Sex-Trafficking Survivor’s Plea: I Want All My Life Back
By Guest Columnist Aubree Alles
Published on February 2, 2017 by the Orlando Sentinel
I think it’s human nature to want simple explanations for terrible things. If there’s an explanation, we know whom to blame, what to avoid and how to prevent it.
In my case, people often look at the 10 years I spent in a life of prostitution and say, “It was a drug thing.” That quick-and-easy judgment allows them to assign blame while consoling themselves with the idea that their sons and daughters will never be lured into a life of violence and exploitation.
Unfortunately, few things in life are simple. It’s true that I was a troubled teenager, had low self-esteem, experimented with drugs and alcohol, and was arrested at age 18 after stealing a car and taking a joy ride. But, it’s also true that the leap from those problems to prostitution involved a very complex intermediary: human trafficking.
While in jail for that teenage joy ride, I was assigned to a Christian dorm. There I met a woman I believed was my friend, but who was actually grooming me to depend on her once I was released. Eventually, she would exploit that dependence, manipulate my mind and brutalize my body so the only life I was capable of leading was one in which I did exactly as she said. I lived that life for almost 10 years, and in my mind, it’s a miracle that I came out walking and talking.
When I finally left, I did it in a big way by agreeing to testify against my trafficker, even though I knew it might cost me my life. I stayed in safe houses out of state until the time came to give my deposition, and when I returned to Florida for that task, my trafficker suddenly passed away.
Since the time of my escape about five years ago, I have been working hard to fight for other sex-trafficking survivors. I’ve been reunited with my 10-year-old daughter, earned an associate’s degree in human-service management and am working toward a bachelor’s degree in psychology. I work with other advocates to raise awareness about human trafficking and have a close working relationship with the prison chaplains who explained what trafficking was and helped me break away. I strive to lead a productive life, and to provide normalcy for my daughter.
I am liberated in many ways, but because I am legally still considered a criminal rather than a victim, I am not completely free. Because of numerous nonviolent crimes I was forced to commit while being exploited, I cannot be part of my daughter’s Girl Scout or school activities. While I can get a job in a call center, I cannot get one using my skill set and degree. I cannot access affordable, safe housing or do basic things like get a drivers license or a loan. I deal daily with a lifetime sentence that prevents me from being the mom and citizen I should be.
To improve my daughter’s life, I am working with an attorney to get my record vacated, or cleared. Currently, there is a law on the books in Florida that allows this, but the process is arduous. I am fortunate that I have assistance. I hope lawmakers in Florida and in the U.S. Congress can help all trafficking victims regain a safe, productive life by passing and implementing more streamlined laws that enable survivors to vacate convictions and expunge arrests for nonviolent crimes committed as a result of the person having been a victim of trafficking.
These laws, which would transfer blame from the victim to the trafficker, should:
- Not be limited to vacating only certain prostitution offenses.
- Offer confidentiality provisions to protect victims’ identities.
- Ensure all human-trafficking survivors can benefit from cleared records, by funding legal-services lawyers to work with survivors.
At the federal level, our representatives in Congress can also play an important role by supporting the Trafficking Survivors Relief Act. This legislation provides a process by which a human-trafficking survivor can move to vacate any arrest or conviction record for a nonviolent federal offense committed as a direct result of human trafficking.
I have lived through terrible and complex things, for which there is no easy explanation. It is my great hope that legislators will allow human-trafficking survivors to live fully free lives by supporting a simple fix: passage of effective laws that clear criminal records.
Aubree Alles is an Orlando based anti-trafficking advocate.