood started in Iowa where I was born; I’m from a small town and my parents got divorced when I was a toddler.
There was domestic violence in the home. The house was chaotic, I know my Mom was using drugs and drinking a lot and there were a lot of men in and out of the home. Since we are from a small town, I do believe people knew.
Around Kindergarten my Mom packed up my older brother and me and we moved to Colorado; I lived there until I was in the 5th grade. My Mom remarried and he had 2 sons that lived with us part of the time. I remember one day the swat team came in when we were eating dinner, one of the police officers told me to go to my room and I said, “No I’m eating.” That night my Mom and my stepfather were arrested. The next day my brother read me the arrest report in the newspaper, they went to jail for selling drugs. My Mom was released and my step-dad went to prison; we then moved back to Iowa. I don’t have a lot of recollection of my childhood. All of this caused me to slip and fall in my adulthood because I never dealt with my childhood.
Me: What were your emotions like during all of the turmoil that was taking place?
Jessica: My emotions were 50/50; I don’t want to paint them as all bad. My grandparents owned a restaurant; I grew up working there, it was the hub for our family. I spent summers with my father, I had lots of friends and we would meet at the swimming pool and spend time together. I also recognized that I was an unhappy emotional child. When I was a teenager I ran away, I drank at a young age and I smoked weed; I used to go to school high. I did some cutting but there wasn’t a definition for it back then. I burned myself with lighters and cut my ankle; I still have scars today. Around the age of 16 I was put on antidepressants, it was a band-aid for my issues. Despite all of this I was always a big dreamer, I used to talk about Hollywood.
Me: When did things start to really take a dark turn for you personally?
Jessica: In high school around my Freshman year, my Mom and I got into a really big physical fight; my Mom’s hand print was bruised into my upper arm and when I went to school someone called CPS. A worker came into the house and during that investigation I decided to live with my father 20 minutes away. This really dampened my relationship with my mother. I finished my high school years and graduated, and then I went to a community college.
However I had this entire trauma I never dealt with and I was looking for love; I got pregnant with my son and graduated college 9 months pregnant. My son’s father and I were together and we were struggling financially. My Mother had moved to Vegas and since I wanted something different, we moved to Vegas; I was 21 years old. My mother helped with my son and eventually my son’s Dad and I split up because we started to not work, it was mainly my un-dealt with issues and I was star struck by the bright lights. My son was 2 years old. So in my newfound life, I attracted a domestic violence relationship; the guy and I met in a bar; I fell in love quickly with him. He was from NYC and was in the music industry; I was 24 years old. We were together for a year before the violence started.
Me: What started the domestic violence and how did it escalate?
Jessica: There was always some underlying emotional abuse I didn’t recognize because he fascinated me; he taught me how to think, he was a powerhouse of information to me. He wanted to change me; we were doing an event for the pioneers of hip-hop. We got in an argument over some flyers and I wouldn’t give them to him so he hit me in the face in the parking lot. The big dogs in hip-hop stepped in, the cops were called and he was kicked off the property. I was in a state of shock but I went back inside and tried to enjoy the evening. There were so many people I didn’t know that rallied around me. A few days later I let him back in the house; I was lost and didn’t know how to function without him. He came back for a few days and he cleaned out; everything that was his, he took and left when I was at work. After he left, he kept calling my place of work and my cell phone uncontrollably; I was being harassed and my boss terminated me. He drank a lot and was doing drugs; he was a narcissist. I was also drinking and smoking weed at the time. I’m blessed that I never had a drug addiction. My son was in preschool and fortunately he never saw any of the abuse. Over the next few months after getting terminated, I couldn’t pay for things so we were evicted. My son went to live with his father and I was homeless; I was couch surfing and trying to survive. During this time it’s when I met a pimp.
Me: Where were you when this happened and how did you get entangled with the pimp?
