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12 MUST READ Memoirs by Trafficking & Exploitation Survivors

Sometimes the best documentation doesn't come from research or a scientific study but from someone's testimony. A personal narrative. We're thrilled to share these powerful and informative books with you!

1. Scars and Stilettos - Harmoney Dust Grillo

At thirteen, after being abandoned by her mother one summer and left to take care of her younger brother, Harmony becomes susceptible to a relationship that turns out to be toxic, abusive, and ultimately exploitative. She eventually finds herself working in a strip club at the age of nineteen, and her boyfriend becomes her pimp, controlling her every move and taking all of her money. Scars and Stilettos is Harmony’s stark, honest, and ultimately hopeful story of how God found her in that dark, noisy place, led her back out, and prompted her to help others who are trapped as she once was. It exposes the realities of the commercial sex industry and inspires hope that freedom and healing are possible for those involved. Harmony has since graduated magna cum laude from UCLA where she also completed an MA in Social Welfare, and now leads Treasures, an outreach and support group for women in the sex industry and victims of sex trafficking. Through the Treasures Training, she has provided training to help launch outreaches in over 120 cities on six continents. [GoodReads]

2. From Trafficked to Treasured - Kelly R. Patterson

In the quaint streets of the small-town USA, where neighbors are close friends and families share meals together, a young girl is snatched while walking home and savagely gang-raped. Her life in the Heartland appears as it should with high grades and medals for athletics and music. However, the hidden dark shadows of her existence are only known by those who groom her as a slave for their brutal sexual cravings. These are the events that Kelly lived in as a child and young adult. Shame and pain kept her silent for years. This heartbreaking account of personal survival from the sex trade industry in Heartland USA is full of hope and resilience. Kelly's journey of healing and freedom is giving her a loud voice today. From Trafficked To Treasured will help you discover how and why sex trafficking in rural America is surrounded by secrecy and is incredibly difficult to expose. It will cause you to recognize the signs of sex trafficking where you live, come alongside trafficked survivors, and become an advocate for those who are currently victims. Most importantly, if you are a victim, this book will help you get on the road to freedom. Buy this book as an essential tool in helping to understand one of the worst epidemics devastating our world today. [GoodReads]

3. Free Cyntoia - Cyntoia Brown-Long

In her own words, Cyntoia Brown shares the riveting and redemptive story of how she changed her life for the better while in prison, finding hope through faith after a traumatic adolescence of drug addiction, rape, and sex trafficking led to a murder conviction. Cyntoia Brown was sentenced to life in prison for a murder she committed at the age of sixteen. Her case became national news when celebrities and activists made the hashtag #FreeCyntoia go viral in 2017. She was granted full clemency after having served fifteen years, walking out a free woman on August 7, 2019. This is her story, in her own words. In these pages, written over the fifteen years she was incarcerated, Cyntoia shares the difficult early life that lead to that fateful night and how she found the strength to not only survive, but thrive, in prison. A coming-of-age memoir set against the shocking backdrop of a life behind bars, Free Cyntoia takes you on a spiritual journey as Cyntoia struggles to overcome a legacy of family addiction and a lifetime of feeling ostracized and abandoned by society. Born to a teenage alcoholic mother who was also a victim of sex trafficking, Brown reflects on the isolation, low self-esteem, and sense of alienation that drove her straight into the hands of a predator. Though she attempts to build a positive path and honor the values her beloved adoptive mother taught her, Cyntoia succumbs to harmful influences that drive her to a cycle of promise and despair. After a fateful meeting with a prison educator turned mentor, Cyntoia makes the pivotal decision to take classes at Lipscomb University and strive for a better future, even if she’s never freed. For the first time ever, Cyntoia shares the details of her transformation, including a profound encounter with God, an unlikely romance, and an unprecedented outpouring of support from social media advocates and A-list celebrities, which ultimately lead to clemency and her release from prison. Giving a rare look at the power of love, forgiveness, and self-discovery in the darkest of places, Free Cyntoia is a deeply personal portrait of one woman’s journey for redemption within a system that had failed her from childhood. [GoodReads]

4. And Life Continues - Wendy Barnes

Wendy Barnes was introduced to sex trafficking by her first love, the father of her children. And Life Continues is her story: how she became a victim of human trafficking, why she was unable to leave the man who enslaved her for fifteen years, and the obstacles she overcame to heal and rebuild her life after she was rescued. [GoodReads]

