“HOld That Thought”

It wasn’t until I met 107 girls as young as 6 years of age who had been victims of sex trafficking in Cambodia and teenage girls who were conned into prostitution in the Philippines, that I started to empathize with women “in the life”, strippers, prostitutes, and those pigeonholed as “hoes.” During the 10 days I volunteered at the three shelters, I got to spend time with these beautiful girls, ALL who had been victims of rape, who were incredibly loving and resilient. I also witnessed how hard life is for people in general in an impoverished country such as the Philippines where for grown women, prostitution is a viable option to stay afloat economically given the high demand for it. And it was on that 33-day journey through southeast Asia in 2014 that my entire perspective about “hoes” changed, an experience that would mark me for life.

Most of my adolescent life I, along with almost everyone I grew up with that went to Catholic school, was quick to point the finger at the other girls deemed as “hoes” who were sleeping around with boys they weren’t in relationships with or lost their virginity in middle school. We made fun of “hoes” and frowned upon them. The guys who seriously dated “hoes” were considered weak and dumb because it was common knowledge that “you can’t turn a hoe into a housewife.” Looking back, I feel ashamed that I perpetuated the mistreatment of girls who were most probably victims of child molestation or rape, didn’t have great role models, were neglected, or whose low self-esteem led them to make decisions that lost them the respect of their peers.

Coming from a place of compassion towards myself, I now understand that I can’t blame myself entirely for having grown up feeling this way about “hoes.”  In part, my Catholic school girl guilt got the best of me, it only took 30 years to shake it off and not believe I was a horrible human being for having pre-marital sex and sex with more than one person. Beyond my personal experience, this ignorant widespread belief about women who sleep around being “hoes” has very very deep roots.  Since the beginning of “man”kind the double standard rule, which overtly rewards men and punishes women for having multiple sex partners, has been at the forefront of societal values.  In fact, it is still very much alive and well today despite what the feminist movement accomplished in America in the 60s and 70s. It still stands in most corners of the globe that women who sleep around, strip, or prostitute themselves are worthless “hoes” and deplorable human beings. At the end of the day, does it matter how many sexual partners a woman has had? Does that really define a woman’s character? What about the women who have had no prior sexual trauma and feel liberated acting like their male counterparts and sleeping with who they choose whenever they want? Personally, I know women that have this attitude about sex who are exceptional, educated, and kind-hearted human beings. How sad is it that we as humans have forgotten how to empathize? How sad is it that we are quick to throw a stone at someone that causes no harm to others?

There’s a popular proverb that says, “you can’t really understand another person’s experience until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” And so I’m asking you to walk with me…walk with me through the life of a 14-year-old-girl who endured close to two years of being sex trafficked and raped by hundreds of grown men. Since October of 2015, I’ve been mentoring a 16-year-old girl who was previously trafficked by a pimp who recruited her through Facebook. The pimp, who was a 23-year-old gangbanger, told my mentee, who was 14 at the time, that he was 16. He courted her; she fell in love with him; he bought her all the things she never had, took her to places she had never been. Then one day, he told her the money had ran out and that she needed to help him make money. Initially when he proposed that she sell her body she refuted the idea but he took advantage of her love for him and manipulated her into doing this one favor for him, after all, he had done so much for her. Confusion and the fear of losing him set in. Reluctantly she agreed, marking the onset of what would be the worst moments of her adolescent life.

