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Compassion Not Punishment: Trigger Warning Uplifts Non-Carceral Trafficking Narratives

What does it mean to survive? What does survival look like?

These questions are at the core of many issues which sit at the nexus of economics, public safety, and public health. Understanding and honoring survival is necessary to create programs and policies that prevent and address human trafficking. Without the need or struggle to survive, people would rarely encounter or engage in exploitative situations. If poverty didn’t exist, human trafficking would be rare.

Media and political messages and propaganda tell a different story in order to reinforce the status quo. Without critical examination, it is easy to believe that sex trafficking is rampant, and that increased state surveillance is necessary to keep suburban children safe from organized crime operations mainly comprised of men of color. Such messages are reminiscent of drug war propaganda suggesting that “just say no” policies and law enforcement intervention will save innocent people from drugs used and pushed by people of color in urban cities. We need a vehicle for critical examination.

Trigger Warning: a Memoir by Justice Rivera is the cultural intervention needed to help people understand human trafficking.

Trigger Warning is the story of Justice, a young queer multi-ethnic woman who is trying to find herself. It starts on a cool damp night in Seattle at a homeless encampment where outreach volunteers pass out safety supplies and harm reduction material to sex workers. With every step, Justice is transported back in time to a jail cell where she was withdrawing from drugs and anxiously evaluating her life. She’d landed there partly of her own volition but couldn’t shake the core injustice of it all. She’d survived exploitation and tried to take back what was owed to her. Now, she was looking at twelve years in prison.

Jail was exhausting. Justice bided her time, made friends, and navigated a jail guard’s aggressive crush. Most of all, she daydreamt about her future and replayed her past. How did this happen? From this question stories unfold: the fight with her mom that precipitated smoking crack with her crush, her spiritual quest that ended in an indoor tent, how and why she worked at a job that didn’t pay her for months, and trying to regain power only to trade sex with a man who took it all away. In the end, she had to stop but she still couldn’t escape herself.

When given another chance at freedom, she was afraid she was going to blow it. She was convinced that the only way she could do better was to motivate herself to change through guilt and punishment. In fact, the opposite happened; guilt turned into all-consuming shame and self-hatred. She used drugs to quiet the inner voice that told her she was a worthless screw up. From this place of vulnerability, more stories unraveled. Excruciating heartbreak and a sexual assault she couldn’t explain left her in a state of numbness and apathy. She ended up back in jail where she began to see that punishment wasn’t helping.

She vowed to remain open and aware and from that promise to herself, transformation blossomed. As she grew, so too did her understanding. She realized that her previous assault was sex trafficking but discovered that other forms of exploitation she’d endured are just considered American capitalism. More than ten years later, Justice uses her time on street outreach to connect to other street-based women and femmes from a place of non-judgement and compassion. Her life has changed, but the ways society stigmatizes and criminalizes survival and bodily autonomy haven’t.

It’s time to queer anti-trafficking. If you’ve been hungry for a different type of trafficking survival story; a queer survivor story or one rooted in harm reduction and non-carceral solutions, this is it. Trigger Warning is a book for those who are ready to complicate their understanding of survival and healing; to all who are seeking to know more about underground economies; and to everyone who knows that punishment doesn’t work and wants something different but might not know where to start, or how to continue, or where to end.

For updates on Trigger Warning’s publication, follow @Justice_writes on twitter and check out for more on harm reduction and anti-violence.

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