I met Meg a few year’s ago at a Christian Coalition meeting that brought organizations together who were involved in fighting human trafficking and its causes. When she told me she, herself, had been a trafficking survivor, I was admittedly shocked. I didn’t know how to act for fear of embarrassing or offending her, yet wanted to convey my compassion and understanding. Not sure if I succeeded.

Fast forward to six months ago and we’re both on an advisory council for our county’s human trafficking task force. I now get to learn from her experience regularly.

Meg is an amazing woman whom I have had the pleasure to get to know. She has a unique perspective having been a sex worker voluntarily, to being forced against her will, to having no other choice to make ends meet.

There are many misconceptions and a lack of understanding when it comes to sex trafficking and sex work. I will let Meg shed some light on the subject for you.

How did you become involved with the fight against human trafficking?

I like to think that the fight found me. In 2009, I’d already been out of the industry for about 8 years and had started to feel an incredible pull towards better understanding and re-connecting with the industry. At that time, I hadn’t yet realized that I’d been trafficked and was still unpacking and remembering things that had happened during that time. I knew that some of the things weren’t ‘right’, but didn’t yet understand that sex work (SW) and trafficking were different and opposite ends of the same spectrum – I was still processing through what were a variety of experiences within the same industry. I was just beginning to distinguish what was consensual, what was circumstantial and what was coerced/forced. At times, I loved my work as an escort. At others, I was just trying to survive and stay housed and fed, pay for my tuition, cover my bills, and buy my drugs. And then, there was also an overlap of time where I was simply trying to avoid being revealed as an SW, being beaten, or killed. Although the more reductive media-based narratives are often shared most, they often miss or water-down the reality of so many real lived experiences. Our lives and time in the industry are rarely as simple as it’s made out to be.

The more I learned about trafficking, the more I learned about myself. The more I learned about myself and my diverse time within the industry, the more I understood about the spectrum. I no longer felt comfortable blaming an entire industry for the trauma I had endured. I was able to shed the internalized stigma and shame I’d been carrying and really start healing. Eventually, that pull led me to realize that there was no organization based I Orange County that existed to serve those in the industry, and that’s where I felt God calling me to be. We’ve evolved over the last few years and I can’t wait to see how we continue to do that in ways that honor and reflect the needs of the SW and survivors we serve.

Abeni is an interesting name. Why did you choose it and what does it mean? Does the name have any personal significance to you?

I always smile when I think about our name because it holds and represents so much institutional memory. It’s deeply embedded in our story, so even though I feel like it may not wholly reflect who we are now, it reflects our journey and we find great value in that.

When we first launched, we existed to serve as a faith-based organization and so our name and its meaning directly reflects that … Abeni is my daughter’s middle name and is a Yoruban name meaning “girl prayed for” (or directly translated, “we asked for her, and behold, we got her”). Having had 3 boys already, we found out the fourth was a girl and we finally got to use this beautiful name that we’d been holding onto for years.

When it came to choosing a name for our organization, it seemed like the one that best captured who and what we were about at that time. Given how we’ve evolved and because we no longer function as a faith-based organization, we don’t necessarily think it captures all that we are or who we serve anymore. BUT, it’s part of our story and is always an opportunity to talk about the paradigm shifts and growth we’ve experienced, and I really love that!

What is Abeni’s main focus at this moment?

We are a small, volunteer-run org, so out of necessity we’ve had to intentionally focus our vision and hone our efforts. Developing and offering services to the most marginalized and criminalized within Orange County has increasingly become a priority, so expanding our harm reduction services has become the main focus.

Developing relevant resources and partnerships, connecting with Street-based/Survival/LGBTQ SW, partnering with our new needle exchange (ocnep.org), engaging in public and private advocacy, and lots and lots of harm reduction have been front and center for us.

Harm reduction recognizes the realities of where people are and what their needs are. It lovingly and without judgment helps keep people safe, reduce related risks, promotes health, and offers support while they’re there. I know my experiences in the industry would have looked so different had I had access to that kind of care, so developing services that reflect the needs of those we serve makes sense … Safe sex supplies, clean needle distribution, SW safety tips, Know-Your-Rights information, a collection of bad date information, relevant resourcing, SW safety plans, exit-strategy development, relational support, emergency relocations, etc.

