Barbara Amaya speaks about vulnerability, victimhood, and advocacy
By Raena Doty
Asst. Arts & Features Editor
Barbara Amaya, an author and survivor of sex trafficking, visited Framingham State University on March 8 to discuss and spread awareness about her experiences.
Amaya wrote “Nobody’s Girl,” a memoir about living in New York City when she was a girl. She is also writing an upcoming book called “Life Lessons from the Street: A Girls Guide to Survival.”
“One of the reasons why I think it’s important for me to share my experiences with the world today is because, first of all, people don’t think that this happens here. Or they don’t think it happens at all. Or they think, ‘Human trafficking? What’s that?’” she said.
Amaya started the discussion by talking about her childhood and how she ended up with her trafficker. She said she was born into a dysfunctional family in Fairfax, Virginia, and experienced a lot of abuse, including sexual abuse, from when she was very young.
She said she wasn’t even in school when she was taken away from her birth family and put into foster care. By the time she was 12 years old, Amaya ran away from every household where she’d been placed.
“What I didn’t know at the time was that I was running to find what every child needs. Love. Attention. Food. Shelter. Mentors - you know, good people in your life. I didn’t know all that,” she said.
She said when she was 12 years old, she found herself in a park when a young woman approached her who seemed “kind and sweet.” The woman started asking her concerned questions before asking if she needed a place to stay. Amaya went with the woman to her apartment, where she met the woman’s boyfriend.
“I came to find out later that he was actually her trafficker, and she’d been sent out to find young victims, children - vulnerable people, like I was,” she added.
“I have to remember right now to use that word - ‘vulnerable.’ I know when I speak all over the world today, people think, ‘That isn’t even happening and it’s sure not going to happen to me or anybody that I know.’ But unfortunately, we’re all vulnerable in our lives,” she said.
Amaya said it was this woman and her trafficker who introduced her to Moses, who took her from Washington, D.C. to New York City, and became her trafficker.
She said she believes the main method of control of victims is the trafficker creating a trauma bond with the victim.
“One of the things he did was make sure that I saw that he had a large gun on his body,” she said. “He began to place himself as my protector - my good person.
“He began saying things in the car like, ‘I know exactly what happened to you in your home.’ He had no idea what happened to me, but I’m sure he said that to everyone,” she said.
“The only time I ever even knew or saw his other victims was when I was in jail,” she said. “When I, the victim, was in New York City, out on the street, immersed in a criminal underworld, I was arrested.”
Amaya said people frequently ask her if the buyers and traffickers she dealt with were arrested for what they did, and the answer is no - she never once saw a buyer arrested while she lived in New York City.
On the other hand, Amaya said that she and other sex workers who had been trafficked were frequently arrested. The police would come in white vans, handcuff the sex workers together, place them in jail for the night, then take them to the courthouse the next day to be prosecuted.
“It never entered my mind to say ‘I am not guilty’ or ‘I need a lawyer.’ That never entered my mind,” she said.
She also emphasized, many of the people who were arrested for sex work were also boys and men, not just women and girls.
She talked about several other experiences she had before getting out of New York City, but she specifically remembered an act of kindness that led to her being able to rebuild her life.
Amaya said she went to a methadone clinic one day in an attempt to get help for her heroin addiction, when the receptionist reached out and got her a job interview.
She said she had felt dehumanized by most of the people in her life up to that point, but the receptionist, a woman named Anita - not a doctor, therapist, or counselor at the clinic, but the receptionist - made eye contact with her and treated her as a human.
“I felt it wash over me that she recognized me as a fellow human being. I didn’t feel shame. I felt she cared,” Amaya said.
Once she got away from New York City and Moses coincidentally was sent to prison, she had a hard path to recovery and recognizing her victimhood.
“Victims do not self-identify as victims,” Amaya said.
After getting out of New York City, she spent years doing odd jobs in bad situations, including processing fish in Biloxi, Mississippi. Her lack of formal education and life experience outside of her sex work meant she lacked a lot of basic life skills, like how to compose herself in a job interview.
She said her wake-up call was a moment when she had a news station on in the background and they began describing victims of trafficking by a gang. The news anchor used the term “human trafficking,” and she immediately turned up the volume and began listening.
“I stood up in my living room, and for the first time in my entire life, I self-identified as a victim of human trafficking. I stood up, I turned up the volume, and I felt a deep anger - that I still feel today - that it was still happening,” Amaya said.
The fact that victims rarely self-identify as victims makes it especially hard to help them, Amaya said.
“How do you provide services for people that don’t know they need services?” she asked.
She said she supports sex workers, but she doesn’t believe in the legalization of sex work, as she believes it would only make trafficking easier.
Amaya also added there is considerable overlap between people who are victims of sex trafficking and people who perpetuate sex trafficking.
She said she believes people must start considering why sex traffickers enter the business of sex trafficking so reform can be done and the number of people who resort to sex trafficking can be lowered.
Amaya said she is currently working with a former sex trafficker to write an article about the systemic pressures that cause people to go into sex trafficking, and she can’t find any other research on the subject despite how much she has looked into it.
She singled out how important it is for people to be able to find mentors when they’re in bad situations like her own. She said it’s more likely that someone will take advantage of a young person who doesn’t have any good role models in their life.
Amaya said meeting Anita at the methadone clinic single handedly made her life better, to the point where Amaya remembers Anita’s name many years later and after much trauma. She lived in many foster homes, and her foster parents never made a positive impression on her.
She added she didn’t have good solutions for this problem - she only knows from experience that the systems in place don’t work.
Amaya cautioned attendees against viewing themselves as materially different from any victim of trafficking, because she said anyone can become a victim given the right circumstances.
“It’s about being vulnerable. That is what traffickers seek out. Vulnerability. And unfortunately - sorry - we’re all vulnerable at some point in our lives,” she said.