I am from a wonderful, upper middle class, two-parent home. My mother is a Lawyer my father is a Church Deacon. Growing up, I never experienced any form of abuse in my home. My parents have been married for over 30 years and I’ve never seen them have an argument in front of me. I almost had a perfect childhood. An all American dream. I went to High School where I played volleyball and ran track. I was voted prom queen and I worked really hard and got into the college of my choice- Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
I was 20 years old and in my junior year of college when I met a man at a popular college hangout with my friends. He came up to me on the dance floor and he said, “You are gorgeous. Has anyone ever told you that you should be a model?”
I was flattered but I had heard it before from a guy representing John Roberts Powers. I decided not to go that route and to continue my education to become a teacher. I was almost a senior so, I said, “Thanks but no thanks”.
Later that night, he ended up convincing me to become a “model”. He had sent another “model” to come and approach me on the dance floor. She reiterated how beautiful I was and how she worked with this guy named Mike. She said he’s the best in the city and he can jump start my career. So I gave him a try. The very next weekend I did my first photo shoot.
By week two, Mike had gotten me a paid modeling gig and asked me to fill out a W-9. On the W-9 (which I had filled out before because I had worked at the Y in high school) I put my full name my permanent address, which is my parents home address in Pasadena, my current address where I was living in Atlanta with my best friend and roommate, my social security number, and a slew of other information. I handed Mike the W-9 assuming he would hand it to the casting director and I’d receive a check in the mail.
By the third week, Mike called again with an exciting opportunity to audition for a major magazine in New York. He asked me If I wanted to go I said, “Of course I want to go! I’m ready.” He said, “Okay good. Do you have about $400 for the flight and hotel?”
I said, “No, I don’t have $400 lying around. I’m a broke college student but my parents are kind of rich let me call them.”
Before I could get off the phone he said, “No, actually by the time you have the taxis to and from the audition place, get your hair and makeup done, and buy a new outfit for this big audition. It’s probably gonna be about $750-$800. Do you think your parents can give you that?”
I knew my parents weren’t going to give me $750-$800 to go on some New York, weekend audition. I was pretty disappointed and Mike said, “You know what? That’s okay because you can do what some of my other models do, which is to become an exotic dancer.”
I said, “A stripper? No, no, I would never do that. Never.”
He said.” You know what, a lot of actresses and models got their start in the strip club and he named a few. Mike continued to tell me, “You know the night I met you, you were dancing on the dance floor and I’m pretty sure when you go to the pool or the beach you’re in a bikini. I noticed that when you had that photo shoot your face looked a little tense and you didn’t quite know where to place your arms at times. I think that it might be a good idea for you to get some experience being the center of attention. I don’t know what you know about strip clubs or what fantasies are in your mind. It’s really just a big room with a bunch of admirers going to see beauty. It’s a form of beauty.”
In about 30 minutes Mike had painted this glorious picture for me. I didn’t feel right in my spirit but Mike made it sound good. Some of my favorite music artists had just shot their music videos in a strip club and it looked like a lot of fun. So I decided to try it out to jumpstart my modeling career. I just wanted to raise enough money for a little while and then quit.
By the fourth week, I signed a contract with his agency and by the fifth week, Mike became violent. I first saw him hit another girl over a tiny offense. When I witnessed this, I realized that this wasn’t a good situation. I somehow made it through without having a nervous breakdown. The morning after Mike had hit the model, I called him and in my sweetest voice I said, “You know what Mike, finals are coming up and it’s getting so hard for me to juggle school and modeling. You’ve been a great help thus far but I’m just going to put everything on hold for now and I’ll give you another call later if I want to pick back up. Thanks but no thanks.”
Mike was silent for a moment and then he said, “B***h! I own you! You’re going to do what I tell you to do or somebody’s going to get hurt!” He then read off my parent’s home address. Before I could even process what was going on he said, “You better go to work tonight” and then he hung up.
That night I went to the strip club. Mike was there and he started noticing who was buying dances from me. Sometime throughout the night he told me was going to meet me at my car when I got off. I figured it was weird but I did what he told me. Sure enough, when my shift was over about 2:00 in the morning I was walking to my car and Mike and another man were standing by his car, which he had parked right next to mine. As I started walking over the other man automatically got into the back seat. Mike met me halfway and said “You’re going to take care of my friend tonight.”