On your website, abeni.org, it says that ‘Abeni exists to create a safe, confidential place for those working in the Orange County sex trades as well as those being domestically sex trafficked.’ Tell us about the decision to have Abeni focus on two seemingly different groups?

I think this is one of the most common misconceptions about the SW spectrum, so I’m really happy you’re asking about it. The idea that there are 2 distinct and different groups of people tends to leave a lot of people out discussion. It fails to recognize not only how the spectrum works, but how people can fall in different places on it during different times as their circumstances change.

While there is an immense difference between consensual SW and trafficking, they exist on the same spectrum and can both be experienced by someone depending on what happens in their life and time in the industry. My story and experience working the entire spectrum of sex work are examples of this, as are the stories of so many we know and serve.

Some people start out as victims, but choose (either willingly or based on their circumstances) to re-enter the industry. Some absolutely LOVE their work in the industry and choose to make it their lifelong profession. Some start out as consensual SW and, based on their agency or circumstances, find themselves being forced into SW (being trafficked). Some are engaging in SW or adult entertainment due to their circumstances or financial need. The idea that there is a black-and-white trafficking narrative is not only incredibly inaccurate but more importantly, can be very dangerous for those who need help because it can:

For people who don’t understand that not everyone is a victim and that not everyone has a choice, one of the best resources I can recommend is I Heart Sex Workers by Lia Claire Scholl.

One of the greatest things to remember is that no one is wearing a label when they’re working … So often we find law enforcement expecting those who are being arrested to be able to identify themselves as victims right away. That took me several years to do, so the notion that we expect people who are obviously working under hard circumstances, trying to survive, and stay safe is terrifying and terribly unjust to me.

In our current efforts, we are either assuming everyone is the criminal or everyone is the victim and neither of those approaches accurately recognizes the reality of those working or being exploited out there. We need to ask victims and SW WHY they don’t trust the system or service providers, then adjust our efforts and approaches to meet that reality. Asking people to walk away from their pimps, their support systems -healthy or not- and trust an entity who they have been targeted and potentially abused by is unrealistic. For those who do and find positive results, I’m incredibly grateful, but more often than not, the survivors and SW I talk to can’t bring themselves to do it. I believe we can learn from this and help develop new approaches and collaborations that take those concerns into account and work towards creating better options for those who need help.

You also state on your website that ‘We believe that those in the industry have the right to identify themselves in terms that best reflects their relationship with it.’ Could you give us a few examples?

It’s pretty simple. We believe that people have the right to identify themselves in ways that reflect their understanding of their own experiences. For example, my experiences were complex and varied, so I prefer to refer to myself as both an SW and survivor. Others prefer victim. Others lean toward reclaiming highly stigmatized terms such as ‘whore’ and ‘prostitute’ … All of this should and needs to be something the individual does, not society, movement, or organizations.

Self –identification can be incredibly empowering and can change depending on one’s understanding of their experiences. Respecting this honors the person and their experiences without injecting societal labels that further isolates, potentially hurts or endangers them. Society likes to label people and some of those labels limit, stigmatize, marginalize, and even criminalize them for life.

What are some of the reasons someone would choose to work in the sex industry? Is it a choice a man or woman actually has?

People enter the industry for all sorts of reasons and many of those reasons are impacted by how much agency or privilege someone has. Agency is essentially the capacity that a person has to exert power over or make choices in their own lives. All of these things can influence how and where someone lands up on that spectrum. Some of those factors include Socio-economic status, choice, race, gender, education, location, class, sexual or gender orientation, literacy/education, drug use, trauma/abuse, family history, housing, transportation, etc. They can all fluctuate greatly depending on many things and can change at different times in someone’s life.

One of Abeni’s philosophy beliefs is ‘We believe in risk reduction’. How do reduce the risk for sex workers?

We reduce the risk for SW by listening to them, creating safe, inclusive spaces for them to dialogue, and by respecting their voices. We can also reduce risks for SW by recognizing that criminalization puts them at greater risk.

