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Escaping the Sex Trafficking Industry

A Q+A with a former sex worker, who weaves her own painful story of being lured into "the life," with the stories of the girls and women that she now helps.

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There are some people who work in feminist activism who believe that the conversation about protecting trafficked girls and women sometimes erases female agency. What are your thoughts about that? Do you feel supported by feminists that you encounter?

There are so many different types of feminists that I can say that I feel incredibly supported by some and totally marginalized and scorned by others. The question about agency is really one I try to address in the book and one that deserves more discussion. For me it comes down to whether involvement in the sex industry is about choice or lack of choices. For millions of women and girls globally, it's about lack of choices. Just because you make a 'choice' to work in a brothel rather than let your kids starve, or dance in a club rather than stay in an abusive home, doesn't make it an empowered choice. 

You also write about the euphoria that follows finally leaving, and the difficult period that often follows that euphoria. What does Girls Empowerment Mentoring Services (GEMS), your organization, do to help girls weather the period after the euphoria?

Relationships are the key. Girls connect to the relationships that they build at GEMS, with staff and with each other more than any of the programming we offer. We also prepare girls that that period is coming, that's its totally normal. That’s why its so critical to have survivors on staff, because you need to know it's going to be okay from someone who has made it through already. 

You write, “I realized that it was owning what I’d been through, not hiding it, that had opened the door to real healing for me.” It has also opened the door for real learning for those lucky enough to read Girls Like Us. What is one thing that you hope readers take away from your story, and one action you hope they take after turning the last page?

I hope they can take away just a tiny bit of the love that I have for the girls and women we serve. If people begin to see 'girls like us' as girls like them, we could truly make changes on this issue. I hope, too, that people are encouraged that even if you've been through a lot of pain, you can overcome and heal. It doesn’t have to define you. 

The one action I hope people take, in addition to logging on to the GEMS site and making a donation, is to commit to spending time with a young person in their lives and become a mentor, a supporter, a person of safety. If every girl in the U.S. had one positive, supportive, consistent adult, her life could look very different. 

Courtney E. Martin is a writer, teacher, and speaker living in Brooklyn. Her latest books include, Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and CLICK: When We Knew We Were Feminists. She is an editor at and a Senior Correspondent at The American Prospect. Read more about her work at

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