Jessica: We were in a local bar and I was introduced to him. I didn’t know he was a pimp and I fell in love with him. My relationship didn’t start with me selling my body. It started like any normal dating scenario; he whispered words that made me feel safe and worthy; it’s something I never gave to myself. It was a slow grooming process; I needed love, he became my boyfriend; I needed a place to live, he gave me a house. He took me to dinners and we laughed a lot; to me this was a normal dating relationship. This lasted 5 – 6 months and I was 26 years old, and I was madly in love with him. He didn’t live with me but I was safe and my bills were paid. Then I went to an interview at a well-known restaurant, we ate, drank and talked about the future. On the way home we took a detour and ended up at the Tropicana; he was on his phone and said to me, “We are about to pull up.” I said, “Babe what is happening?” He said, “I have some work for you to do.” We pulled into the New Orleans parking lot and a young lady came to the door, she opened the door; I said, “Babe what are we doing?” He took his foot and kicked my upper thigh, kicked me out of the car and said, “Make Daddy proud!” This just came out of nowhere. I was confused but the girl picked me up, dusted me off, took my hand, and walked me into the rest room, she cleaned me up and said, “Don’t be afraid, I promise we will be together the entire time.” She walked me through what was going to happen, “We are going to go to the street, guys are going to pull over and they are going to want to have sex with you or a blow job and we are going to charge money for it.” My brain was in a fog and I couldn’t believe what was happening. We walked into the street, a guy pulled over, she negotiated and whispered into my ear, “Remember, get the money first.” I got into the guy’s car and I could see that my boyfriend the pimp was watching us. The vehicle was a white beat up pick up truck and the guy was of another culture; the truck smelt of sweat and cigarettes. We pulled into this alley and he handed me $200, it took everything in me to not cry as I performed oral sex on him. When he finished I got out of the vehicle and started to walk back towards New Orleans, I could see my Pimp’s car in the parking lot facing the Tropicana. There were a million emotions going through my mind, like if I run where will I go, do I call the police? No, what I just did is illegal; am I now a prostitute, what if someone sees me? I didn’t meet my pimp, instead the girl we called my wifey she took the $200 and I had to keep going. I remember it took 10 hours that night for me to reach my quota, $2500. My nights from there ranged from 1 – 15 “tricks” per night depending on how lucky I was. When you are on the track it’s usually $2500. I never got paid any of the money but all of my living expenses were paid for.
I want to take a moment and be very clear on something, prostitution is not a choice. When you are stuck in trauma and confusion, and fear runs your life because you are threatened daily there feels like no way out. I was tricked into a way of life that I had no idea was happening; the charmer became the abuser as many women in the world are familiar with.
Me: How did you get through being a prostitute and be able to carry on?
Jessica: Our pimp never kept food in the house, just water. He would lock us in the closet or bind us to each other and the bed if we didn’t make quota. He strangled us and some of the hardest times is when he would make us girls be separate; we were trauma bonded. Our pimp would threaten to harm our families and my son. He had me robbed and raped at gunpoint by two pimps and these were his ways when we didn’t make quota. When we made quota we would get rewarded with flowers, nail appointments gifts, etc. The manipulation was daily and it was very strategic. My son is what kept me alive and kept me going. My only escape was my mind. I had to picture myself elsewhere doing something different. I would always hold onto what life would be like when I made enough money. It was my mind that got me through it all; I had to separate from the sex acts and the hands of the people that were buying me.
Me: How long did this go on for and how did you get your prospects?
Jessica: The life of a prostitute lasted for about 18 months. After my first night my “wifey” and I only worked in casinos. Our pimp would give us $20-$40 to work the gambling table or sit at the bar so we didn’t look suspicious and could pick up our prospect. We were no longer working on the track, we graduated; my wifey did a lot of the leading until I could gain the confidence which took about 3-4 weeks. I was a farm girl so I followed her lead; I had to learn how to dress and walk in heels. It wasn’t hard to get our prospects, it would start with the pretty girl sitting at the bar and then I would joke about them losing money; it was all very conversational. The questions would eventually lead to why they are buying sex; there is terminology used like, “Do you want to party? Or “Do you want to go on a date?” We wouldn’t always ask for money up front or at the bar. Many of the prospects were married so we would ask, “What’s a matter, is she not doing it for you?” “What are your fantasies?” It was all about having fun and flirting, getting them to the point where they want to purchase you. Where I was at in Clark County, prostitution is illegal.
It was a great night if the guy was dropping the hint because you want to get in and out as quick as possible; you wanted to hook them and book them and be done; it was all about making your quota. I wasn’t always bought by men; women, couples, and groups of men bought me. As you are in the life, you have tricks that return on a regular basis. You learn security guards, concierge, bellboys etc. and they would call me for their high rollers. This was the time when escort services and the internet was just starting, so we posted ads on Craig’s List; our pimp wrote the ads, we only had a flip phone, never a computer.
Me: How did you escape the life of prostitution?
