Just a few years ago everything changed. I was trafficked. I was deceived by a man who said that he loved me. I was a product and a vehicle to make money. But I am a survivor.
I had known my trafficker for many years prior to being forced into prostitution. We met at a club and texted or talked on the phone daily for years, until I came to trust him completely. He was my best friend. So when he asked me to visit him in Italy, I believed it was just a holiday.
The reality is he had groomed me over a period of five years. He was a criminal; he was a trafficker of all kinds: guns, drugs, and girls. Later, I would learn that this is not unusual. In the majority of cases, women know their traffickers.
When he told me what I was expected to do for him, I froze. The reality of what was happening seemed so surreal that my mind was totally paralyzed. The man that had been so caring had turned into a monster. The violence and rage were like nothing I had ever experienced before, although over a period of time his outbursts became daily life. He took me to a lake where, he told me, my dead body would be thrown should I do anything wrong.
Victims are often portrayed in movies with chains or locked away, but the truth is many girls are left on the streets alone for long stretches of time. People often ask why girls enslaved in human trafficking don’t run away. Surely the simple thing to do would be to find a way to escape: run when he wasn’t there, or ask for help.
But while I was free physically, my mental freedom was removed almost immediately. My trafficker explained that I could trust nobody—that he had friends everywhere and they would come to test me. He repeatedly told me if I ever did anything to disobey him he would kill me, as well as my family, and I knew his threats were not empty. I had been held at gunpoint many times. I begged him to stop but he wouldn’t. My passport was taken. I was in a country where I couldn’t speak the language, with a man who would stop at nothing to get what he wanted.
To the outside world this is a difficult concept to understand, but with extreme fear comes complete debilitation. Fear of the mind is often the hardest thing to rationalize with. With daily beatings, your mind becomes completely controlled, conditioned to respond in a certain way. You’re unsure whom to trust—and even those whom you’d normally believe you can trust, you come to learn you can’t. During my experience I had countless policemen, judges, doctors, military pay for sex. The police often used their power to also induce fear, so that seeking help feels impossible.
Because I speak under a pseudonym, many people wonder who I am. The reality is I look just like everyone else. The difference is that was my life and these are my memories. My hopes, my dreams, and my life were shattered into nothing, and everything I’d ever known was taken away. Worst of all I lost myself. I stopped living and simply existed.
Sometimes I look in the mirror, I see my reflection and for a second I see her, the girl I used to be. All I wanted to do was reach out to her and tell her that one day it will all be OK again. I can’t take away what happened to me, but I can do everything in my power to help others.
This year, between 700,000 and 4 million women and children will be forced into sex slavery. In addition to my day job, I have dedicated my life to stop my past being someone else’s future, working with girls around the world who have been affected by trafficking. One of my happiest memories was spending time with a number of survivors and hearing about their lives and, more importantly, their futures. Their strength and determination is remarkable. One girl has been accepted into a top university in Mexico City to study law, one has passed her nursing exam, and another is still deciding. But the difference now is that she can choose. She has complete freedom over what she wants to do, and I’ve learned you can’t put a price tag on that feeling.
Sophie Hayes is the author of Trafficked: My Story of Surviving, Escaping and Transcending Abduction Into Prostitution, which was published in the U.S. this September. For more information about the Sophie Hayes Foundation, please visit www.sophiehayesfoundation.org.