Full Interview: Donna


From the 89.7 WGBH investigative series Sexual and Human Trafficking in the Boston Area
Q: Would you mind if I ask you how old you are?


A: I am 26.


1:53 Q: Now the topic we’re dealing with obviously it must be in many ways both painful for you and that same time you have entered a type of profession currently where you are helping other young women.  How do you feel about the latter in terms of your ability to help other young women?


A: Well first I would like to say that GEMS…their kind of theory is survivor leadership and I think that helped me the most seeing you can be successful, you can overcome, there are goals that are attainable.  I can set an example.  And by setting an example it can kind of give them strength to get out of their situation and start making their own goals going forward.


3:20 Q: That’s commendable and laudable.  Where are you from originally?


A: I was born in New York.  My father was in the military so we did a lot of moving around.  I’ve lived in Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and we’re back in New York.


3:37 Q: You mind if we delve in to the past for just a second and then just shoot into the future?


A: Sure.


3:47 Q: Okay.  Let’s do it by asking you this - what happened?  How did you get involved in the life, in the trade?


A: Well as a young person I was a victim of sexual abuse.  At 12 years old I was taken from my parents and put into foster care.  So I was in foster care for a few years and at the point when it was time for me to go back with my mother I guess my mother wasn’t completely prepared to take me back in.  She did have four other children.  So when I did go back home there wasn’t a lot of supervision for me and I was out in the streets a lot looking for things to do, looking for attention.  And so I kind of got mixed-up in the wrong crowd.  I was kidnapped by an older guy who was on drugs, who was addicted to heroin.  And so he used me as a trade-in for his addiction and that’s how I was sold to a pimp.  That’s how I got into the life.


5:15 Q: I know a lot of this is always difficult to recount.  This was New York or where was this exactly?


A: This was in New York.  I was living in the Bronx.           


5:31 Q: And how old were you at the time?


A: I was sixteen going on seventeen.


5:38 Q: And you were prostituted in the Bronx?


A: I was sold for sex to older men, yes.  I was also brought to different states to do the same.


Q: And did any of those states include New England States by any chance?


A: It was Boston, New York, Pennsylvania, Washington, DC, and Ohio.


Q: And how did that happen?  Was it in vans, was it in cars?  How were you transferred, as they say?


A: In cars.  By car or SUV.


Q: Now a lot of people would of course ask if there was ever an opportunity to escape during this time.  You must hear this all the time.


A: Yeah.  I think that looking back I know that I can think of a couple of times where I had an opportunity to exit the life but when you’re in that situation you don’t always recognize the opportunity when it’s present.  And the person who actually had sold me into the life knew where my family was and so there were a lot of threats.  They were threats against my family and so my mind couldn’t see passed that.  So I like I said, looking back I could see a few opportunities but you’re kind of blinded they use manipulation and scare tactics to kind of blind you.


8:15 Q: Now a lot of people for seem to be surprised to hear that sex trafficking is wide-spread in places like New England.  Less surprised with New York but they’re surprised to hear about what you went through that it takes place in New England.  Did you find this to be wide spread?  Is that a correct description?  Did you find a lot of women in your position?


A: Well when I was sixteen and seventeen I didn’t know what a pimp was.  I had seen Pretty Woman so I knew what a prostitute was.  But I didn’t know what a pimp was so there was no way I could recognize that.  When I was in the life, for three or four years, I saw a lot of it.  I saw it all over the country.  Some of the girls that were with me were sent to Las Vegas…places I couldn’t even imagine.  Quiet places like Kansas.  At a very early age I realized that it was very wide spread, all over America.


9:38 Q: Now if it took place in any other context these men would be called pedophiles.  So when you reflect on this and when you think about it, do you have concerns that you have lots of pedophiles that are getting away this kind of thing?


