The Side Effects of Sex Trafficking

Latasha Drax has over 15 years in education as a high school English teacher, literacy coach and Adult English as Second Language instructor. She has taught in Florida, New York, Virginia and overseas in China. In 2014, she coordinated a Sex Trafficking Awareness Walk in Lakeland, Florida where she also served on a Human Trafficking Task Force. She is currently pursuing a Masters in Government with a concentration in Law and Public Policy.

At 3 years old, Deanna Huston Carpenter was molested by her older brother. The sexual abuse continued until her brother left the home when she was 10. But then her father began to molest her from the age of 12 until she moved out of state to live with her mother at 15 years old. Deanna married her husband when she was 19 and his physical abuse eventually led to him trafficking her through a business disguised as a modeling agency. Deanna’s first trafficking experience mirrors many victims. Taken to a motel by her husband, the trauma she endured remains fresh in her memory. “There were 5 guys in there. For several hours I was raped and sodomized. It was hours of torture and I was broken by the end.”

During the late 1980’s and 90’s, around the timeframe Deanna was trafficked, the term “human trafficking” was not widely used. Victims of trafficking were called models, entertainers or dancers, terms traffickers still use today to lure victims under false pretenses. Unfortunately, if arrested the legal term used then and still now is prostitution. Yet referring to sex trafficking victims as prostitutes is misleading and detrimental to the wellbeing of survivors with hopes of starting a new life

Unlike many human trafficking survivors, despite her ordeal, Deanna considers herself to be “incredibly lucky.” Her background is not muddied by a string of convictions and arrests that prevent her from gaining employment, housing, or even pursuing higher education. With degrees in psychology and public relations, she has been able to live her life with one less traumatic experience to face.

 For a human trafficking survivor, particularly in Virginia, victims are forced to relive the trauma endured each time they are denied a job or education, rejected by public housing agencies, or stigmatized for prostitution or other criminal record. One of the misconceptions surrounding survivors with criminal records (including arrests for prostitution) is that the process of gaining employment and becoming a productive member of society is an easy one. Yet that is one of the many myths that the Virginia Coalition Against Human Trafficking (VCAHT) is fighting to debunk. The reality is criminal records create nearly insurmountable barriers for individuals hoping for a second chance. Deanna agrees that the lack of expungement and vacatur laws that support survivors reinforces years of abuse. But it also conveys the psychological and emotionally abusive messages engrained in them by traffickers that they are worthless, unwanted, and insignificant.

 Charlotte Miller the president of Butterfly House, a safe house for sex trafficking victims in Virginia, has seen how survivors struggle to reclaim their lives. She states that their “emotional and mental self-evaluation is poor,” and believes survivors need a clean slate.  Enacting expungement and vacatur laws remove what she calls a proverbial “ball and chain around their foot” which ultimately is a hindrance to healing.  Miller believes that expungement is necessary, but she also believes that therapy is an integral part of their healing recovery in order to identify their “gifts” or skill readiness prior to reentering the workplace.

Deanna understands all too well the traumatic side effects of surviving sex trafficking and the search for self-identity lost by sexual abuse, domestic violence, and human trafficking. “Those who are arrested, have appeared before a judge or did jail time and were bailed out with nowhere to go, desperately need communities to support them.” For Deanna, therapy is a never-ending coping mechanism to overcome her feelings of worthlessness and low self-esteem. Unfortunately for trafficking survivors who have been criminalized, they are often cut off from getting this much needed mental health treatment because of their criminal records.

Another way she has found her healing is by helping other survivors through her non-profit organization, Emerging From the Dark, which like the Butterfly House is a safe space to support survivors of abuse. 

Community resources, therapy, and public awareness of human trafficking are vital components towards helping survivors thrive. Because of this, it is even more important that Virginia enact legislative policies that promote change in the way survivors are treated.  VCAHT stands firm on the truth that as long as Virginia continues to maintain the criminal records, arrests, and convictions of human trafficking survivors, it will only further punish victims instead of help them move forward.

While far from perfect, almost all of Virginia’s sister states, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia as well as the District of Columbia have passed legislation to allow human trafficking survivors to petition to expunge and/or vacate some criminal convictions that were the result of their being trafficked. (For example, see Maryland Motion to Vacate Judgment of Conviction under Criminal Procedure § 8-302, which is a very important step forward for survivors and does broaden relief considerably beyond prostitution charges to which the statute had previously been limited, and Washington D.C. § 22–1844. Motion to vacate conviction or expunge criminal records for victims of trafficking.)

In like manner, Virginia legislators need to follow the example of its Sister States, such as Maryland, but then take the lead by passing even more substantive legislation to support human trafficking victims. The passing of such an expungement and vacatur law in the State of Virginia would send the message to survivors that their life matters, that their past does not define their future, and that they too, like Deanna, can blossom like the lotus flower to live a “beautiful life” free from the traumatic memories of control, forced criminality, and coercion by their abusers and traffickers.

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