First and foremost, the call to “Nothing about us, without us” has never been more true or necessary than it is today. With the rising move of anti-trafficking legislation impacting how SW, victims, and survivors are treated, the great need to listen to a broad spectrum of SW and survivor voices is growing.

There are victims being arrested and convicted, instead of being helped. Wendy Barnes’ story and the recent Latesha Clay case are excellent examples of this. SW and the sex industry often find themselves being blamed and held accountable for trafficking.

Labor trafficking occurs at much higher rates, yet it’s treated very differently without campaigning to have jeans factories or shrimp boats shut down … If anything, the calls for labor protections are growing, and yet we refuse to engage the SW community and ask them how they can be a part of these conversations and help in the fight against trafficking.

SW are our best defense, our first responders, our most important eyes and ears in places that NO ONE else has access to. This leads me to believe that maybe WE have the problem and that we need to address our biases. It would help both survivors and SW to get honest about whether or not our efforts are helping or potentially harming those we say we care about and want to see free.

Second, I think it’s critical to talk about WHO is being most impacted … Who are our efforts targeting? What communities are being impacted and hurt most by our new policies? Is it impoverished communities? Is it communities of color? Who’s being arrested the most, real victims or SW? Are we reflecting and analyzing that data well?

Based on what I’ve experienced, seen, and heard, we’ve limited our efforts and they’re missing the very real issues driving trafficking … Patriarchy, gender inequality, poverty, racism, lack of educational or occupational opportunities, financial insecurity, and so many other agency factors. We’d like to think it’s a solid and substantial fix, but John stings won’t end trafficking and can even hurt the very people who we’re trying to help.

Many human trafficking organizations are tackling sex trafficking from the demand side and going after johns. Do you feel this is an effective way to reduce sex trafficking?

John stings concern me for many reasons, but largely because they primarily target, involve, and arrest those who are trying to survive without accurately being able to distinguish who is who. This means SW and victims generally face criminal charges unless they are willing to cooperate with law enforcement. If they are unable or unwilling to do that, they are left with criminal records, often locking them into the very work we criminalize and stigmatize them for.

I often hear about how traumatizing and disempowering ‘rescues’ are for survivors. I’ve often heard how grateful survivors are to be free but never have I heard a survivor say they’re criminal charges and their criminal record were a blessing.

I often hear about the pressure they feel to cooperate with a criminal case . This kind of pressure on trauma survivors and exploitation of victims is worrisome for me and advocates all over the world.

There ARE other ways, we just need to care enough to listen to EVERYONE on the SW spectrum, explore them, and stop looking for the quick fix that puts a band-aid on a bullet wound.

In addition to those concerns, we find that stings and raids can often isolate and push further underground not only SW but survivors. This, of course, creates more dangerous situations for them and prevents them from being able to make safer decisions about their work and more easily access services or help should they need to. Despite LE’s best intentions, they are not viewed as help by SW or survivors and contacted only as a very last resort, if ever.

I grew up in a law enforcement family, so it’s not lost on me how challenging this is for LE agencies to address and navigate, but with more collaboration, I think we could offer more options and get more done … Especially in ways that honor those being exploited, that don’t further criminalize SW and allow our victims the opportunities to get the help they need and become survivors.

Is there any question I forgot to ask that you would like the readers to know?

First, thanks so much for allowing me to share these thoughts! It’s an incredibly complex and nuanced discussion and there’s no way to cover every intersectional understanding that we wish people could have. Last year, I did an interview with ‘Formerly Fundie’ and Patheos blogger, Benjamin L. Corey. Some of the links in that interview were pretty great and I encourage some extra reading for those who might want to unpack some of the ideas and thoughts I touched on.

Meg lives in So Cal with her husband and 4 kids. She’s a former sex worker and Domestic Sex Trafficking Survivor who founded and runs Abeni, an Orange County NPO that serves those working the spectrum of sex work. She’s a big fan of deep conversations, life-long learning, snark, and Harm Reduction.

The Stop Human Trafficking Action Group would like to thank Meg for taking the time out of her very busy schedule to answer our questions. We also invite our readers to leave their comments below.

  1. […] via Why a Human Trafficking Survivor became the Founder of Abeni — Stop Human Trafficking Action Grou… […]


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