Dee Clarke is the founder of Survivor Speak USA (www.SurvivorSpeakUSA.org), a Maine–based organization focused on ending sex trafficking and sexual exploitation. It provides a platform for the voices and experiences of women who have survived. A former victim herself, Clarke has spoken at the Salvation Army’s Portland, Maine Citadel Corps and at its day center “The Well.” Her work has helped raise awareness to improve laws that protect survivors of sex trafficking.
How did your upbringing lead you to become a victim of human trafficking?
In the Boston housing project where my family lived, little boys grew up to be drug users, and little girls became victims of the men who sold those drugs. My sister, brothers, and I were always in and out of foster homes. My mother would do something to get us back, but then the cycle of abuse would start again. She went from playing with us and being sweet, to hitting us and calling us horrible names. Today, she would be diagnosed with a mental illness. But back then, I thought this was normal, because a lot of the mothers in the neighborhood behaved that way.
According to Survivor Speak, cases like mine deny childhood development and instead create victimhood development. That means that my upbringing was not even at the basic level of what a childhood should be. We weren’t growing up in an environment that develops a child’s personality, self–identity, or self–worth. Victimhood carries on into adulthood. I see the signs in victims of sex trafficking/sexploitation. Survivors who can access strong continuous supports can focus and have opportunities toward a life of stability, but not every person gets that opportunity and languishes in the pain of the traumas, never recovering.
What happened to you at 12 years old?
My 16–year–old brother Billy had just come back from reform school, and he took me to a party. There, I noticed that all the people at this party were adults, not kids like me, or even teenagers like him. After drinking, I started talking to an older man who invited me to leave the party to go and eat. I thought that’s what we would do, but we ended up going to an apartment, and he raped me.
At the time, I was having my first period. My mother had never taken the time to properly teach me how to care for myself. When the man noticed blood on his bed, he dragged me down the hall, and gave me to a pimp called “Red,” who then kept me. His pregnant girlfriend “Fast” became my “wife–in–law.” They put me out to “turn tricks“ in cars and brothels, or trickhouses. They beat and starved me to make me behave and do the things they wanted.
How did you finally escape?
Red brought in an older girl, Silvia, who was a fighter. She showed a resistance to Red and Fast that I never showed. Washing clothes in the bathroom one day, Silvia mouthed quietly to me, “Today, we’re leaving.” I didn’t want to. All I could think of was, If I just do what Red and Fast ask, they won’t hurt me. In our baby doll nightgowns and with no shoes on, we climbed down the second floor porch and ran. I found a phone booth and called my mother.
When I arrived at my mother’s house, I realized that the authorities had been looking frantically for Silvia, but I wasn’t even on record as missing. In eight months, no one had looked for me. That hurt me terribly. After that day, I never saw Silvia again.
Why did you start Survivor Speak USA?
As an adult, I worked in advocacy, helping women who had survived situations like mine. Some had searched for a way out, but hesitated, because they didn’t know what the next step would be after they escaped the life. These women had come from homes and neighborhoods like the one I was raised in.
I also met women who were discovered by law enforcement during anti–trafficking stings. I noticed that, among these women, there was a lot of separation between those who were getting help, and others who were not. They were the “forgotten women.” Instead of listening to them and turning their experiences into solutions to fight sex trafficking/sexploitation, they were being cast aside.
Why were these women neglected while others received help?
Women who are officially determined to be “sex trafficked” have a better chance of being provided a path to recovery and stability. However, if law enforcement does not see coercion, a woman does not get the same treatment. But all are victims of “sexploitation,” which is exchanging sex for money via victimization and oppression.
When police do a sting, they usually go after johns or pimps. Women are usually involved in the sting, but law enforcement sees only some of these women as actually “sex trafficked.” They are either jailed and have to make bail or given a summons and have to pay a fine. Law enforcement uses the term “sex trafficking” and its strict definition to prosecute their abusers. But when police do not see coercion, by their definition, they don’t think they are seeing a victim. Survivor Speak helps all “sexploited” women.
How do you work to change this system?
By giving these women a seat at the table where change is being discussed. They should be negotiating the laws to protect themselves. Otherwise, they’re still being victimized. Through Survivor Speak, we are putting sex trafficking/sexploitation survivors in the rooms with prosecutors, lawmakers, and service providers. They need to see that a victim is a strong adult woman, not just a scared girl crying to be saved. Every woman, no matter her age or how long she has been in the life or how she reacts when she is finally offered a path out, should be listened to and helped.
interview by Hugo Bravo