Digging Up the Roots (Part 1): Understanding and Addressing Vulnerability
Roots are the structural foundation of any tree. They hold it up, secure it in place, and make allowance for fruit to be produced. A tree with unhealthy roots will never produce healthy fruit. In order to change the fruit, the roots must be addressed.
The adage "dig it up at the root" means to address it at its core, its foundation with the intent that it will never return.
If we examine sexual exploitation in light of this metaphor, it becomes clear that to eliminate the exploitation that takes place in our community we must pursue understanding and be willing to address the causation. In other words, we must 'dig it up at the root.' When it comes to sexual exploitation, there can be many false assumptions regarding how women and teen girls become victimized, but at its core, sexual exploitation thrives in the presence of two things: vulnerability and demand for commercial sex.
We believe approaching sexual exploitation in our community begins by addressing these two roots. In this two part series, we will first address the following: the definition of vulnerability; the correlation between vulnerability and exploitation; and then, what we as a community can do to help. In the second installment, we will focus on understanding the role of demand for commercialized sex.
Thank you for being on this journey with us! Education empowers the eradication of sexual exploitation in our community.
Meet Jerica (name changed to protect identity). Before she was even born, she was exposed to drugs. Before she could attend her first day of elementary school, she had experienced hunger, neglect, physical abuse, and was removed from her biological family's home. Before she could attend her first middle school dance, someone she should have been able to trust sexually abused her. Before she could drive, she found herself experimenting with drugs and alcohol to numb the pain of the abuse and was arrested for possession of a controlled substance. This was her first encounter with the justice system. Before she could vote, she had a little girl of her own and named her after her grandmother. Then, before she knew it, the man she thought was her "knight in shining armor" forced her to sell her body to pay for their motel room and feed his drug habit.
Ponder the following two questions:
1) How did she become the woman posted in online ads for commercial sex?
2) How can she permanently escape the situation?
What is Vulnerability?
A vulnerability is a point of exposure. Often it looks like an unmet physical or emotional need as a result from immediate circumstances or as the residual effect of a past experience. It would be impossible to provide an exhaustive list; however, examples include: homelessness; mental health problems; history of personal or familial addiction; current or former foster youth; juvenile incarceration; complex traumatic experiences including a history of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse; food insecurity; generational poverty (meaning poverty spanning more than two generations); hopelessness, etc.
Vulnerability is vital to a trafficker's ability to exploit. Refer back to Jerica's story. What circumstances in her life made her susceptible to sexual exploitation?
In order to truly understand her vulnerabilities, we must first recognize that the circumstances surrounding her exploitation are a compilation of both active and residual vulnerabilities. In other words, her trafficker is exploiting obvious needs, like food, clothing, and shelter, as well as unmet emotional needs stemming from a lifetime of traumatic experiences.
In addition to the residual effects of traumatic experiences, there are significant gaps in resources and services for women and girls in our community. The demographic we serve make up the most impoverished and under-served portion of the population of our city.
In our city, sexual exploitation looks like:
Teen girls being groomed by a pimp who makes it a habit to come to their house, give them money for snacks at the corner store and insist they call him “Uncle.”
It is motel owners who when a woman cannot pay for her room opens his drawer, pulls out condoms, and says, “Here. You know what to do.”
It is slumlords who when a young woman is unable to pay her rent offers sex for payment instead of evicition and homelessness.
It is a "John" who is willing to offer a girl with no transportation a ride to a job interview, but at the very steep price of her dignity.
It is a woman waiting on a bench, in the middle of town, being solicited four times within 30 minutes for sex. Her soliciter did not care she was waiting for us to pick her up for Bible study.
It is a woman in the position of deciding between unwanted sex with a man who has a motel room or sleeping behind a building, clutching a metal towel bar she had pulled from a motel bathroom for protection from sexual assault in the middle of the night.
It is this, and so much more.
For most, we read Jerica's story and these examples, and we empathize with the difficulty they have faced in their lives. However, a trafficker understands these circumstances in a very different way. Vulnerability makes them a target.
In each of these, we see vulnerability being exploited. When we can acknowledge the correlation between vulnerability and exploitation, the pathway to addressing sexual exploitation in our community becomes more clear.
The Correlation Between Vulnerability and Exploitation
What we have learned is that there is a direct correlation between the vulnerability factors present in a life and the likelihood of sexual exploitation taking place.
Since 1998, a measurement for Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) has existed to help put into context the presence and effect of vulnerability stemming from traumatic experiences. The ACEs test is a ten-question form of "yes or no" questions, with every "yes" equalling one point. The test includes questions about abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction that takes place before the age of 18. In Jerica's example, her ACE score would be a nine out of ten. In our experience, the average ACE score of the women and teen girls that we serve is a seven.
The figure above depicts a representation of four prevalent markers of sexual exploitation that we encounter: a history of sexual abuse, addiction, generational poverty, and time in the foster care and/or juvenile justice systems. The vast majority of the women and teen girls that we serve possess at least three of these markers.
It is impossible to separate vulnerability from the exploitation. It is the presence of vulnerability that makes room for the exploitation to take place, and the more vulnerability present in a life, the more likely sexual exploitation can occur.
Becoming a Community Who Advocates
This raises the obvious question: What can our community do to help? It seems overwhelming to consider the entirety of the issue. We often equate it to standing at the bottom of a mountain, feeling ill-equipped to scale the mountain in front of us.
How do we as a community address the role vulnerability plays in the lives of women and girls in our community and its relationship to sexual exploitation?
Think back to Jerica and the questions you were prompted to ponder. How would you help to address the vulnerabilities in her life and fill in the gaps so that she is permanently free from sexual exploitation?
This is one of the foremost questions the Lord has burdened our heart with at Dare to Hope. We desire to see women and teen girls walk in the fullness of freedom that Jesus won for them on the cross. We want to see them attain sustainable change in their lives. We want to see them be made whole.
It begins with a community as equally devoted to seeing wholeness prevail over brokenness. As daunting as it seems, the truth is there are practical steps that each of us can take to create a network of advocacy. After all, advocacy is simply examining your sphere of influence and being willing to leverage your authority on behalf of those who are vulnerable and distressed.
Advocacy on behalf of girls like Jerica looks like promoting trauma-informed approaches to care in ministry, education, and judicial systems. It is addressing significant gaps in services in the Wiregrass, such as affordable housing and public transportation. It is pressing for mental and emotional support mechanisms for those in crisis. It is an intentional restructuring of our responses to women and girls in need whether we encounter them on the street, at our places of employment, or within our families, etc.
We know from the Word of God that trees planted by the water flourish. They have no concern for the summer heat or the threat of drought because their roots are healthy and well-planted (Jeremiah 17:8). For both the precious individuals we serve as well as our community as a whole, we desire to see healthy roots that lead to endless seasons of healthy fruit. That process begins with addressing what is unhealthy.
It is our sincere hope to see change in our community. At Dare to Hope, we believe for big things from the Lord, and among those is to see the landscape of our community become one that fosters healing and wholeness in lives, particularly of women and girls.
Our prayer is: Lord, let it begin here, and let it begin now.