By Nicole Bell, Founder and Director of Living in Freedom Together (LIFT) and Just Exits Advisory Councilmember

Everyone has people.

I remember as I would look around at others who had friends, family, neighbors, even strangers smiling at them and telling them to have a good day. Where were my people? Why did everyone pull away? They would cross the street to avoid me, whisper to each other, and comment on my condition loudly enough so I could hear. And those were the polite ones—the others were aggressively calling me names, ensuring I knew that I was complete trash and not wanted in this community. Where were my people?

I don’t know how I ended up there on that cold, lonely street corner.

The only ones who knew my name were the ones paying to access my broken body.

They would ignore the outward signs of damage—like my broken teeth, track marks, and bruises—and would pretend I wanted to be there with them. They would ignore the outward signs of emotional distress, like the tears, sobbing, screaming, and shaking. They would tell me everything was going to be ok, to just let them finish. It felt like no one saw me, no one saw me. I was treated like trash—my body used as a receptacle for bodily fluids, my mental and emotional well-being disregarded because I didn’t matter, my humanity didn’t matter. I existed only to serve the wants of privileged white men who would pretend I enjoyed this, because if they acknowledged my suffering, they would also have to acknowledge that they were raping me. Instead, they wiped away any responsibility or guilt with a few fucking dollars.

Why didn’t anyone care? People walked by and avoided eye contact. If they met my eyes, they would have had to acknowledge that I was a human who was suffering, and God forbid that. The EMTs drove by, and though I was struggling from a chronic health condition and was clearly in crisis, they ignored me too. I am sure they would have stopped if they witnessed another health emergency. Unfortunately, I was considered bad and dirty, not sick. The police drove by me constantly; the only time they stopped was if they were ordered to get the trash off the block. I was considered the trash and thrown in the back of the paddy wagon to appease the neighborhood. The neighborhood hated me, the police hated me, the men dumping inside me hated me, I hated me.

I wish people would have asked how I got there. Maybe if they knew, they wouldn’t have hated me so much. Though I was an adult and people believed I was there by choice, I wish they knew I never had a choice. I didn’t have a choice when I was groomed and recruited as a teen. I didn’t have a choice if the adult men who were paying to rape me wore a condom. I didn’t have a choice about what they did to my body and how much they paid to do those things. I didn’t have a choice when I got my first STI as a kid, or had my first abortion, or if I wanted to give my child up for adoption. I didn’t have a choice to just walk away—where would I walk to? What skills did I have? Who else would love me knowing the number of men who had been inside me? I didn’t even love me. I didn’t have a choice when I started to use drugs to numb the shame, pain, and trauma. I didn’t have a choice once I developed substance use disorder and complex post-traumatic stress disorder. I never had a choice or the option to say no. When I tried to say no, I was reminded of all of the above and that I had no one. So I became silently obedient. What were my options? Did I give a blow job to the sex buyer and get some money, or did I get deathly ill from withdrawal? Did I go with the buyer who was sometimes horrifically violent, or did I freeze outside that night? I had been reduced to what could be done to my body.

Consent became a concept so foreign to me I could not even grasp it.

My body never belonged to me, so how could I own it and my power?

I own my power today by not caring if my neighbors like me. I own my power by using my once-silenced voice to fight for others like me who cannot fight…yet. I own my power by saying “no” swiftly and confidently. I own my power by having boundaries. I am worth it today—I am worthy of love, safety, community, and access. I never had access to options, even when I was exiting the Life. I was forced through an incredibly difficult journey without support. That is no longer the case for some sexually exploited women, who are starting to have better access to support systems and social services. I own my power by being an agent for change and standing with the most marginalized and oppressed. I am no longer waiting for an invitation to have a seat at the table; I am building my own fucking table.

I own my power by shifting the burden of shame to sit squarely on the shoulders of those who it belongs with, the men buying access to bodies of women and girls.

I own my power today by making choices I once didn’t have the ability to make. Today I can show up as me, surrounded by a community of those who love and respect me. I own my power by leading a movement for change, and though the weight of the work is heavy, it is light in comparison to the work it took to survive every single day in the Life. I choose this fight; I will continue to fight until all my sisters have access to choices and options.