Her first day, she made her pimp $900. She came home that day and cried in the shower for hours as she scrubbed her body almost to the point of making her skin bleed. Little did she know this was not a one-time ordeal. He asked her to do it again and at first, out of the fear of losing him, she agreed. Her pimp sold her during the day when she was supposed to be in school; he sold her on Craigslist, Backpages, on Sunset and Hollywood Blvd, in Vegas, and out of different houses (brothels) all over Los Angeles. When she finally resisted, he kidnapped her for four months instilling fear in her and destroying her family. She was devastated, broken and alone in a world she could not escape. Her mother couldn’t find her anywhere because her pimp moved from house to house so she never knew exactly where she was nor did she have access to a phone. One day it was downtown and the next day it was the valley. Ironically, the best thing that ever happened to her was that she got arrested one night while she was on “the track” and taken to jail.  Shortly after, and thankfully, her pimp got arrested for doing a home invasion and currently, mind you, he’s still in jail for the home invasion but not for statutory rape, kidnapping, and prostituting a minor. And it was those two events, which occurred back to back, that eventually catapulted her on the “right track.”

My mentee is back in school and excelling with perfect attendance. She completed a court program called “Ending the Game”, is in a mentorship program with me and soon will be joining a job academy program to help her get ready to obtain a job. I see her twice a month and do a series of activities to empower her and take her to do things she’s never done before, both fun or outside her comfort zone. She recently got an ID card because she had never had one and we are working on getting her to pass her Driver’s Ed course so I can teach her how to drive. Step by step and through time it is my hope that I will be an integral part of her restoration. But unfortunately, there are a lot of things beyond my reach. And so I ask that you keep walking in her shoes…

I think about her going forward and how much shame she must feel at the very thought of being in a relationship with a young man in the future and having to tell him she got pimped for two years. Imagine how difficult it would be for her to confess to a potential love interest that she was forced to sleep, or better yet, raped by hundreds of men. Or would a better option be never telling him what happened to her, keeping that very dark past hidden? What about all the post-traumatic stress that comes with being raped, especially that many times? And all the psychological issues she has which she is not being treated for at the moment? I’m no psychologist but with a B.A. in Psychology and two decades of street smarts, I can already see some of these issues manifesting. Sit with this for a moment…because this is the case of about 100-300,000 children in the U.S.

Please continue to walk with them…

  • 1 in 5 girls is a victim of child sexual abuse
  • Self-report studies show that 20% of adult females recall a childhood sexual assault or sexual abuse incident
  • Children are most vulnerable to sexual abuse between the ages of 7 and 13.
  • Many women who become prostitutes have been victims of childhood sexual abuse. To cope with the trauma of sexual abuse and the stress of prostitution, many turn to drugs and alcohol, which further complicates their problems.
  • Sexual abuse can cause the following: sexual anxiety and disorders, including having too many or unsafe sexual partners, difficulty setting safe limits with others and relationship problems, poor body image and low self-esteem, and/or unhealthy behaviors, such as alcohol, drugs, self-harm, or eating problems. These behaviors are often used to try to hide painful emotions related to the abuse.

Molestation or rape at a young age can lead a girl to make some pretty bad decisions in their adult life. Because there is so much shame and sometimes even threats to keep quiet when sexually abused, in many cases the victims do not receive adequate treatment when it actually happens. Instead, these issues start revealing themselves during adolescence and adulthood. Young women who choose to strip and prostitute themselves have a story…and most of the time it’s a story rooted in abuse, rape, neglect, low self-esteem, drugs, and/or violence. So before you call another woman a “ho”, HOld that thought, and imagine why she may possibly be acting that way and know that there’s a possibility she was a victim at some point in her life of some pretty horrible circumstances.

So I ask that you please don’t stop walking in her shoes until you reach that mile…


Travel With Purpose – Siem Reap (Cambodia)


There is a Cambodian proverb that says men are like gold, a good polish will make it look new, and women on the other hand are like cloth, once it gets soiled it’s not the same. This phrase pretty much sums up the society’s attitude, specifically men’s attitudes, toward women and sexuality. It comes of no surprise to me given this is pretty much the double standard all over the world. What IS shocking is that according to their culture, if a man sleeps with a virgin he will be blessed with youth and it will bring him good luck; hence, the act of buying [from the girl’s own family] or taking a young girl’s virginity by force is quite normal. Because this atrocity is an inherent part of their superstitious culture, the demand for younger virgins is on the rise.

