• Ideas
  • justice

I Was Trafficked as a Teen. Here’s What I Want People to Understand

8 minute read
Hertz is the author of The Lookback Window, a New York Times Editors' Choice, and the Physically Attractive newsletter

When I talk about being trafficked as a teenager, people ask two questions: How did it happen, and how did nobody know it happened? For most of my life, these conversations happened with the few friends, and then recently it happened more frequently after the release of my novel, The Lookback Window, which is about recovering from sex trafficking and pursuing justice in the wake of New York’s Child Victims Act. Sex trafficking isn’t dinner conversation, and the instances where it makes the news often revolve around paranoid fantasies of the alt-right. Recently, this manifested as Sound of Freedom, the terrible, white savior film starring Jim Caviezel, which doubles as a biopic of Tim Ballard and a false charity.

Tim Ballard is a conservative multi-hyphenate who created Operation Underground Railroad, an anti-child trafficking organization, after witnessing the horrific commercial sex trade from his work in the Department of Homeland Services’ Internet Crimes Against Children task force. This is the subject of the film, his heroic origin story. Nowhere in this biopic do you ever understand anything, really, but the notes of the film feel familiar enough, as if they have been recycled from another story, another fiction, another con. In October 2023, Ballard was accused of grooming and sexually harassing women, allegedly using his work with Operation Underground Railroad as a narrative cover, asking women how far they would go to help the cause. Would they pose as his wife, sleep with him, do what it takes to save the children?

At some point in the film, Caviezel says, “Nobody cares.” The dominant narrative has been that nobody cares because no one understands how the practice exists around them. It’s a lonely feeling and a sentiment that I have felt at times in my recovery. Media like this doesn’t do much but exacerbate this feeling. It preys on the right’s xenophobia, conspiracists, and religious fanaticism under the guise of saving the children.

But the problem is that the international commercial sex trade doesn’t just exist—it persists. In fact, it lives here, in America, all around us. And by sharing what happened to me, I hope that other victims will have an easier time speaking up and advocating for justice.

When I was 14, I got a message on MySpace from a 19-year-old who also lived in my same city in Westchester, telling me that he thought I was attractive. He lived across the street from my high school and asked if I wanted to go on a date. I didn’t respond at first, but I showed a friend of mine the message, and she told me she knew him. He was a family friend. I was lonely, had a difficult relationship with my parents, and was closeted. So, I responded to the message. 

When we met, he kissed me on the lips, asked my age, and then asked if I had ever smoked a blunt. I got so high I thought I was having a stroke. He asked me to be his boyfriend and then raped me in his bedroom and told me he loved me. When I was bleeding after, he said the same thing happened to him the first time he had sex, and that it was normal to bleed. I trusted him.

He’s what’s known as a “Romeo,” a pimp who lures a vulnerable person using the structure of a romantic relationship. He would give me a ring to wear, promising to marry me when I turned 18, too. He picked out a wedding date and wrote it on his wall. I don’t have many pictures from that era because my stomach turns if I’m reminded of how young I really looked, knowing what happened to me. But my family took a trip to Colorado that year and that friend who knew my rapist came along. She took pictures of the two of us, and if you look at my hand you could see the ring. I thought my boyfriend loved me.

There are other types of pimps: gorilla pimps whose main method of control is violence, CEO pimps who promise money, and familial pimps who sell the people in their family. Nothing is ever so separate, and when you’re being groomed you don’t realize what’s happening to you. He started out by telling stories of what he had done when he had been my age. They started out as cool, funny stories of hooking up with older men. The drugs he had done. Fights he had been in. That he had burned down part of his house when he was younger. (Later, after years had passed, I found out that he had been in-and-out of jail for various assaults.) He came up with a story that he was 16, if anyone asked, and that I couldn’t tell anyone about us or he could go to jail, and if I were talking about him to use a fake name.

Read More: She Survived Sex Trafficking. Now She Wants to Show Other Women a Way Out

I would skip school and walk to his house. On the weekends, I would tell my parents I was sleeping over at a different friend’s place, where he would get me high or drunk, and then post the ads on Craigslist with naked pictures of me that he had taken. Old men would reply and come over, give him money or drugs or both, and rape me in his bedroom. Some had wedding rings, some would force other drugs into me, and all of them asked how old I was. Sometimes he would drive me to their house. He would give me pills to calm me down the next day, buy me food, tell me details about the wedding. He would give me hickeys and teach me how to cover up bruises, and then by the time the older men hurt me I knew how to cover up bruises on my own. He bought me jockstraps and short shorts, and he had once casually joked about taking child porn in conversation to my friend who came to Colorado. I only know this detail because when I eventually went to the police, that friend had written it down in her diary, which was dated, and given over to the detective.

I failed classes and missed so much school my parents were alerted. I was rail thin, depressed, and was put on benzos by a psychiatrist. I was caught hanging out with this other older guy with a fake name. I wore very short shorts, tight shirts, and fell asleep during the day since I could barely sleep at night. I didn’t have many friends. All of these are considered signs that point to a risk factor.

He “broke up” with me when I was 17. I stopped looking as young as I once looked. No longer did I have braces. I went through puberty. One of the last times I saw the man who pimped me out, I told him how much he had hurt me and that I thought about going to the police. He threw my phone against the wall, beat me, and warned me what would happen if I ever told anyone. I overdosed on pills later that year, wanting to end the panic attacks, depression, and fear, but I was too young to know what had happened to me—that I was dealing with complex PTSD, and the extent of the violence.

The day after I graduated high school, I moved to San Diego without knowing anyone because I could not stomach being near the scene of the crimes. It was the farthest place away I could find. I have been in recovery for almost two decades now, and finally got the proper help I needed once I started telling people what happened. I was referred to the Crime Victims Treatment Center, a place where I could actually learn how to deal with living as someone who had once been trafficked. I could have had an easier time had I spoken more about what happened, had I known there are real treatments, had I not only thought of trafficking as something that happens far away from New York. If I had the language for what happened to me earlier, I could have saved myself years of private shame and self-destruction.

What is the sound of freedom? It’s what wakes my husband in the middle of the night as I scream in my sleep, 17 years later, and the softness of his voice telling me I’m safe. Or a notification from Instagram as a stranger who read my book tells me: “I was also trafficked as a teenager and our stories are super similar.” And the crowd asking questions about vengeance and justice at Strand Books where I talk with a friend about how angry I am and the solace I’ve found in being open. The practice of liberation requires creating room for the speech of victims. When I finish my events, I have a moment of silence for others to raise their hands, to talk after the event, to send a message. You are free to say what you need.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.