5. Living Inside the Rainbow - Brook Bello

Living Inside the Rainbow: Winning the Battlefield of the Mind After Human Trafficking and Mental Bondage is a riveting chronicle of Brook Parker Bello's journey, surviving child sex-slavery, a form of human trafficking. Similar to author, Joyce Meyer, Dr. Brook shares her faith and the power by God's grace as she shares life and spirituality. She also teaches through her own experience on the neurobiological effects of trauma and how the heart and mind are transformed to new life beyond it. Fear, brokenness, self-loathing, guilt, anxiety, doubt, and identity loss or true identities never discovered are all bi-products of the act of pedophilia, incest, rape and other forms of physical violation and abuses of all kinds. The author says, "judging others often blocks compassion," and she describes this book as the "trumpet call," a call to heal, live, give and run with God's grace in love like never before. [GoodReads]

6. Walking Prey - Holly Austin Smith

Today, two cultural forces are converging to make America's youth easy targets for sex traffickers. Younger and younger girls are engaging in adult sexual attitudes and practices, and the pressure to conform means thousands have little self-worth and are vulnerable to exploitation. At the same time, thanks to social media, texting, and chatting services, predators are able to ferret out their victims more easily than ever before. In Walking Prey, advocate and former victim Holly Austin Smith shows how middle class suburban communities are fast becoming the new epicenter of sex trafficking in America. Smith speaks from experience: Without consistent positive guidance or engagement, Holly was ripe for exploitation at age fourteen. A chance encounter with an older man led her to run away from home, and she soon found herself on the streets of Atlantic City. Her experience led her, two decades later, to become one of the foremost advocates for trafficking victims. Smith argues that these young women should be treated as victims by law enforcement, but that too often the criminal justice system lacks the resources and training to prevent the vicious cycle of prostitution. This is a clarion call to take a sharp look at one of the most striking human rights abuses, and one that is going on in our own backyard. [GoodReads]

7. Girls Like Us - Rachel Lloyd

A deeply moving story by a survivor of the commercial sex industry who has devoted her career to activism and helping other young girls escape "the life". At thirteen, Rachel Lloyd found herself caught up in a world of pain and abuse, struggling to survive as a child with no responsible adults to support her. Vulnerable yet tough, she eventually ended up a victim of commercial sexual exploitation. It took time and incredible resilience, but finally, with the help of a local church community, she broke free of her pimp and her past. Three years later, Lloyd arrived in the United States to work with adult women in the sex industry and soon founded her own nonprofit GEMS, Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, to meet the needs of other girls with her history. She also earned her GED and won full scholarships to college and a graduate program. Today Lloyd is executive director of GEMS in New York City and has turned it into one of the nation's most groundbreaking nonprofit organizations. In Girls Like Us, Lloyd reveals the dark, secretive world of her past in stunning cinematic detail. And, with great humanity, she lovingly shares the stories of the girls whose lives she has helped; small victories that have healed her wounds and made her whole. Revelatory, authentic, and brave, Girls Like Us is an unforgettable memoir. [GoodReads]

"Girls Like Us by Rachel Lloyd is a memoir that takes its reader into the world of human trafficking and the exploitation of young girls.

Rachel shares her personal experiences in the world of s*x trafficking and the realities of growing up in poverty and an abusive home.

After reading Girls Like Us, I learned that troubled youth, particularly teenage girls raised in abusive homes, void of stability, have a higher chance of falling prey to traffickers. Since children long for family and a place to belong, they will not have the discernment to sense danger when a trafficker poses as a concerned and loving adult.

I also learned that many children struggle to understand that their abuse is not okay and may resort to defending the traffickers' actions due to Stockholm syndrome. It will be difficult for some to separate themselves from their traffickers without justifying the violence they have suffered.

Although traffickers are portrayed in the mainstream media as a glamorized caricature, traffickers can be anyone regardless of race, gender, religion, or profession. Rachel also tackles the controversial (mainstream) view that children can be called "prostitutes" rather than seeing them as overcomers of exploitation. The belief that trafficked children choose a lifestyle of prostitution by remaining with a trafficker despite the violence they face provokes a question. If a child cannot vote, drive, or purchase alcohol due to their age, how are they consenting to prostitution unless they're conditioned to believe that what they are doing is normal?

My greatest takeaway from the book is Rachel's breakdown of the grooming process many children go through, from the early years of abuse at the hands of family members to the hands of traffickers. While recovery for the exploited individual is certainly possible, it is often a long, intense, and exhausting process that requires the support and patience of a loving and healthy community, resources, and re-education.

For Rachel's part, she certainly demonstrates the possibility of recovery, the hope of a better future for those caught in the endless cycle of exploitation, and the perseverance of the human spirit."

