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Interview with a Former Sex Slave
“I have been a slave. But today…today I’m free.”
Those were the first words I heard her speak when I met her. Jessica Richardson, formerly a teen prostitute and victim of human trafficking, forever changed how I think of slavery.
Over the course of a few months, I had become aware of the depth and scope of the human trafficking problem in our country, and I was passionate about fighting against it, so getting to meet and talk with Jessica was amazing and eye-opening. I already knew the statistics, but numbers do not have a face and cannot tell a story. Hearing Jessica’s real, personal story first-hand was moving and life-changing.
An estimated 100,000 girls under 18 are exploited for commercial sex in the U.S. each year. Jessica was one of those girls, picked up in Portland, Oregon, and trafficked through the west coast by her pimp at age 17.
Now a wife, mother of five, and Oregonian businesswoman, Richardson is free from her past, and she works to end modern-day slavery while sharing her story of hope’s triumph over suffering.
This summer, I had the incredible opportunity to sit down with this woman to talk with her and hear her story.
Sierra McClain: While you were a slave, you needed places to sleep, eat, and stay. Where did you live at the time that you were trafficked?
Jessica Richardson: Hotels. It was always hotels. When I was in Hawaii, we actually had a weekly hotel. But yeah, for the most part it was hotels.
SM: So, is that where most prostitutes are trafficked?
JR: It’s where you sleep. Well, that’s where I slept. Every story is different. A lot of them are houses. As you see more organized crime, you see more people going house to house rather than hotel to hotel. My story was hotels.
SM: Okay. Where did you eat?
JR: Restaurants. That was actually one of the few rewards I got, that if I did well and made enough money, I could go eat by myself. [My pimp] was always really scared that someone would see us and something would happen. On one occasion our tires were slashed just because he and I were together, so he was really paranoid about us being seen together. If I ate alone, it would look less suspicious.
SM: I was also wondering, what do you think impacted you the most emotionally as a sex slave?
JR: I don’t even know how to answer that. I don’t know that you can endure beatings and rapes and confusion and…I don’t think there’s one thing that sticks out. The trauma is so intense that you could never, ever even imagine it. Everything from being gang raped to your face not even being recognizable because you were beaten so severely. I don’t know that there’s just one thing that sticks out most in my mind as being worst.
SM: Wow. So did you work specifically just for this one man, or was it more a ring of people working together?
JR: My experience was just him. That’s changing more and more, and in the years I’ve been out, now working with survivors, it’s a lot more gangs. It’s more organized crime. There are still individual pimps, but not as much. That’s just my personal experience.
SM: Where do people find these under-aged prostitutes?
JR: Phone book. Phone book, online…yeah, I mean yellow pages. They’re escorts, adult entertainment. [Prostitution] is illegal, but what is legal is private shows, so that’s technically what you’re paying for, but no one calls for a private show.
SM: Do police know that this is happening?
JR: Oh, they do. But they think, “They’re whores. They deserve it.” They don’t realize that we’re slaves, which is why we need the police training. In Portland [Oregon], we’re getting better. Our police force is starting to be more educated, but in the U.S. as a whole, we’re so far behind.
SM: How were you trafficked? For example, when you traveled to Hawaii, you had to get on a plane. So I’d like to know, how did you get on a plane? Did you have a false identity?
JR: Yeah, I had a fake identity that I lived under actually for 4-1/2 years. And again, all I can speak from is my experience. I started with a fake birth certificate and was able to get a few pieces of ID that would allow me to go into the DMV, and take my driver’s test, just like you do. I took the test, and I was good. It doesn’t take a lot—especially pre 9/11—to get on a plane.
SM: I’m also curious who else you worked alongside. Were there also other prostitutes working with you, and did you get to know other girls during the time that you were a sex slave?
JR: I got to know some. I recruited a lot of girls, because that’s what I was trained to do. The whole idea of trafficking is to make more money. So if I’m doing well in the eyes of my pimp, I don’t get beaten or someone else doesn’t get beaten in my place, and then I get rewarded. You know, you get better food, better clothes; you move your way up the ranks. So there are other girls, but you can’t really interact with them. It’s not like you have buddies or anything.
SM: So you were basically alone?
JR: Yes, for the most part. You can be totally alone in a crowded room because you’re so isolated and hurt.
SM: When you were a victim of human trafficking, what would have given you a better life? What would you have needed during the time that you were a slave to take you out of that lifestyle?
JR: Part of the problem is to catch someone when they’re ready, because the brainwashing is so deep and so intense that you have to actually be ready and willing to leave otherwise you won’t go. You have to have someone who is there consistently, that when you finally hit the point that you’re ready to leave, they are there and available. Just because of how much you’ve been brainwashed and threatened, you might not be ready to leave.
SM: How big do you think the human trafficking problem is here in America?
JR: Oh! *laughs* You have a problem anywhere that there’s people. So if you have people, you have major, major problems. It’s so sad, but there’s demand everywhere.
SM: If you could say one thing to girls all over the world who are victims of the sex slave trade, what would you tell them?
JR: There’s hope. There’s always hope, and there’s always freedom. There are people out there that love them and care about them, and their life doesn’t have to be that way. They can have a better life.
* * *
As I stood up after the interview, she smiled and thanked me. I’ll never forget her last words:
“Just be bold.”