"We’ve gone through everything we’ve gone through alone": A human trafficking survivor speaks out

Research scientist and trafficking survivor Kate Price tells Salon about her path to becoming an activist

Published November 30, 2014 2:00PM (EST)

 Kate Price   (Kate Price)
Kate Price (Kate Price)

Kate Price was sold for sex when she was just a girl. Born to a poor family scarred by generations of violence, Price was first abused in the back of a family member's bar; she was too young to understand what was happening. Later, a different family member would take her from her room in the middle of the night and bring her out to the garage, where she was drugged to immobility and left to lie there while strange men paid to have sex with her. Her exploiter used the cash to support a drug addiction, all the while telling Price she was "special" and "loved."

It took nearly 15 years for Price to "come out" as a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC), but that didn't stop her from working as a survivor advocate long before identifying herself. After escaping her community and finally leaving her family, Price supported herself through college and a master's program, eventually becoming a research scientist at Wellesley College. (Update: Price will become a research scientist once she completes her PhD, and is currently a project associate at Wellesley.) Her work on preventing CSEC has been cited as a key influence in Florida's recent decision not to include a new provision in the state's Safe Harbor Law, which would have required that children be locked up while receiving assistive services.

Price is currently working to continue her research on sex trafficking prevention in a Ph.D. program at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, where she is focusing on factors that contribute to CSEC in the 10 to 13 years before exploitation occurs. In her efforts to crowd-fund her education, Price says her need highlights the struggle many trafficking and exploitation survivors encounter as they try to create new lives for themselves. She recently talked with Salon by phone about her experience extricating herself from her community, her path to activism and her efforts to continue making positive change to eliminate various forms of abuse. Our interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Not everyone becomes an activist after experiencing any sort of trauma, but especially sexual exploitation. What is it that motivates you to be an activist and not just another survivor?

I think the key, for me, is that when I started researching CSEC, during my master’s degree, I found that anti-trafficking activists and academics and researchers found what I had to say really forward-thinking and helpful. So, I did a lot of soul-searching -- would this be re-traumatizing myself, or could this really help? -- and I found that it really feels like a calling. It really feels like what I’m supposed to be doing with my life. So I have continued doing the research. I’ve been doing this research for about 15 years, and I’m just starting to become much more public now, because I’m finding what I’m doing is really being effective on a national level.

Do you find that at all frustrating -- that people can say, “Oh, wow, what you’re saying is so helpful and insightful,” when a lot of it seems kind of basic? I don’t mean to undermine the work that you’re doing, but to me a lot of it just makes sense. Does that ever get to you, that your work and your story can be so hugely influential when so much of it is drawn fundamentally from experiences that far too many people have?

I don’t find it frustrating at all. If anything, I find it inspiring. My experience is one of the ways that childhood sexual exploitation, child abuse, child sexual abuse, physical abuse, all continue. It is so in front of our faces, and at the same time we really render it invisible as a culture. For instance, I was just speaking with a family member the other night, and he was saying, “Until I really read your work, I never noticed how vulnerable children are. Now when I watch the news, it’s everywhere.” Maybe the school coach was a predator. We would never think that. That’s exactly how this can happen. We do trust certain community members, and they take advantage of our children. We have this basic cultural trust for people in positions of power -- particularly people who work with children. And unfortunately, predators really do take advantage of that trust that is just so implicit in our society.

In so many cases -- and in my own experience -- having an authority figure take advantage of their power is what allows these abuses to happen. I think that’s very tied up in this trust you mentioned that we have for people in positions of power. How do you think we can overcome that? How do we fix this fundamental misunderstanding that people have about the role that power and authority play in establishing these exploitative relationships, when we’re so trusting of those predators?

I think it’s definitely the trust, and at the same time I think victim-blaming goes hand-in-hand with it. We don’t go into the dynamics of the dominance and control. Instead, we just look at the surface. We say, “She lied.” We say, “No one was physically restraining her or making her do any of this." And yet all of those tactics of power that a predator uses are invisible. I think predators often use that victim-blaming against their victims. For instance, I spoke on a panel once with a survivor who was saying that her pimp would literally say to her, “Look, you came from foster care. Who’s out there for you? What, you’re just going to go back to foster care and get abused there?” Those are your choices, so what are you going to do?

I think it’s a lot of why predators choose children that are vulnerable -- they don’t necessarily have choices, and they don’t necessarily have people looking out for them. And they’re young! They don’t necessarily know what their choices are. It’s that continued preying on vulnerability.