I knew what that meant. With tears in my eyes I asked Mike, “Please do not make me do this. Please don’t.” He grabbed my arm very tightly and walked me towards the car. He reminded me of his power. He said, “I told you, you’re going to do what I tell you to do! Don’t make me hurt you.”
He opened the door and threw me in the back seat. That was the first night I was forced into sex trafficking. That night started my life being trafficked. I would be trafficked from the strip club, from music video sets from recording sessions at the studio but mostly in the strip club. I soon learned that Mike had at least three other victims there. He would come into the club to notice who was buying dances. Then he would approach those men and proposition them to buy us for that night.
You see, in the strip club it was a dark, dark place but just like walking into a dark room, the darkness overwhelms you but then your eyes adjust to the darkness. That’s what happened to me and what happens to so many other woman in this industry. Mental health professionals call it dissociation. I look at it from a perspective of good and evil, light and dark. To survive in the darkness you feel like you have to adjust to the darkness. For me I surrendered old Rachel. Old dreams, old goals, and old boundaries those were all dead. To survive I now embraced Lexi. Every exotic dancer has a different name because that’s part of the breaking process. It’s part of pulling away with the old and embracing the new for survival.
As I adjusted in the darkness I became a product instead of a person. My worth depended on how much money I made. How many dollars I can earn with my body. In darkness I found false pride in being expensive. I knew some woman who found false love in exploiters and abusers. They too were adjusting to the darkness. For me this darkness lasted and got darker and darker for a period of about 10 months.
In my own story some hope crept in when the police called me. Another one of my trafficking victims finally got the courage to go to the police so they launched an investigation. She gave them my name and number, so I got involved. I did some undercover work, and testified to the grand jury. When things got too dangerous in Atlanta I had to go to the only place I could go…home.
Two weeks into my senior year of college I call home and say, “Mom, Dad, can you pick me up tonight at LAX?”
My mom is a full out drama queen she replied, “What?! You better not be pregnant?!” She was demanding to know why I was coming home. I told her I would explain when I get there.
That night, they met me at LAX. It was a long, silent, awkward drive home and the silence and awkwardness continued as we sat around the kitchen table. Finally, my dad said, “Rachel, you have to tell us something.”
I began to tell the story of how I had met a man who had become dangerous. How he had their home address and how I was scared for their lives. I told them all the trouble I’ve gotten myself into.
After listening for a long time my father had one single question. “Did he ever hit you?”
I thought to myself, after hearing this whole story there are a million questions you could have asked. What were you wearing the night he met you? How many men were you forced to sleep with? How could you be so stupid? But his only concern was if his baby girl had been hurt.
I knew I was going to break his heart if I told him the truth. Yes I had been physically, mentally, sexually, psychologically abused. I decided to spare him and lie. “No Dad, he never hit me.” I acted really tired and said I wanted to go to bed.
That night as I was sitting on my bed as I wrote out a suicide letter. It was an apology letter to my parents for giving me a wonderful childhood. For loving me so much. I was just apologizing for putting them in danger and compromising the values they had raised me with.
My plan was to go to a quiet location the next day and take my life. I didn’t want them to find my body. But thank God I’m not a morning person. God made me like that for a reason, right? I usually sleep until about noon unless I have to get up.
The next morning, my parents woke me up. They had breakfast prepared. It was another awkward silent time around the dinner table but my dad just asked me to stand up. He stood up with me, put his arms around me and said, “Rachel, we don’t know what you’ve done. We don’t know what you’ve been through. But we know that there is nothing so bad that you could ever do, that God doesn’t still love you and that we don’t still love you.
My mom joined in the hug and it was exactly what I needed to get the strength to go on. There was that light in the midst of darkness.
I thank God that I had an earthly Father and Mother to give me that light, the truth. The reality is, for so many who don’t have that support and truth. This is what Treasures does. Stepping into the darkness with the light telling these women that they are still valued, they are still purposed, they are not damaged goods and there is hope. This is what light does. It not only lets us see the beauty in ourselves, it lets others see the beauty in us as well.
Today, I am a survivor. I am an overcomer. I am someone who has gone from darkness to light. I am a treasure.
Rachel Thomas is the Founder and Executive Director of The Sowers Education Group, a non-profit dedicated to educating people about the realities of sex trafficking. She became the first person to finish their undergraduate degree in the witness protection program. After, she went on to receive a Masters in Education from UCLA. One of her proudest accomplishments is an intervention curriculum called Ending The Game; this curriculum is being used nationwide to help survivors break the bonds of attachment to the trafficking subculture.