“I didn’t see a way out. I didn’t think that I could get out. I convinced myself that I needed to be there, and that was my life. It happened pretty fast. They played on my fears.”
Katie Rhoades, founder of Healing Action in St. Louis, an organization that provides support to those affected by human trafficking, is a survivor of trafficking herself. She was introduced into this world of bondage at the age of 18.
“I was struggling with undiagnosed PTSD, I was severely depressed. I was having panic attacks and flashbacks,” Rhoades said. “I thought I was crazy. I struggled to get through high school. When I finally graduated I did what most kids do: get away from their parents. So I moved out.”
Rhoades turned to alcohol to escape her troubles, and did not realize that she had an addiction. She was unable to hold down a job, and did not have a place to stay as a result of her dependency.
“I couldn’t go back home. I did not have a great relationship with my family. My dad was actually dying of cancer, so to go back home was to face that,” she said. “[I had] a pretty negative relationship with my mother. I was sleeping in my car. I didn’t have a job. I was struggling with addiction.”
Rhoades almost gave up searching for a job when an old friend from high school who worked at a strip club came to her with a job offer. To Rhoades, the thought of stripping was absolutely terrifying. However, she was desperate to leave the streets. So Rhoades began her career as a stripper.
However, shortly after the start of her new life, Rhoades was approached by a woman with a different job offer. This time, she would travel to California, and Rhoades believed the new job would allow her to escape her substance dependence and life as a stripper.
Within three days, Rhoades traveled to California and met with the woman’s boyfriend and business manager that she was going to be working with.
“It became apparent very quickly that it was not going to be legitimate work, it was going to be working in clubs, it was going to be prostitution. I didn’t have any contacts or a way to get back,” Rhoades said.
Rhoades knew these circumstances were not going to end well. She wanted a way out. Rhoades attempted to escape once, but eventually found her way back to California after her dad died. Finally, after she got into trouble with her procurer, Rhoades decided it was time to get permanent help.
“I had made eye contact with another pimp on accident. He told my pimp that I was out of pocket [when a victim is not under control of a pimp, leaving her vulnerable to threats, violence or harassment to influence her to choose a pimp],” Rhoades said. “I got put on the streets in what’s called a pimp circle, where other pimps have an opportunity to try to get me to go with them. I knew that I was going to get killed by a trick or end up in a dumpster.”
Rhoades convinced her owner to send her back home. The pimp agreed, and Rhoades was greeted by her family at the airport just days later. Rhoades kept her past a secret, despite her wanting to reveal her identity.
“During that couple months I was back home, my dad was really sick and ultimately died,” Rhoades said. “I didn’t think I could talk about it. Why would they be worried about me? My dad’s dying.”
Soon after her dad passed away, Rhoades fell back into the same boat. She started drinking again and her relationship with her mother fell apart once again.
“I did what I knew what to do and I went back to the strip clubs. I thought I was smarter this time around, and I wouldn’t get roped in again,” she said. “Within a month of my dad passing away, my pimp called to check in on me. He’s like, ‘Let’s meet. I know you had a really crappy time. Let’s talk about why you left.’ He reeled me back in.”
Once again, Rhoades was back in California––but this time was different. She would have more control over what was happening in her life. She figured this agreement would make the work she did bearable.
“Once I got back to California, it was like a moment of clarity. Geez, Katie, what did you do? I’m back in this crap. I started planning my next exit. He left me alone in Portland at the club. I reached out to a family physician of mine, and said I can’t do this anymore,” Rhoades said. “I need to get into treatment. I didn’t really tell her the whole story of what was going on. She was able to work with my mom in getting me into rehab.”
Rhoades entered rehab, and her mom supported her through the recovery process. As a result of her experience, Rhoades was compelled to use her story to help others. She applied to and was accepted at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis. After receiving her degree in social work, Rhoades started the Healing Action organization to help other survivors like herself.
“To think that we all think that it can’t happen to our kids, and that’s just not the case,” Rhoades said. “It’s not about intelligence, it’s about emotional vulnerability and just vulnerability in general. I don’t know what would have happened if [my parents] would have asked more questions.
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