-Karmilia, The Abolitionist Collective

8. My Flawless One - Kjersti Boher

Raised by a single, alcoholic mother, Kjersti desperately seeks love and belonging in all the wrong places—whether she’s dancing onstage at the strip club, hiding in a series of broken relationships, or binging on drugs and alcohol. When she hits rock bottom, she finally finds acceptance and restoration in her higher power. In this authentic and raw memoir, Kjersti clears away a spot in the steamy window of a strip club dressing room, allowing you to peer inside the complicated world of the sex industry. You’ll experience the struggle of addiction, the vulnerability of sobriety, and the miracle of healing though friendship and prayer. If you’ve ever felt lonely, without purpose, or like you just don’t fit in, My Flawless One will give you hope. You’ll fall in and out of love with Kjersti and fear and cheer for her. Kjersti’s journey is our journey from rejection into a loving embrace. [GoodReads]

9. Leaving Breezy Street - April Reynolds and Brenda Myers-Powell

Told in an inimitable voice, Leaving Breezy Street is the stunning account of Brenda Myers-Powell’s brutal and beautiful life. “Careful―don’t think prostitution is just about money. It’s never just the money. It’s about slipping in at all the wrong places. Getting into dangerous situations and getting out of them. That’s exciting. That’s what you want. But you want something else, too.” What did Brenda Myers-Powell want? When she turned to prostitution at the age of fifteen, she wanted to support her two baby daughters and have a little money for herself. She was pretty and funny as hell, and although she called herself “Breezy,” she was also tough―a survivor in every sense of the word. Over the next twenty-five years, she would move across the country, finding new pimps, parties, drugs, and endless, profound heartache. And she would begin to want something else, something huge: a life of dignity, self-acceptance, and love. Astonishingly, she managed to find the strength to break from an unsparing world and save not only herself but also future Breezys. We have no say into which worlds we are born. But sometimes we can find a way out. [GoodReads]

10. Renting Lacy - Linda Smith

The average age of entry into prostitution in America is 13 years old. Forced into a life they never chose, manipulated, abused and tortured at the hands of the pimps who control them, our country's children are sold on the streets, on the internet and at truck stops across America every night. They aren't bad kids who made bad choices. They are victims of child sex trafficking. They come from our neighborhoods, our schools, our churches, and sometimes our own homes. Author Linda Smith brings to life characters based on real stories and interviews with teen survivors. Meet Lacy and Star as they reveal the underbelly of our country's commercial sex trade. Get to know the men who sell them, and the ones who buy them. Let Renting Lacy draw you into the lives of these young girls as they struggle to survive each night, watching their childhood hopes and dreams slip away in the darkness. Let it compel you to action. [Amazon]

11. Paid For - Rachel Moran

An astonishingly brave memoir of life in prostitution and its lingering influence on a woman’s psyche and life. “The best work by anyone on prostitution ever, Rachel Moran’s Paid For fuses the memoirist’s lived poignancy with the philosopher’s conceptual sophistication. The result is riveting, compelling, and incontestable. Impossible to put down. This book provides all anyone needs to know about the reality of prostitution in moving, insightful prose that engages and disposes of every argument ever raised in its favor.” —Catharine A. MacKinnon, law professor, University of Michigan and Harvard University. Born to mentally unstable parents, Rachel Moran left home at the age of fourteen. Being homeless, she became prostituted to survive. With intelligence and empathy, she describes the fears she and others had working on the streets and in the brothels. Moran also speaks to the psychological damage that accompanies prostitution and the estrangement from one’s body. At the age of twenty-two, Moran escaped prostitution. She has since become a writer and an abolitionist activist. [GoodReads]

12. Runaway Girl - Carissa Phelps

Carissa Phelps was a runner. By the time she was twelve, she had run away from home, dropped out of school, and fled blindly into the arms of a brutal pimp. Even when she escaped him, she could not outrun the crushing inner pain of abuse, neglect, and abandonment. With little to hope for, she expected to end up in prison, or worse. But then her life was transformed through the unexpected kindness of a teacher and a counselor. Through small miracles, Carissa accomplished the unimaginable, graduating from UCLA with both a law degree and an MBA. She left the streets behind, yet found herself back, this time working to help homeless and at-risk youth discover their own paths to a better life. Like the multimillion-copy bestseller The Glass Castle, this memoir moves us through the power of its unflinching candor and generosity. [GoodReads]


Why not choose one memoir each month? You could finish our list within a year! We also encourage you to request these from your favorite indie bookstore to amplify survivor voices while supporting local businesses.

Have any additional recommendations? Please share! We would love to hear from a fellow Changemaker.


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