As for what we do, in terms of that implicit trust that we put in people in the community: Speaking more for myself as a parent at this point, for me, that trust is not just given. It needs to be earned. My experience is that predators do go after children who might not necessarily have a lot of adults around them, or who may really be looking for belonging, who might not have that. And, unfortunately, we don’t live in a time anymore where you can just trust people. Did we ever live in a time where you could just trust people? I don’t know. That’s where we get into this romantic notion, because certainly exploitation and predation of children has been going on for a very, very, very long time.

As you just said, these forms of exploitation have been going on for years and years, but before we just didn’t really talk about them. Such a key part of making change is sharing these personal stories. How have you balanced sharing your own story with maintaining your own mental and emotional health?

That’s a great question. Like I said, I really thought about it long and hard. Was I really going to do this? My husband is a journalist, so he has been wonderful helping me navigate the media, as well as just waiting until the time was right. I think the biggest thing for me is that now I can tell my story, and I have enough tactics of self-care that I really won’t get triggered. If I do get triggered, I know how to take care of myself more easily. The most important thing for me is that when I do speak out, I look at the intention of the journalist; what is the intention of the forum? I’ve reached a point where I can usually tell if people are after headlines -- are they after these titillating stories? -- or if they are really looking to forward the work that is happening.

Given that CSEC and human trafficking are such huge issues that affect so many more people than most Americans know, do you think it’s unfortunate that you have to be so careful when talking about your experience and your research?

No, I don’t. I think if anything that’s part of how CSEC continues to happen. We have this particular narrative of how this continues to happen -- usually, “the child chose to do this.” This is America, we have Title IX, girls have soccer teams -- how in the world could this happen? If it does happen, then the child must be a bad kid -- that’s the narrative that often happens. The child must be a bad kid. He or she chose to do this, therefore whatever happens, they really deserve it. They should know better. Again, we don’t really get to the nuance of the way we discriminate against children. I think that’s a pretty big topic to unpack. Some would say, “No, no, we don’t discriminate against children.” Well, we certainly don’t take care of children. A lot of people don’t know this, but according to UNICEF, the U.S. is No. 1 among industrialized nations for child death from abuse and neglect. We are No. 2 among industrialized nations for children living in poverty. I just saw a study that came out this year that one in three children live in poverty in the U.S. We don’t necessarily want to look at that. And so it’s very convenient to talk about exploitation being the child’s fault. What we’re not really talking about is that we’re putting a lot of kids at risk. The top two risk factors for childhood sexual exploitation are abuse and neglect, and poverty.

How do you think the exploitation of children is tied to other forms of abuse? I know you’ve talked a lot about domestic violence (for example, the Ray Rice incident). How are these things linked?

They’re very linked. From my own experience, the exploitation in our house included physical abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse and incest with family members. It wasn’t just my commercial exploitation. CSEC really is a continuation of violence. We talk about exploitation as being this choice, and there is a time when a child enters exploitation or is lured into exploitation. But I want to look at those 10 or 13 years before a child is exploited and see what are the commonalities of risk factors there. We certainly know about a history of child sexual abuse, we know about a history of poverty and the systemic violence of poverty, but my sense is that there is probably even more violence than we know about, or there is more vulnerability -- maybe children not having strong community networks or things like that. It’s very much a continuation within that spectrum of violence.

Your research has been very influential, especially in Florida, where it helped shape some crucial legislation. What more legislation would you like to see? What else needs to be done, from a legal perspective?

First, I was so honored when I found out about Florida. I knew they had read my paper, but I didn’t know that it was literally their turning point, and that it really gave them the language to get this provision removed. I think that is the exact kind of legislation that I want to continue to influence. That prevention, that understanding of what are we missing -- what are we not seeing so that a child even ends up in exploitation to begin with. I think we’ve been talking about exploitation as a starting point, to make sure that we get services and support to children. But to me, if a child is being exploited, we’ve missed the boat for 10 to 13 years beforehand. That really is the extreme. I think there are so many things that we can be doing beforehand to address those vulnerabilities.

I think one of the biggest things is talking about the supports that are needed. Survivors, in general, need support and resources beyond the crisis point. Many times, there really isn’t a safety net or family structure there to help -- that was certainly my case. I think it’s not just in resources and money, but also just creating a community. I put myself 100 percent through undergraduate and my master's, and it was very lonely to do that. I certainly gravitated toward other students who were first generation students, who were kind of struggling. At the same time, it was just very lonely. I literally had to physically leave my family, which was a very good thing, but at the same time I was plotting a new path and it was really hard. I have a crowd-funding campaign for my own education, and it’s so exciting to me to see the people out there cheering me on. I want that for other survivors as well. We’ve gone through everything we’ve gone through alone. Isolation is the key that keeps exploitation going, and to end that isolation is really powerful.

By Jenny Kutner

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