Jessica: I went to jail; I remember it was 2:30 in the morning and I hadn’t made any money, this was really nerve racking. I was coming out of Mandalay Bay, my wifey was a few steps ahead of me, and we were heading to the car to go somewhere else. I was stopped by what I found out later were Vice. When you get desperate you get sloppy. As I was talking to them and making my deal my wifey called and said, “Get out of there right now those men are vice.” She knew they were vice because they had arrested her before. If they would have seen her she could have been arrested for trespassing because she was kick out of the casino before; I was talking to her on the phone and was trying to walk away from them. They weren’t letting me leave, they followed me and I would push them off by saying, “It will be just a minute I’m talking to my son.” So I kept talking to my wifey and I got far enough away to slip into the women’s bathroom and I hid out there for hours. At one point I got really tired so I peaked out the door, I saw them down the hall detaining another girl and so I knew if I could just get to the street they couldn’t arrest me. I began to head towards the opposite direction, which was the front entrance, it’s now 5:30 in the morning and I was dipping in and out of slot machines, walking behind people and keeping discrete. I forgot there were cameras in the casinos and 2 security guards walked after me as if I stole a million dollars, they grabbed my arm, they took me back to a room, read me my rights and then took me to another room where there were 10-15 other girls and I was cuffed. I remember I was terrified; I had never been arrested before. Many of the girls were laughing and talking to the officers as if they had been through this many times. I was talking to the girl next to me and she walked me through the process. I was taken to the holding cell where I sat for 48 hours, if you had to pee you did it in front of everyone. When I finally got to make a call I didn’t call my pimp, I called my ex boyfriend.
Me: What made you call him after how he treated you?
Jessica: I loved him more than I loved my pimp. At the time I knew he was back in Vegas; he heard I was on the street and reached out to me previously. He picked me up from jail and that’s how I got out of the life. I walked away with nothing. It was a clean break away, my pimp didn’t come back after me. I was still in touch with my wifey who was my best friend. She told me that the pimp knew I had chose another and that he wouldn’t come back after me. I never saw my pimp again.
Me: How long did the relationship with your ex boyfriend last?
Jessica: Eight years, it was tough financially and we did a lot of couch surfing. I didn’t have a job or money and he just relocated to Vegas from LA. He was a struggling artist and I would apply for jobs but our phone was cut off because we couldn’t afford the bill. I couldn’t get welfare because I didn’t have my son in my possession. Finally I got a job as a cocktail waitress in a small bar and it seemed like things were turning around and then I found out I was pregnant. I was 28 years old and we had only been together for 1 year. I was homeless the entire time I was pregnant, I was working 2 jobs and I never saw a doctor the entire 9 months. There was one point, where we were staying at one of his friend’s apartments and there were so many roaches we couldn’t even put food in the fridge without the roaches getting in and after it. But, when I was 5 ½ months pregnant I got a job at a day care so I got together enough money to get a place just before my daughter was born.
Fast forward my daughter is 6 months old and it’s Christmas, I finally get to see my son. I was tiptoeing around the apartment looking for my son’s video game, I was anxious because I wanted Christmas to be perfect. My boyfriend and I got into it because I had accidentally woken him up. He said, “You are just a prostitute and nobody is going to love you.” He started throwing my past in my face and I got to a point where I was fed up, I went to the closet and started throwing his clothes out of the closet and said, “If you don’t like it get the f*** out. He grabbed me, threw me on the ground and he was choking me, strangling me to the point that I thought, “He’s going to kill me.” I started to black out, it scared him and he ran out the door. I walked in and saw my daughter sleeping in her crib and I said, “Nobody is going to hurt you baby, not even your dad.” I packed up that morning and went to live with my mother. I tried my best to enjoy Christmas; my mother wanted me to call the cops because I had bruise thumbprints on my neck. I never called the police and for 8 years after that I went through the battered woman cycle.
I was working and getting established and for 6 months to a year I would be good and then I would go back to him. Until finally in 2012 I broke the cycle, I locked myself in the bathroom and I took every pill that I could find. I was lying on the bathroom floor and my daughter was 3 years old; she was putting her hands under the bathroom door and calling my name. I felt so unloved and broken; I felt unworthy of anything both life and my children. My boyfriend called the ambulance; the police came and took me to the ER. The staff was talking about sending in a state social worker, it was about 5am and a social worker came in and asked, “How are you feeling?” I paused. She said, “Pausing is a sign of depression, I’m going to have you transferred to a psychiatric facility.” I was like, “What? No I can’t, I need to go home to my children.” For 72 hours I had to really face my life. I saw one patient talking to a trashcan. I saw so much craziness but no staff member ever asked me why I tried to take my life, they just medicated me. After those 3 days had passed and I had a lot of time to think, my abuser came to pick me up. I hated myself and I felt it so much that it physically hurt.
