Each week, Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin brings listeners an unexpected side of the news by talking with someone personally affected by the stories making headlines.
Sheila White grew up in a troubled home. She was abused and ended up in foster care as a teenager. Not long after that, feeling low and confused, she met a man who soon became her pimp.
During the years she was forced into sex work, White was exposed to extreme violence. But, she explains, some victims have a hard time leaving their exploiters.
"As awful as the situation may be, there are needs that are being met," White says. "If a girl is ... homeless, if she doesn't have nowhere to go, and she doesn't have clothes or food or shelter, or if ultimately, if she doesn't feel loved, those are the things that her exploiter is giving her. And he's the only thing that's consistent in her life."
After several arrests, the court ordered White to work with Girls Education and Mentoring Services (GEMS), or go to jail. Since then, she has turned her life around, and she now works with GEMS to help other victims of sex trafficking escape and rebuild their lives.
The FBI recently led a nationwide sting that rescued more than 100 girls from child sex trafficking. The FBI contends that many of these children are trafficked through sites like Backpage, an online marketplace that NBC News dubbed "the current Craigslist for prostitution ads in the United States."
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SHEILA WHITE: Growing up there was a lot of domestic violence in my household, a lot of things that were like directly impacting me at a young age. And when I got into foster care there really wasn't, you know, any outlets to kind of like talk about my trauma or, you know, any of the things that I've been through.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
That's Sheila White. She's 26 years old now, living in New York working with a group that helps former victims of sex trafficking. It's called GEMS, Girls Educational and Mentoring Services. A decade ago, White was abused at home. She ran away and was living in foster care in the Bronx, when she met a man who became her pimp. Despite her young age, Sheila was arrested several times for prostitution. Eventually the court ordered her to start working with GEMS or go to jail.
Sheila White's story is difficult to talk about. There are many details she doesn't want to discuss. But when I asked her if she experienced a low point, she described an overwhelming sense of helplessness. Sheila White is our Sunday Conversation.
WHITE: You're going to go through many different low points in and you're going to be exposed to extreme violence, and just so many different things that you begin to feel kind of numb to what's actually happening. And it makes it really feel like, you know, there isn't a way out.
MARTIN: Was your exploiter ever arrested?
WHITE: I really wouldn't want to get into details about that.
WHITE: As far as like the penalties for exploiters now looks very different than during the time that I was involved. Even a couple years ago, this wasn't seen as something to be taken seriously. Like, the girls were being arrested - they were the ones going to jails, doing the time - and pimps and johns were basically walking scot-free.
MARTIN: Do you think that's changing now?
WHITE: Yes, I mean, it's a process. It's little by little coming along. The more training and the more resources that law enforcement and service providers and medical professionals, and people in the roles that can actually make a difference, the more knowledgeable they are around this issue, and the more they can sit down and engage with a girl and help her feel comfortable enough and secure enough and safe enough to leave.
MARTIN: I have read that oftentimes victims of sex trafficking developed a kind of attachment to their exploiters, their pimps. And that makes it complicated to get them out of that situation. Can you talk about whether or not that is true? Is that something that's a real challenge?
WHITE: I mean, there is a sense of bonding that a girl can have with her exploiter. As awful as the situation may be, there are needs that are being met, right? Like if a girl is coming from a place - if she's homeless, if she doesn't have nowhere to go, and she doesn't have clothes or food or, you know, shelter - or ultimately, if she doesn't feel loved, like those are the things that her exploiter is giving her. And he's the only thing that's consistent in her life right now. So, of course, there's going to be a level of love. And on the outside, if society sees this young person as the bad one, the criminal, and that's reinforcing to her like everything he's telling her; like, right, you can trust no one, no one's going to love you, you know, no one's going to believe you. Like those of the things he's telling you so it makes that bond even that much stronger.
MARTIN: I imagine that is - it's hard to stop that narrative if you've been hearing that for a long time from this man, from your exploiter, or from other messages in society. To create a new story about yourself, that you are someone of worth, I imagine that's hard.
WHITE: It's about rediscovering the things you may have forgotten along the way or rediscovering your natural skills and your talents, and all the things that, you know, you enjoy and that's something that GEMS does. We celebrate every small step. You could have been anywhere else in the world but you're here with us. And no matter how many times you go back, we're going to help you grow.
MARTIN: You talk about rediscovering who you actually are and the things that make you happy. I wonder if you don't mind sharing one or two of those joys for yourself.
WHITE: I mean, it wasn't so much that the things that the things that I've forgotten, it was just being in a space where I can have relationships that made me question other relationships in my life, right? Like being in one central place where you can see leadership modeled in front of you, and that's something I really focused on, right? Like the fact that girls can come in and see me, you know, running group or training, you know, like that's modeling leadership and that's modeling what your life can look like.
MARTIN: Lastly, if I could ask you about your concept of family, have you been able to develop yet another safe, healthier version of a family for yourself?
WHITE: I mean, something that I have learned over time, and over my own healing process as family, is who you make it. And, you know, I feel like I've been very, very blessed to have a family at GEMS. I feel blessed to have the relationships that I have with staff and they have become my family. They have become my second home and this is, it's not blood family but that's something I had to learn, like family who you want it to be.
MARTIN: Sheila White is the Survivor Leadership Coordinator at GEMS, Girls Educational and Mentoring Services. She joined us from New York.
Sheila, thank you so much for talking with us and sharing your story. We appreciate it.
WHITE: Thank you.
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MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.