Surviving sex trafficking as a child, finding a voice

As a girl and a survivor of sex trafficking, dee Clarke didn’t have the words to explain what had happened to her. All she knew was “prostitute.” But that wasn’t right.

It was years before she said: kidnapped, raped, tortured, trafficked.

Now 55 and living in Portland, she has found the language to explain the day in Boston, Mass., as a sixth grader, that a man took her to a rooming house, raped her and helped keep her there against her will for months.

Maine and other states will continue to address laws surrounding sex trafficking, but more than legal changes are needed to generate compassion and appropriate care for survivors. There must be a cultural shift away from the view of people as perpetrators of the crime of prostitution and toward the view of them as victims.

They won’t share their stories until it’s safe to do so.

Clarke had just started sixth grade in Boston, and she remembers her teacher yelling at her classmates and throwing books. It made it easier for her to skip school for the first time with a friend, though she was nervous about the possibility of her mother finding out. She had already experienced family problems, run away from home and been in and out of foster care.

That night her friend took her to a party, and she knew immediately it wasn’t right. Everyone was grown up. “I don’t know why I stayed there, but I did,” she said.

She started talking to a man named Sam in his 20s or 30s who kept his sunglasses on, and when a cab came she went with him. She wasn’t afraid: “I remember him being very joking, fun, kiddish, him telling me about playing hooky and his mom beating him.”

His place was on the second floor of a big rooming house. “Once I crossed that threshold, that was the end of it for me,” she said. She didn’t know what she was getting into. She still played with Barbie dolls.

She was either 12 or had just turned 13, and they had sex. Later he dragged her down the hall to a man named Red who called her a dirty, bloody pig and beat her.

A pregnant woman, who she learned was named Fast, appeared and tried to soothe her.

“I’m a mess. I still haven’t stopped crying yet. I don’t remember ever talking. I just cried and cried and cried,” she said. “I had no idea what was going on.”

They kept her in a room in the house and always had a babysitter for her in case she tried to flee. The day after the party, Red forced her to have sex. She said after that she “went away.” She disappeared inside herself. Men kept coming in.

At one point one of her “babysitters” overdosed on drugs. “I could have gotten up and ran, but I was too afraid,” she said. Red made threats of torture, dirty tricks, if she tried to escape.

Soon after, they made her get paying customers on the street. Fast went first and took a man into a blind man’s house, which they often used. When Clarke’s turn came, she couldn’t do it, she said.

She remembers standing on the street in a dress, open-toed shoes and a short jacket, cold, and a cruiser drove by. The police officer didn’t get out, just did a U-turn and came back by her. He didn’t stop.

“That bothers me in my memories,” she said.

When she didn’t catch a customer, “Red beat the crap out of Fast. Then he beat me. Then Fast stopped feeding me.”

Later, Fast took her downstairs to have sex with the landlord, and she discovered a phone on the way to the bathroom.

She called her mother’s house and tried to whisper to tell her what was happening, that she needed help and was afraid, but her mother wasn’t listening and kept going on and on. Clarke knew she couldn’t stay away too long and set down the phone, off the hook, with the hope police would be able to trace the call. They didn’t.

She spent her time at the rooming house or the blind man’s house, and the men were “never-ending,” she said.

One night, she listened as pimps and gangsters talked in the kitchen. They were passing around a gun, and it went off. She heard them fighting and arguing, saying someone got shot.

They came in her room and told her she had to come with them to the hospital. They dressed her up, so she’d look older. Once there, she managed to write for help on a paper bed sheet. If staff saw it, they didn’t say so. She wanted to talk but couldn’t.

One day the men brought home a new girl, Sylvia, from Rhode Island, who they kidnapped off the street. At 16, she was different from Clarke.

“She didn’t cooperate at all. (Red) beat her so bad, and I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t help her,” Clarke said. Red beat her until she couldn’t move.

About five months after Clarke was kidnapped, she and Sylvia were washing clothes by hand when Sylvia mouthed to her that they were going to run away. They couldn’t even whisper. Someone would hear.

It was freezing outside when they stepped onto the porch to hang out the clothes. Sylvia had to shove Clarke to get her over the second-story railing, to the first story and then to the ground. They continued by jumping over people’s fences, through their yards, to leave what she later learned was the neighborhood of Grove Hall.

What hurt more than being stolen from her home, raped over and over, degraded, beaten and sold on the street was learning that her mother had never reported her missing, she said.

After what she had experienced, she didn’t know how to stay at home and be “normal.” She started fights with people, stole things, went to her father’s house, ran away and then lived with other family members. She became a go-go dancer, earned her own money.

“I was really ill, and that was the response to all that trauma,” she said.

As she grew older she met a man who she fell in love with, and they moved to Maine so he could work at a restaurant. They had two children, and she said she was content.

But the experiences she had repressed started to rise up. When they separated, he didn’t touch her, instead destroying the house. She went to live in a shelter.

It was a therapist at her children’s day care center who she eventually told. At first she didn’t know how to describe what had happened to her as a child.

“I had no language,” she said. But with time she said the terms: raped, trafficked.

She still is rightfully angry. She said when she was on “the stroll,” people passing by knew what she was doing, and, instead of asking her if she was all right or calling police, they looked down on her.

“And here it is years later, and it’s still like that,” she said.

She hears teenage girls use derogatory words and realizes they don’t understand what they mean. They don’t understand the human aspect.

The prostitution displayed in magazines and movies does not accurately reflect what happens in life. There is no glamour  Leaving is complicated because police can’t promise absolute safety or a pimp’s conviction. Leaving is difficult because there’s often nowhere else to go.

Clarke used to look out her window at idling cars and worry someone was coming for her or her children. She still gets upset when her grown children are a few minutes late. Sometimes she feels the physical pain of her face being pressed in, but no one is there.

“ I’ve lived through hell as an adult, just with the memories of it,” she said.

Through counseling she is working toward healing. She lives a healthy life now, even acting as an advocate leader for Homeless Voices for Justice in Portland.

One thing, though, gave her great satisfaction: briefing the Maine State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in April — where law enforcement, federal and local government officials, human service providers, advocates and educators spoke out about the issue of human trafficking in Maine to better educate Congress.

There was her voice, her words, making a difference by the telling of her story.

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is a writer and storyteller. As editorial page editor of the Bangor Daily News, she writes the newspaper's opinion on matters from Kittery to Fort Kent.