Portland resident Dee Clarke is the founder of Survivor Speak USA, an organization working to end sex trafficking and exploitation through elevating the voices of survivors, and bringing their stories to leadership positions where they can most affect change.
The Phoenix spoke with Dee Clarke by phone and email.
When did you start your advocacy work for survivors of sex trafficking?
I started my advocacy work 20 years ago, and began to develop Survivor Speak USA five years ago. We became a nonprofit three years ago with the intention of building up organizing power among survivors of sexploitation. Within SSUSA, we refer to sexploitation as the exchanging of sex for money or goods within circumstances of victimization, oppression and exploitation. This is a broader set of experiences than what fits the narrow federal definition of sex trafficking, which leaves out a lot of survivors. SSUSA is inclusive and survivor-led. The major organizational players in Maine’s anti-trafficking movement rely heavily on statistics, data and numbers. But we also need survivors at the front leading and collaborating. Yes, our experiences often fit within the data and numbers, but we are more than our stories, and also have the best insights on solutions because we have the lived experience.
You’re careful to broaden the issue from individual actors to a system you call “sexploitation.” Why?
All exploitation is rooted in racism, poverty, and misogyny. Maine’s legislators, law enforcement and social service agencies need to hear directly from those of us who have lived the life of sexploitation to correctly inform any policy or protocol changes. Black and Brown survivors are often misidentified as criminals or willing participants, not victims. Black and Brown girls are more likely to grow up in poverty than their white peers, with less social support and connections to resources that could keep them safe from exploiters. Forces of institutional racism — housing policies, rezoning, over-policing, and de facto segregation — shape neighborhoods where exploitation thrives. Even in a majority-white state like Maine, racial injustice contributes to a girl or woman’s vulnerability to exploitation, and if she has avenues for recovery. Promoting an understanding of how systemic racism and economic injustice operate and shape the lives of women and girls is essential to our education and advocacy efforts within SALT, at the state house, and in trainings with advocates and officers.
You lead workshops and educational trainings for anti-trafficking organizations that center the experiences of survivors. What do organizations miss when they aren’t doing that?
The status quo source for knowledge about prostitution, sexploitation and trafficking is not survivors. Most organizations are currently trying to include survivors, but my goal is not token survivor involvement, but deep collaboration with stable and skilled-up survivors who will mentor and educate providers. We are already seeing proposed bills that claim to focus on putting pimps in jail, but because survivors’ realities and input weren’t included in the process from the beginning — some of these proposed ‘solutions’ would really just create more problems for survivors and women still in the life. One of the philosophies of SSUSA is to compensate survivors for our expertise and leadership, and to provide small stipends to survivors participating in our leadership programs.
You’re careful to distinguish the survivors of sex trafficking from those who do voluntary sex work. Do you come up against laws that conflate the two?
Sex work is the trickiest term. This phrase often refers to an individual choice without victimization or oppression. When survivors of sexploitation are called sex workers and providers use that term — including when referring to children experiencing exploitation — it is such a stinging slap in our face. Women and children being sexploited are being victimized, oppressed and isolated. So talking about those adults who exchange sex for money or goods by choice is talking about something very different than what SSUSA is working on. However, prostitution by choice also is not protected by any laws because “prostitution" is illegal.
We do not use the terms ‘sex work’ or ‘sex worker’ because it does not fit what we have experienced. Sexploitation is talking about force, fraud, coercion, victimization, oppression, and exploitation. I see providers, law enforcement, and hospital staff struggling with the terms. It’s as if not meeting the narrow definition of trafficking means you are a sex worker, or that while being trafficked you are engaged in sex work. It is a confusing and tricky term. To be clear: SSUSA is not against voluntary sex work. However, we believe until the ‘last girl’ in our communities — the ones with the least support and the most isolated from a safety net or way out of exploitation — until the last girl is first, prostitution should not be legalized.
Our home base is definitely Maine. We’re in Portland, Bangor, Lewiston, and Gorham. We hope to partner up and collaborate with domestic violence and homeless groups in Hawaii. I am in contact with and mentor survivors in California and New York. Survivor Speak has a partnership in India with a similar grassroots organization called Apne App. They taught us about the concept of the last girl. I was a last girl and became a forgotten woman, until I opened my mouth, spoke and was not heard. But I keep showing up and speaking — all survivors speak!
- Prostitution: exchanging sex for money or goods.
- Sex trafficking: exchanging sex for money or goods via force fraud and or coercion.
- Sexploitation: exchanging sex for money or goods via victimization, oppression, exploitation.
Learn more about Survivor Speak USA at http://www.survivorspeakusa.org
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