In America, if a 6 year old girl gets raped by a man it will make national headlines, 330 million people will hear about it, discuss it in the office with their colleagues or over lunch with friends or start a social media campaign with a hashtag like #InnocenceLost. Further, the perpetrator will surely get imprisoned and even segregated inside the jail so that other criminals won’t strangle him with a shoe lace or shank him with a sharpened toothbrush. In Cambodia, if a 6 year old gets raped, no one might ever find out because it’s shameful and because the girl will forever wear an invisible Scarlet letter or simply because the perpetrator is a government official or a wealthy man….so silence is the better option. Moreover, due to the culture’s oppression of women, the victim and her family might never want or be able to seek justice.

Poverty calls for desperate measures and the less fortunate, the vulnerable, along with women and girls, get short changed in Cambodia. Contrary to popular belief, not too many families sell their daughters’ souls to the sex trade or get kidnapped and sold to brothels. What’s happening here is that predators seek the poorest of the poorest, the most vulnerable, and recruit girls to work at “restaurants, karaoke bars, or massage parlors” promising their families economic stability. Hence, families agree to send their daughters off to a promising future but most of the time it turns out to be the beginning of a nightmare that ends up shattering their spirits. In one of the poorest countries in South East Asia, every man is for himself and if this means ruining the lives of uneducated peasant girls from villages in order to better themselves then so be it. However shocking this may be, it’s nothing new. Throughout history, the weak or less fortunate have always suffered at the hands of those in power from the concentration camps to the plantations and in the midst of wars. What’s heart-wrenching is that it’s still happening in 2014 and that the government turns a blind eye due to the profitability of the industry. There’s a law in Cambodia which states that if an undercover investigation is being conducted to take down a brothel, the evidence is not admissible in court. Because of this law, seeking justice for sexual trafficking perpetrators has been quite difficult.

Volunteering here has been a surreal experience. From the moment I met the orphanage’s director, a bright blue-eyed petit ex-pat from Missouri who had been in Cambodia serving others for 5.5 years, I felt connected to her.  We sat in my hotel lobby and chatted for a bit. Together, we came up with a game plan and budget to buy all the gifts. We spent 4 hours shopping and running errands and getting to know each other. At the market she gave money to every single beggar. A kind spirit she is and you can sense that from a mile away. Then she dropped me back off at the hotel, I scarfed down a protein bar and some fruit, showered and headed to the shelter to assemble the gift bags and attend their Christmas party. Immediately upon arriving at the shelter in Siem Reap I was greeted by a gorgeous 7 year old girl with a face and smile that would make you melt. Without an introduction from the director, she hugged me and held my hand eager to show me around. My eyes welled up…the love I felt from this little angel was overwhelming.

The next five hours were spent between my assembly line of gifts and watching the show the girls put together consisting of skits, dancing and a gift exchange. They also sang happy birthday to one of the girls, a gorgeous 12th grader with striking features. A few of her friends came up and recited some kind words about her. Her closest friend was crying from the minute she grabbed the mic…as the director translated what she was saying the tears started flowing down my face. Turns out, these two besties are from the same village and came to the shelter together. Then the director introduced me to the group as an American who managed to raise money so that I could bring them gifts. The girls cheered and clapped. I was so moved while trying my hardest not to lose my shit crying. I was incorporated into the gift exchange and after receiving their gift from the shelter each girl and staff member came to me to receive their gift bag and a teddy bear embroidered with a heart and the phrase “I love you” or “Te Amo”. The girls were ecstatic and as they approached me, they put their hands in a prayer formation, bowed and smiling in broken English said, “Thank youuuu”. It was beautiful.

The next day we went to their annual Christmas mass. It was interesting to see the girls practicing their faith. During most of the ceremony, the 7 year-old gorgeous girl who initially greeted me sat in front of me and held my hand during most of the mass. She kept pressing my hand to her face and trying to tickle me and make me laugh by making funny faces. I naturally did the same given my long history of misbehaving at church. Then we all had lunch and on the way back to the shelter she asked to sit in front with me on my lap. So much love.

