A multitude of material has been written about sex trafficking and there are a lot of different messages out there. Part of what muddies the waters is a misinformation campaign lead by organisations claiming to rescue victims of sex trafficking. These organisations paint a very different picture to what is actually occurring. Lenore Black, who we have interviewed, did not recognise she was a survivor until long after the crimes, and her trauma, took place. What began as a tweet has lead to an honest retelling of her experience as a survivor of child sex trafficking.
How did you start out as an advocate against sex trafficking?
I became an advocate for sex trafficking after realizing that I had been a victim of it 15 years after it happened. It was such a disorienting and confusing experience, that I did not even realize it was happening! I never stood on a street corner, I never made any money, and I never did anything against my will. I wrote the tweet above from a very emotional place, as a reaction to a lot of the posts I was seeing go viral online about child sex trafficking, and what kinds of people were committing these crimes.
I knew about sex trafficking as a kid, but much like rape- I only believed that it existed in a very specific context. I equated sex trafficking with sex slavery, which is one part of it, but in reality sex trafficking is so much more complicated and nuanced than that. I define sex trafficking as someone who is being sexually exploited by someone else. Exploitation can look like sex slavery, but it can also look like grooming and manipulation, leaving survivors totally confused about what happened. I’m not kidding! These things are oftentimes so complicated and interwoven that it’s very difficult for survivors to pull it apart, which is why it took me so long to realize it.
What can you tell us about your journey as a sex worker?
My journey as a sex worker was messy at first. After the reality of my abuse set in when I got older, I struggled with sex addiction for many years. My sex addiction felt less like I was seeking pleasure, and more like I was punishing my body. Like a compulsion to re-create my trauma through meeting strangers on the internet. Eventually my addiction lead me to getting paid for sex, because it felt like the most riskiest thing I could do.
Not surprisingly it didn’t go well, sex work and trauma can be very complicated, and hard to separate at times. After stumbling through sex work for a few years off and on, I got introduced to Sensual Massage. Sensual Massage really helped me find agency over my body, playing with erotic energy, but also learning how to communicate my desires and boundaries which felt nearly impossible when I was in a penetrative sexual situation. It was like trauma lead me to sex work to give me a chance to re-write my own story. Instead of feeling like a person had stolen my body and life from me, I re-claimed my own sexuality and voice for myself.
Sex work also allowed me access to EMDR therapy and alternative healing modalities that really changed my life. Growing up my family couldn’t afford therapy, and sex work allowed me to begin the long path towards healing and having compassion for myself. It was through these practices that I learned that it is possible to work through these things, even when it hurts.
How did you come to leave/escape your abuser/trafficker?
To be honest, I feel like I never totally did. This is the dark truth about a lot of situations that involve deep manipulation and grooming of children, you think that someone loves you and cares about you- and if your parents aren’t around, you learn to depend on this person in the same way you do a parent. This is why sex trafficking is such a huge and complicated conversation, it’s not always as simple as saying you were “forced” to do something. Oftentimes as children we are just looking for love, and when that comes from a bad person, wires get crossed in your brain and it begins to convolute the way you perceive reality.
Because my abuser was also my rapist, and ironically the only person that knew what happened to me, I fell in love with him. This bond has proven incredibly hard to break, even when he treated me poorly and I knew what he was doing to others. I feel a lot of shame about this, but it’s important to talk about because so many survivors feel alone in this. Abusers and traffickers thrive on creating relationships with their victims, so that they don’t turn on them. By the time the victim even realizes what happened, they feel so much shame and guilt over being manipulated that they oftentimes say nothing. I left him the first time when I was 14 and began to realize the seriousness of the situation I had become a part of, but I also went back to him many times between the ages of 15-19.
A few years ago I tried going to the cops, and they listened to my story and empathized, but said that without much evidence he was likely not to be convicted and it would cause me more pain than it was worth. They told me that he would get a lawyer and dig into every part of my past, and I knew that my status as a sex worker would be weaponized against me.
