Night Shifts Newsletter No. 11

Do male victims of human trafficking and former sex workers need more attention and recovery programs?

Russell G. Wilson describes himself as “a person with lived experience of human trafficking.” He is not the biggest fan of the term “survivor” and typically turns down opportunities to tell his story of being trafficked as a child and as a young man, if he senses that the situation is in any way exploitive.

“In many cases, organizations want you to get up on stage and share your story,” he explains. “That creates a problematic space for survivors and retraumatizes them by exploiting their trauma for either financial benefit or to emotionally manipulate an audience, so I choose not to participate in that.”

Instead, he will talk about his life only when he controls the event. “I will tell my story when I own the stage,” he says. “When I’m up there, that’s my space, and I can tell the story any way I’m comfortable doing that.”

Interviews are a different matter, which we discuss before beginning ours. If he’s speaking as an expert in the field of human trafficking, he’s happy to answer related questions.

“But if you ask me questions about my story, I’m going to shut you down,” says the native Californian with a hearty laugh. “If you’re just trying to pornographize my trauma, no, you’re not going to use me that way.” 

Russell grew up in the Golden State “a product of the Renaissance Fair, kind of hippy-carny, drug culture of the ‘60s and ‘70s.” These days he resides, fittingly, off the grid on 42 acres of Northern Sonoma County land surrounded by the Redwood Forest, not a farm but with a horse, a goat, his dog and the one chicken that the fox hasn’t gotten yet. In his free time, he’s also a woodworker and finish carpenter.

We then have an astute discussion of his experiences that led him to become an expert with lived experience and a deep and far-reaching commitment to anti-trafficking. Russell G. Wilson’s work focuses on the belief that individuals can transcend surviving trafficking and go on to thrive as he has. At 55, Russell can look back on a long, arduous journey toward healing, self-empowerment and achieving a healthy relationship with his trauma.

Familially trafficked as a young boy by his mother, he was later pimp-trafficked on the streets of the Tenderloin neighborhood in San Francisco. Finding himself in desperate straights, he was easily trafficked as a young man doing survival sex. In his early 30s, he escaped the pimps but remained in the world he knew; he continued doing sex work as a professional dom. He did that for a few years, but it “opened up a whole new Pandora’s Box” of drug abuse and addiction. By then, he was a young father, too.

“Existing like that totally deteriorated my life to the point where I lost everything and had to reassess everything,” he recalls. “Hitting rock bottom caused me to address the choices I was making because they were not just impacting me anymore, they were impacting my children. That served as the key to pull me out of it.”

He got clean in 2005, but it still took him a few years to recover his life to the point where, at 38, 39, he could proactively engage in the direction and choices he was making in life. He decided to go back to school and enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, where he studied from 2013-16, earning Bachelors Degrees in Cultural Anthropology and South and Southeast Asian Studies. He then spent many years living and traveling throughout Southeast Asia. 

“I lived in India for three years,” he adds. “Those experiences gave me a lot of tools that I needed to transcend my trauma.”

While attending Berkeley, he met a woman graduate student who was a survivor and seasoned anti-trafficking advocate. They got to know each other well enough that he felt safe revealing his history to her. She invited him to attend a couple of community meetings. One day, during a Q&A portion of the program, he said it was all great information but why did he never hear anyone discussing all of the boys being trafficked? She responded that since only 2% of the survivor population is boys, we can’t afford to take resources from the girls for such a small group. 

Wrong answer for Russell.

“That just infuriated me,” he remembers. “I said, ‘No one is suggesting that we take anything away from anybody. It’s about being inclusive.’ That lit my fire and made my mission!”

That was early in 2013, and he’s been doing anti-trafficking work ever since. Today, Russell focuses on bringing his hard-earned insightful perspective to the issues that male trafficking victims and survivors face in their daily lives. As a public speaker or a trainer predominantly for county social work organizations and Child Protective Services agencies, his goal is always to help male victims “thrive and move past the exhaustive state of survival.” 

He also trains law enforcement at all levels from local to federal and has been consulted as an expert witness on court cases. For hospitals, he trains emergency room staff in how to recognize the signs and engage with people they suspect are being trafficked.

Because there aren’t a lot of men involved in the movement, he says – though the number is growing – he finds himself in relatively high demand to provide the male perspective. Societal pressures on men to never be vulnerable can make it more difficult for them to disclose that they have been raped, as is always the case when someone is trafficked.

Recently, Russell has been working with a small organization, The Cool Aunt Series, which got funded to engage with foster parents, social workers and foster youth to provide a preventive level of awareness. Created by Rachel Thomas, M.Ed., the educational series gives the youth tools to recognize predators and prevent them from being exploited and trafficked. “Auntie Rachel,” who herself is a trafficking survivor, and Russell know that foster kids are at a 50% higher rate of being trafficked than non-foster youth. 

“They are a highly vulnerable population that represent a popular target for traffickers,” he says.

Ultimately, like many who are anti-trafficking advocates, Russell takes a compassionate approach to anyone who works in the sex industry.

“I don’t think anybody engaged in sex work, whether it’s forced or by choice, should ever be criminalized, penalized or shamed for it, since shame can be one of the most powerful ways of harming someone in their healing process,” he says. “While I don’t agree with the choice to do sex work, I respect their right to make that choice.”

Russell believes that the choice to engage in sex work usually comes from a place of harm in that they may have suffered abuse at some point or are in an impoverished situation where it becomes a choice made out of desperation and a need for survival.

“I don’t think that emotionally, spiritually healthy people have that choice as an option on the table,” he says. “If there are one or two people who were not abused or hurt who are doing that work, fine. But I cannot change my position based on a small percentage of a population of people who are coming from a place of harm and trauma, and I truly believe it is a trauma decision.”

His fear is that legalizing or decriminalizing sex work will only increase the demand for sex workers, giving additional incentive to pimps or traffickers to use force, fraud or coercion to take advantage of vulnerable individuals. He has researched the Nordic Model, for example, and done some work internationally in the field, and he has seen how an increase in trafficking can occur where sex work has been legalized.

Based on his lived experience with the world of the sex industry, he sees it as a supply and demand issue. He believes telling men, who are the most common buyers of sex, and society that it is okay to commodify and objectify another human being only exacerbates the problem.

“We need to hold men and buyers accountable for what they are doing,” Russell says. “Perpetuating this toxic masculine viewpoint of it’s okay to purchase sex from another human being because it’s a fair exchange is a very flawed perspective. So, I am all for buyer accountability.” 

Russell remains a firm believer in meeting people where they are. 

“We need to get them the help and support whenever they are ready to move away from that choice,” he concludes about sex workers who may opt to find different work. “We need to be there for them 100% and help them find those other options.”

Next Up: Kate D’Adamo, consultant at Reframe Health and Justice in Baltimore, MD, which provides strategic consulting, training, technical assistance and public education at the intersection of healing justice, harm reduction and criminal legal reform and social justice related to race, gender, bodily autonomy, health equity, and labor.