I still remember the first time I was getting ready to share my story in a church setting. Just as the congregation was getting ready to trickle in, a woman looked at me and said, “Are you sure you want to do this? People will never look at you the same again.”
Panic set in. Was I making the right choice? Maybe she was right? Maybe a story like mine was fine to share in the strip clubs but not with the general public and certainly not in the church.
I ran to the bathroom hoping to ward off an anxiety attack. Thankfully I ran into a friend with a different opinion. “Who cares what they think? If they have a problem with your story, that is between them and God.”
She reminded me that we overcome by the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony (Revelation 12:11). She told me God was going to use my story to set other people free.
The truth is, it was only a few years prior to this moment that I had been set free as a result of someone bravely sharing their story. I had been attending church and learning about Jesus but still found myself stuck in an abusive relationship with a boyfriend who essentially became my pimp. Every night, I came home from work at the strip club and gave him all of my money. A childhood filled with sexual abuse, rape, and abandonment left me feeling hopeless and worthless. He simply validated all of the negative things I already believed about myself. So no matter how destructive the relationship became, I stayed.
One night, I found myself at a Christian hip-hop concert in San Diego. During the show, a man stood up and briefly shared his testimony. He told us that he had been a homeless drug addict, living on the streets, and Jesus changed his life. I had never heard someone publicly talk about their past with such confidence and transparency. Up until that point, I was pretty convinced (as the enemy would have it) I was the only one in the church dealing with brokenness. It is this sort of lie that keeps us bound and silent.
The man went on to share the scripture in John 15:5 (NIV), “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”
That night, I realized I was like the withered branch, cut off from the Vine, trying to live life my way. I began to wonder, if God could love and restore a homeless drug addict, then just maybe He could love and restore a girl like me.
I decided I was going to do whatever I could to connect my life to the True Vine, Jesus. It was from that resolution, and from experiencing His relentless love firsthand, that I gained the strength to leave my abusive ex and stripping behind.
Standing with my friend in the church bathroom a few years later, I was faced with another decision. Would I be generous enough with my own story to share it? Or would I shrink back in fear of what other people might think?
In some ways, it would have been easy to go about my merry little life, healed and whole, yet silent. Recalling the impact one man’s story had on me, I made a choice that day to surrender my story to God. If He wanted me to share it, I would. The ministry of Treasures, an outreach and support group for women in the sex industry, was birthed out of my story. I can’t even imagine what life would look like if I hadn’t shared my story that day.
For the next several years, most of the women I encountered were deeply ashamed of their stories. I encouraged them to break the silence because their past didn’t have to define their future. “My Story Matters” has been the Treasures Motto. We believe in the power of story. And it’s not just people who have worked in the sex industry who second-guess their stories. We all have a story, and it matters. The very things we may be tempted to think disqualify us from God’s plan for our lives are the very things He can and will use for good if we let Him.
Things have changed over the past decade. The issues of sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) have gained public attention. Awareness is spreading. These are good things.
Whereas survivors of trafficking and CSE used to have to break through barriers of silence, shame, and stigma to have their voices heard, nowadays there seems to be a spotlight waiting for anyone who will come forward with a story of victimhood.
Recently I did a documentary shoot in which I spent about two hours recounting my history of trauma, abuse, and working as a stripper. The director was getting ready to wrap up the interview and asked if there was anything else I would like to cover.
“Well, we didn’t talk about Treasures and the work I do today. Or what has happened in my life since I left the sex industry,” I noted.
He paused and pondered this for a moment. “That’s okay. I think we’ve got what we need.”
My concern is this, with so much attention being given to the “victimhood” part of CSE and trafficking survivor stories, the underlying message is that the “victims” are still defined by their past. And if survivors begin to see their value solely through the lens of their “victimhood” and people’s desire to hear their stories, what happens when the spotlight moves on to a new cause? What happens when we aren’t invited to share our stories anymore?
I still believe that story matters. I still believe it brings freedom. I believe it humanizes the woman on the other end of the dollar. It is a powerful tool in bringing awareness, education, and hope.
But I also believe my story is bigger than the pain and victimhood of my past. That part of my story is just that: part of my story. It isn’t who I am.
My identity is in Jesus. I am not defined by what I have done but what He has done.
My story matters, but it does not define me.
If you are in a position where you invite people to share their stories, I would like to leave you with some practical questions you can ask to empower people as they share from the platform you offer.
If you are a person who shares your story publicly, these are some things you may want to consider addressing as you share.
- What do you hope that people will learn from your story?
- What is one thing you would like people to know?
- Who are you today?
- What are you looking forward to?
- What is your hope for your future?
- What do you think survivors of sex trafficking and CSE need? Where are the gaps in services?
- What factors make people vulnerable to trafficking and CSE?
- What can we do to make a difference?