Were there services available to you at the time?
There were no services available to me unfortunately, and I don’t think I would have known to use them anyway. Because of the deep manipulation and grooming I had experienced, I knew that I had been raped, but since I fell in love with him pretty quickly after that, everything got warped. I wouldn’t even formally admit to being raped until years later. Not surprisingly, I began acting out at school and cutting myself and doing drugs, but because I loved this person and wanted to protect him, I kept it a secret.
I remember when Cyntoia Brown got out out of prison, and she requested that people do not call her a child sex trafficking victim because she wasn’t one. Then I heard an interview that she gave on the Daily Show where she explained that she did not consider herself a trafficking victim at the time because she thought her abuser was her boyfriend. The floor dropped out on me in that moment, and I suddenly realized that I was actually part of a child porn ring. This was not just my older “boyfriend” who had a lot of “girlfriends” (which is how I remembered it at the time), this was something much deeper. So even when it comes to having access to services, many victims don’t know they need it because they don’t even realize they are being abused. This is why we need to work even harder to expand the definition of what sexual exploitation looks like.
Having experienced both being a victim and being a consensual sex worker what do you think the biggest misconceptions are and in what ways have you seen this affect the broader sex worker community?
Honestly we need to completely re-frame what sex trafficking looks like and the conversations we are having about it. It’s a truly horrific thing, and by only presenting it in a certain way, you are harming victims of sex trafficking AND consensual sex workers. Having experienced both sides of this, I can say with absolute confidence that consensual sex work and sex trafficking are two very different things. When sex trafficking is conflated with wild conspiracy theories, it gets used as legal ammunition to hurt consenting, adult sex workers.
Sex trafficking is not just sex slavery- sure it definitely includes that, but that is just a small portion of the many other ways it can look. I define sex trafficking as someone who is being sexually exploited. I never considered myself a victim of sex trafficking because I never made any money off of what I did, but my trafficker most certainly did. I was being exploited and manipulated. This has not been the case with my sex work, where I was able to have agency over my body, schedule, and finances.
It is extremely important that we shift and expand the narrative on sex trafficking to not just include the boogeyman jumping out of the bushes to kidnap children, but as someone is your own backyard that your child knows and trusts. They can be someone who is charming and attractive, they can be young, and they can be any gender.
What do you think would have helped you during this period and what do you think would actually help victims of sex trafficking going forward?
Community outreach! This is so so important. This is also why the foster system is one of the biggest places that sex trafficking starts. Traffickers pray on kids that have a tumultuous home life, offering them a listening ear, or giving them financial incentives around money. So it is very important to check on the kids in your life as often as possible. It can literally be happening right under your nose. If I had an adult around that told me that what was happening to me was in fact not okay, no matter how much I cared about this person, I may have been able to get away from him much sooner and pursue legal action.
You now do some amazing work in sexual healing using ritual eroticism and conscious kink to address sexual shame, guilt, and numbness. Would you be able to tell us a little bit about that?
Yes! I struggle with PTSD from my experiences, and it became increasingly difficult to manage as I got older. I always knew that I was kinky, and my trauma also influenced my kinks, which created a lot of shame and tension in my body. It was through finally playing with kinks, that I was able to feel empowered and present in my body, and find deep sexual and emotional healing. Now I work with holding that space for others, using shadow work and kink to guide others in healing their trauma and owning their sexual power.
I think people often forget about their sexual well-being. What would you say are your top erotic self care tips?
Ahh yes! This is such a good question. I think it’s really important to set aside time to connect with your body and pleasure on your own, without a partner, and without an orgasm. Partnered sex and orgasms are great, but it’s important to get to know your how your body feels pleasure without these things as well. How do you like to be touched? What feels good? Also playing with edging! Getting yourself close to orgasm, but not allowing yourself to climax. I promise you can reward yourself at the end. ;)