Rebecca was only six years old when a close family member began sexually abusing her. The abuse continued until she was 14, at which point she ran away from home and became trapped in a world of prostitution and exploitation through sex trafficking.
“If you run away and you have self-hatred you are likely to be attractive to the sex trade,” she explains. “On the first night, some men took me to a flat and gang raped me for six hours. There was a queue of men outside the door. One would finish then another would come in. Now when I look back it seemed like it was a test to see if I was a good prostitute.”
Massive expansion of the commercial sex industry over recent years has resulted in the unprecedented sexual commodification through sex trafficking of millions of women and girls. Most, like Rebecca, are vulnerable and living in poverty, have endured significant trauma and coercion, and many are children when they first enter prostitution.
“They never saw me as a child, they saw me as a prostitute, and once you see someone as a prostitute you don’t see that they are human,” she explains.
Rebecca was prostituted from the age of 14 until she was 27. Throughout this time she encountered extreme violence, even from men who claimed to be ‘good guys’.
“Those men looking for an escort or a girlfriend experience were just as violent and full of hate but they lied about why they were doing. They would pretend they cared about me or that they didn’t do it very often or it wasn’t really real violence they were doing.
“Punters are very good at lying to themselves and to the world, and then believing their own lies.”
Rebecca is one of the few women who has been able to successfully leave the sex trade, and today she is an activist, speaker and writer, using her own experience as a survivor of sex trafficking to bring about positive change.
She believes that the problem of sex trafficking can only be addressed by tackling the demand for prostitution.
“I think to separate prostitution from trafficking is a really good way of letting men think, ‘what I’m doing is okay, it’s what those other men are doing that is terrible - we are doing the legal stuff, we’re doing the non-violent stuff,’” says Rebecca. “But there is nothing not violent about buying another human.”
Indeed, countries that have failed to target the demand for prostitution, including those that have legalised prostitution entirely, have witnessed greater rates of sex trafficking to satisfy an influx of international sex tourists and increased local demand.
Punishing the victims of the sex trade is an equally ineffective way of reducing sex trafficking rates, with criminal convictions likely to prevent women and girls from accessing education and employment, driving them back into sexual exploitation.
Equality Now believes that laws should focus on those who profit from this crime - sex traffickers, brothel owners, sex tour operators and pimps - and also those who fuel and prop it up with their demand: the buyers. No demand, no supply. No client, no business.
Sex trafficking and prostitution strip victims of their basic human rights, and can only be prevented by giving those rights back. As Rebecca says:
“It’s about telling the prostituted that society takes you seriously and sees you as human beings, and doesn’t see you as sexual goods, and doesn’t see you not having a voice and not having rights.”