A: I do.  And it’s very concerning.  I mean I have children now so it’s even more scary to know that they’re out there.  And that people aren’t as aware of it, because it can honestly happen to anyone.  Parents may think that it’s okay to just let their kids walk across the street to school and it can happen right on your corner.  You know?


Q: When people hear about trafficking they usually think international but you found something totally different based on your own horrible experience.  Did you come across both American and non-American women in the time?  Talk about that for a second.


A: Yeah.  The girls that I was with, I mean there were so many different age ranges.  There was one girl who was Dominican her parents were not here legally.  There’s a lot of things that stemmed to her being in the life and I think that because her parents weren’t probably able to provide for her as much possible.  Illegal immigrants think they don’t have the same opportunities as those who are here legally so they don’t offer their kids the same opportunities and things like that.  It’s all over.


Q: Did you experience beating and torture?


A: Yes, we did.  A lot.  I have a lot of physical scars.  I have one on my arm, one on my leg.  I was in-and-out of the hospitals a lot.  Black eyes.  Of course there were the Johns who were abusive.  My finger was almost cut off.


Q: The person who sold you, this pimp, did he work on his own or did he work with groups of men?


A: His circle of friends were other pimps.  They hang around each other and feed off of each other.  It’s a game to them. Because they compete on who has the prettiest girl, which girl is making the most money.  They compete on how scared can I make this girl.  How long can I chase her before she decides to leave you and comes to me?  It’s a game to them.


Q: Where were you kept in both New York and in Boston?


A: In New York I stayed in an apartment in New York City housing.  When we were in Boston I either slept in the car in between dates or if I had met my quota for the night I was allowed to sleep in a hotel.


Q: The hotels were in Boston or outside of Boston?


A: They were in Boston.


Q: Do you know exactly where you stayed?


A: One rule is to not look.  It’s called “staying in pocket.”  So we’re not allowed to look at others, we’re not allowed to look up at names of streets.  It’s strictly “stay on this corner, go to this place to catch your date, and then come right back to this corner.”


Q: And when you were driven in to Boston were you driven with other girls?


A: Yes.  For Boston I was actually only with one other female.


Q: And where was she from?


A: She was actually from Ohio.


Q: She too obviously was kidnapped?


A: No, I think her situation was more like, “this handsome guy came up to me and wanted to be my boyfriend.”  He eased into her.  It was more like, “Hey, let’s go to a strip club.”  “Hey, this guy wants a massage.”  “Hey, this guy just wants to kind of look at you while he, you know, enjoys himself.”  So then it kind of progressed for her.


Q: Now one of these stories that we’re focused on in the context of looking at sexual trafficking, one of the factors we’re looking is also how it takes place and where it takes place.  Nail salons is something that’s come on the radar of the federal government.  When you hear that some young women might be prostituted out of nail salons and massage parlors does that surprise you?


A: It doesn’t.  Because as I said one of the girls that I was around she was told, “it’s okay, he just wants a massage.”  There was a front, a cover-up for him.  He made her believe that he was trying become an entrepreneur, he wanted to run this massage parlor, he sold her a dream, he said, “eventually she could be running this place.”  So his thing was to get her comfortable with meeting the guys and of course it would always start with a massage and then the John would ask for more in exchange for money.  I know of that from several years back so I think that the police at this point have caught on to their game and are looking for new cover-ups.  So if you’re saying nail salons is their new thing it’s not a surprise to me.


Q: Have you heard of this going on in nail salons, in New York or San Francisco or Boston?


A: No, I haven’t.  It’s not a surprise to me but I haven’t actually heard or seen actually happen.


Q: Did you find much sympathy for your situation from just strangers?  People on the streets.  Not Johns, of course.  Did anyone ever say, “young lady, are you in trouble?”


A: I think that the police were completely un-sympathetic.  I think that I can remember a legal aid asking me (I had probably just turned 18 at the time) if I was in trouble or if I needed help or she was kind of trying to engage me to kind of find out why I was there and my story.  I think she saw something but didn’t quite know how to get it out of me.  I was always instructed to lie about my age, lie about my name, never tell the truth.  So that’s what I did when she did ask.


