SURVIVING SEX TRAFFICKING – Review by April Neale

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The documentary Surviving Sex Trafficking is directed and produced by Sadhvi Siddhali Shree, with actor Alyssa Milano, Jeannie Mai of The Real, and musician Jay Jenkins as executive producers. This sobering personal account from Shree of her abuse at age six, unburied and brought up through meditation, is in part a by-product of her interviews and focus with three women specifically as the production team travels Houston, Hungary, Miami, Las Vegas, New Jersey, India, the Philippines, and Ethiopia.

They chronicle nonprofits that help impoverished women escape life and show how prevalent sex trade and predators are with a chilling stop in Hungary as one nurse, a rare survivor, is propositioned for sex work by three men caught on undercover camera. There are few happy endings and remarkable tales of the survivors who came forth and shared how they extricated themselves from imprisonment and harrowing abuse.

To grasp the severity of this issue, first, understand that there are forms of human trafficking. Some traffickers prey on women, girls, and boys just for the sex trade, webcam work, pornography, live sex shows, and prostitution. All commercial sex performed by an adult or minor against their will due to force, fraud, or coercion is in this realm. Then, some people are taken and forced into labor and or domestic servitude.

Who are these monsters who take people and turn them into modern-day enslaved people? Traffickers are masterful narcissists and exploiters of fragile people. They are opportunists and experts at seeing the vulnerable and knowing how to manipulate and persuade, brainwash and befriend early in the game, and some are kidnapped viciously and imprisoned from the beginning. The slower intentional process is grooming. Many teens and women report that this lured them into sex trafficking situations. It can be a family member or known person, and usually, the people targeted have weak familial structures surrounding them, making it easy for the criminal to bend a person to their will,

The film does an excellent job at having three women explain their paths, how they slowly realized they were in a no-win and no escape situation, and the event that allowed them to escape this life. It is remarkable, as only 1% of sex trafficked victims make it out successfully. Social media has exacerbated this part of the trafficker’s process with promises of Insta-fame and lies playing on a person’s emotional state by using trust-building tricks to get the victim to buy what they are promising.

Sometimes the victim has immediate needs met, furthering this cement that will eventually lock them into a life no longer theirs. Once the Venus Fly Trap has shut, the traffickers usually isolate their victims, making it nearly impossible for the victims to reach out to others for help or to escape. Control abuse and physical violence are the weapons the traffickers employ to stoke fear, making the victim believe they have no one and no recourse to get out.

Sadhvi Siddhali Shree, an Iraq war veteran, is in a spiritual place, a monk who has found her purpose in saving others and hearing them out. Along with Sadhvi Anubhuti, the director of photography and co-producer, these Jain female-monk-filmmakers hail from spiritual retreat center Siddhayatan Tirth based in Dallas, Texas. Their film work reveals the scope of the problem, as 45 million people are estimated to be enslaved in Human Trafficking, a 150 billion dollar game, and 99% of these victims never escape. Death is waiting for victims once their usefulness to the trafficking captors is over.

The perps do not identify themselves as traffickers, of course. They masquerade as a life coach, flattering admirer, friend, or some patriarch/matriarch who understands and can help the intended victim. The universal thread connecting these women throughout the film is a shared sense of pain and having to cope with a loss of personal agency. Their lives were interrupted and nearly extinguished if not for a lucky break or moment they could run with just the clothes on their back.

We head to the red light district in Mumbai, where victims are sold multiple times and must pay to raise children and work. Sometimes, their children are swept right into the abusers’ fold and exploited and raped for profit.

This film is a clarion call for decent men who see this for what it is and can join with women to embrace the victims and believe victims—primarily women—targeted. It is a conversation that leaders and everyday people can have and educate others, as that one thing, education, seems to be one of the best defenses in a life snatched away. Culturally, other countries are more challenging for women to live and navigate if they are alone or without any education or means. This situational danger is brought home in Shree’s footage in Ethiopia, India, and the Philippines. Terrible trafficking crimes happen in the USA, too, usually rooted in depressed socio-economic locations and dysfunctional familial situations.

The stories are gutting. Shree brings us to the Ellilta Women At Risk nonprofit in Ethiopia, where Haymanot recalls being raped three times at age 12, then having all her top teeth knocked out by an abusive man. Angie from Houston was nearly beaten to death by her pimp Mally Mal. Kendra from Miami ran for her life when a moment presented, later had a son that she claims saved her life from addiction, and discovered “Situational training” and created the Liberation Team Nonprofit. And Rachel, from Houston’s biker dad, prostituted women, including her mother. She survived sexually abusive foster care and eventually became a nurse and talked to survivors. Rachel does some incredible undercover work in Hungary, revealing how pervasive this issue is worldwide.

This documentary is an academic life preserver for any children to see and should encourage parents to foster serious life lesson dialogue with kids who already grow up too quickly these days, so sucked into the Internet where danger and inappropriate content lurks near every click. Vigilance, education, frank dialogue, and a societal support structure (schools, social services, and law enforcement) that can aid victims in proactive and fast-moving rescues can chip away at this growing crime.

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April Neale

April Neale is an entertainment writer and television critic. Neale has read her work both on NPR and 'Spoken Interludes', and has previously written for various industry trades and entertainment websites. Neale has written for Monsters and Critics since 2003, and is an editor and main contributor to the TV, Film and Culture (formerly Lifestyle) sections.