My last day at the shelter in Siem Reap we did some arts and crafts and the girls wrote “Thank You” cards. What all these cards had in common was the phrase “I Love You” either in English or Khmer and some even said “I Love You Loren”. My eyes would get watery reading or having every card read to me and all I kept asking the universe was not to let me start crying like a lunatic during “arts and crafts”. Soon after, I invited the director to lunch. We chatted more about life, our lives, Cambodia, the girls, etc. That morning I had taken notice of one of the girls in particular which I’m guessing is around 10 or 11. I quickly realized she was the comedian of the group because every time she blurted something the other girls and staff would burst out laughing. I also noticed she was missing all her teeth (except for two molars) and that the bottoms of her feet were very rough possibly even severely scarred. Her mannerisms at times were rough and at times delicate…she had said “I Love You” to me the day before. I sensed that she had gone through a lot, way beyond being sexually assaulted. So I mentioned her to the director during lunch and she confirmed what I had sensed. I told the director I felt that besides the sexual trauma, I felt she had also endured some serious physical abuse and she’s probably one of the ones that has the most trauma. She nodded in agreement, without elaborating. We also spoke about the one girl who went to church the day before wearing a hat and a face mask. She explained it was because her fear of being in public and around people is so intense she rarely leaves the shelter and if she does she covers herself. She also said she still doesn’t feel safe at the house and is a bit of a loner. I don’t know anything that happened to her but hearing this broke me and I started to cry.

We wrapped up lunch and headed back to pack up the other supplies for the shelter in Battambang. None of the girls were around when we got back except for HER…the funny-doll-faced-angel. When she saw me she came up to me and hugged me and in Khmer said she would miss me. I hugged her tightly and said “I will miss you too”…she asked when I would return and the director said “soon…soon”. And then it happened, locked in an embrace, that recurring dream and thought that ruminated in my mind for months, that image and that thought of having this “moment” with one of the girls. We just couldn’t let go of each other. And then she started crying intensely and when she looked up at me, I started balling…trying not to hyperventilate, trying not to break down. A continuous river of tears ran down my face onto the top of her head and hair as my jaw quivered uncontrollably…her tears finding refuge on my shirt and chest. During the embrace, which lasted over 20 min, I felt all the pain this child had experienced. I became an empath. It was surreal…almost like an out-of-body experience. I kept praying over and over that all her pain be transferred onto me…because I could handle it, because I hadn’t suffered like she had, because I’m a woman and she’s a child who never deserved any of it. All the love and light I have within I asked the universe to give to her…I loved her like she was my child…I wanted to give her everything I had, my heart, my earrings, my clothes, a better life, take her to school, take her around the world, cook for her, take her to meet my family, buy her a puppy, brush her hair, tuck her in bed, teach her English…I wanted to heal her…remove every ounce of pain in her heart…erase all her scars…guide her, love her, protect her.  We couldn’t stop crying and we couldn’t let go. And every time she looked up at me and I saw fear and love in her eyes…my heart wanted to explode. I had never felt something like this…ever. So many thoughts ran through my mind…I felt so many emotions…we just couldn’t let go. Two of the staff approached us and I asked them to ask her why she was crying…she said she would miss me and that she hoped I would come back soon and just kept on repeating that over and over. I told them to tell her that she was beautiful and that life was beautiful and that there are so many people that love her…that I love her and that she needed to be strong. She nodded. She asked them if she can walk me to the car and held my hand. We hugged one last time and said our goodbye(s) and I Love You(s). And I got in the car heading to the shelter in Battambang…with a heavy chest filled with pain and my heart exploding with love.

I knew this moment would come…the moment that would forever change the course of my life and reassure me that what I was doing is exactly what I needed to be doing.