Q: And that certainly explains why it’s sometimes so difficult sometimes to penetrate this illicit business.


A: I agree.  These girls are continuously told to be a different person.  That’s what they do.  They completely put on a front.  They make themselves a new person.


Q: Do you have trouble young women, especially immigrant women, to open up about this situation?


A: I can say they are more afraid of what can happen in different ways.  They’re afraid of them getting deported, of their families getting deported.  A majority of them don’t even know what’s going on when they go to court, they don’t know what’s happening or what’s being said.


Q: Can you offer any advice to 14, 15, 16-year-olds that think they may be targeted right now by someone who is older and too attentive?


A: My advice to her would be, one, get out of the situation.  If you need to tell an older person, tell an older person.  If that person doesn’t listen, tell another person. Someone is going to listen to you.  There are hotlines and numbers to call.  And I think that young people just really need to focus in on their education.  I’m very goal-oriented and I think that if you want something for yourself you’ll be able to keep yourself busy, stay off the streets, and work towards success.


Q: Thank you very much.  Is there anything you would like to add to this discussion that I haven’t asked?


A: I think I want people to know that changing public perception is really vital to affecting change in the lives of the young girls who are at risk.  The language is very important in changing the public perception of trafficked victims.  I think that I would like to see society look at it differently.


Q: In other words, there’s a recognition, or should be a recognition, that instead of young women forced into situations like yours are prostitutes, as I’ve been told and as it should be argued, these women are being prostituted.


A: They are victims of commercial sexual exploitation, yes.


Q: Are people getting that message?   What do you think we should say, and when I say we I mean the media, to law enforcement officials in order to effectuate the language and the policy changes that you are interested in pursuing?


A: I’d like to say that GEMS is committed to ending commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking of children.  Doing that by changing individual lives, transforming public perception and revolutionizing the systems and policies that impact sexually exploited youth.

To law enforcement, they need to identify, and it’s not always easy, these girls act like they’re 23, 24, but it’s routinely put into their heads “engage with the child” and using a sympathetic approach you can kind of get some of that out of them.  And by offering services.  That they shouldn’t just look to “book” the girl.  Try to get deeper in, find out where she is, what place she is at within herself and bring that out of her.  The girls will be more receptive to the compassion rather than, “you don’t need to be doing this,” “what are you doing,” “what’s wrong with you?”  The aggression and attack are going to close them up and put them back into that hole.  They’re going to say, “nobody understands,” “they won’t listen to me,” “they’re not going to believe me.”  I know a lot of times I felt that nobody was going to believe me, especially in the beginning because I didn’t know what a pimp was.  Who was going to believe that there was a pimp that has me locked in a room?  And I think that if someone had said “I can offer you a place, a safe place.”  I think that if I would have heard more options, more services, I wish I’d heard of GEMS years before. GEMS has helped me so much.  They helped me realize what kind of situation I was in.  They helped me to realize that I had a potential. That I could do so much more with myself, that I could love myself, and that others could love me.  And it was all survivor leadership.  My case-worker was a survivor. Seeing that my case-worker was so successful, they had jobs, she’s helping others.  Seeing that helped me to say that I can do it too.  I’m here in a place where there are people who are like me.  These people aren’t going to judge me.  They aren’t going to say, “you’re disgusting” or “why did you do that” or “how could you do that?”  They understand what I went through and that survivor leadership led me to be who I am today.  So I feel in some way obligated to help others at this point.


Q: Thank you very much.  I have one final question for you.  Did you ever reconcile with your mom?


A: I have.  We see her every weekend.  She loves her grandchildren.  We’re actually both currently still in therapy kind of working toward a closer bond, but yes, we are.


Q: Thank you for sharing this.  We really appreciate it.  And good luck.  "

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