It was in the process of destroying myself that I began to understand myself and through the process of healing myself, is where I found myself.
It was at this moment that I realized healing is a process; it’s not an event. I decided after those 72 hours to no longer be a victim; I decided to play along to get along.
The bravest thing I ever did was, continue when I wanted to die.
Those 72 hours is why I was able to break the cycle, I decided to take my life back and become a social worker because I hated social workers. I stayed with my boyfriend for 3 months and during that time I graduated from college with my bachelor’s degree. I went from making $13/hour to $50,000 per year, it was life changing; this gave me the catalyst to leave him. I no longer had to be trauma bonded and live in false hope that he would be a proper father to his daughter. I was 33 years old and I took control of my life.
Me: Well done SHERO! What were some specific steps that you took to heal your life?
Jessica: I got a job offer for Head Start and at that time I applied for my master’s degree. I kept myself busy so I didn’t have to think about my “invisible suitcase”. But during my mater’s program and studying to be a social worker I learned about things and I started making sense of my trauma. I have never been to counseling but I do have complex PTSD. I didn’t trust social workers or therapists because in times of need when they were supposed to take care of me during my darkest days they failed me. However I had people that did help along the way.
I realized what I did was cognitive behavioral therapy. Everything to me growing up was negative and I never thought I was good enough so to combated that I would write a positive post on my Facebook every day. So any day when I had a negative thought I would go read my posts. The more positive I thought, the more positive things would happen. I wrote those Facebook posts for years and they helped to transform my life as well as others.
I didn’t recognize myself as a victim until I was in a domestic violence class and they were talking about abuse and human trafficking, in the middle of class I had a break down and a break through. I understood at that moment that I was a victim and it happened because some of my classmates asking, “Why wouldn’t the victims just leave or run?” It’s at that moment that I exposed myself and I explained why I couldn’t. A huge weight was removed and the entire class wrapped me in love. When I was doing my internship, Dr. Scott who is still a mentor to me, was doing therapy on me. He helped me process a lot of my junk. Eventually I read a book called Girls Like Us, and I realized I should use my platform. At that point I wanted to start telling my story and I did to anyone I could; when I felt the right energy and that started to heal me.
I graduated in 2015 with my mater’s degree and I was 36 years old. At this time I was working full time and both kids were living with me. I was learning to be a proper mother to my son and I was raising my daughter. I was focused on graduating and aside from my kids, my motivation was on helping others; accomplishments became a high to me and that’s how I kept moving forward.
Me: Where are you at today in life?
Jessica: I am single and raising my kids on my own. Over the past 4-5 years I have focused on my relationship with my kids. My son is a senior and about to graduate. Over the last year I became the program director for St. Jude’s Ranch For Children. It’s a government child welfare agency and my world of survivorship and helping others came together. I get to help other people and build it as my career. We are working on building a center in healing for sex trafficked children and so I get to use my survivor voice on multiple platforms. We are still raising money for the healing center so anyone who feels led to support, can.
Me: What are your ultimate end goals and vision for your platform?
Jessica: I have a million dreams, I want to solve the worlds problems; I’m a hustler for hope. But ultimately I want to finish my book Courageous Conversations that have transformed my life. It’s meant to supply daily inspiration. I am also working on a hip hop children’s book because at one point hip hop saved my life; the pioneers wrapped their arms around me and came to my rescue. The book is my way of paying it forward. Ten years from now I would like to be a public speaker and do consultation work to help child welfare agencies that are working with domestic violence or sex trafficking. I also have a passion to drive integrative health care systems for survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking where we treat them as a whole person. I want to encourage others, that they can over come their trauma and become anything they imagine.
I am super proud of SHERO Jessica for stepping forward and sharing her story, she realized that she can not compromise her happiness for the sake of others discomfort. Shedding light on behind the scenes of prostitution is not an easy thing to do and the ownership that comes with revealing our past can trigger many emotions; shame and fear are the biggest ones. When you publish a story of this magnitude for the first time on a big print platform it can trigger PTSD. So please everyone support Jessica in her courage and incredible accomplishments of not only speaking out but also turning her life around and becoming the true hero for her children. Thank you SHERO Jessica, the force of the sisterhood we have built with the #SHEROproject is behind you and we are all cheering you on and sending lots of light and love your way. If you feel as a reader that Jessica’s story has brought some sort of healing please pop a comment at the bottom of the article and a special thank you to the staff of Thrive Global and Arianna Huffington for making this all possible. We appreciate our sponsors that have spread love and encouragement to our sisterhood.
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