Will hearing more sex trafficking survivors’ voices change people’s minds about decriminalization?
As a survivor, Ashley Chesney is confident that hearing the accounts of victims of sex trafficking will help people make up their own minds about whether or not to legalize or decriminalize sex work. She holds that position because she believes the great majority of women (and men) working as prostitutes or sex workers do not want to be doing it. Those who choose to do sex work, she says, comprise only a small percentage of the sizeable numbers of people working in the sex trades.
“Nine out of ten survivors you talk with have some sort of sexual abuse in their background, high Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) test scores and so forth,” states Chesney, executive director of Set Free Monterey Bay. According to their website, the Christian organization was established in 2018 “to assist adult women sex trafficking survivors to find healing in a Christ-centered, restoration home and to educate the Monterey Bay community about human trafficking.”
Ashley continues: “My exploitation didn’t happen until I was an adult, but I was sexually abused as a child by my neighbor, a friend of my brother, and my life experiences from that point on were altered.”
She acknowledges that she did not have many adverse experiences besides that one significant trauma and says she actually came from a very loving home, attended a good high school and lived in a nice community. That one turning-point trauma, however, sent here spiraling downward into a dark abyss of self-medication to cope.
“That alcohol and drug abuse led to a lot unsafe scenarios, like multiple sexual assaults before I turned 18,” she recalls. “Then at 18, I met my trafficker.”
Her trafficker groomed the young Orange County Californian into focusing on her physical appearance to make herself more attractive and sexually alluring. He was older and convinced her to engage in various sexual activities with him, sometimes with other people, and then to work as an escort.
“I was sold on the idea that even though I was home safe with my family that my purpose in life was for sex and to be desirable,” she remembers. “I entered into a high-end escort service in Monterey County and never saw the woman who ran it. We were asked to drop off a percentage of our money every night, and eventually they began keeping all of the money.”
Next, her trafficker encouraged her to perform in porn films.
“We had meetings with people in that industry,” she says. “But I would always chicken out before walking onto a set, so even though I didn’t know it at the time, I believe in God, and things could have been much worse than they ended up.”
She had to turn in her cell phone, share a car, share an apartment with him. She was 18. She didn’t realize he’d been making money off of her until she saw the prices on the online advertisements. It was 2009, and the anti-trafficking movement was just getting started. Ashley had never even heard the term “human trafficking” yet.
“Obviously, my addiction played a part,” she says. “In talking with other survivors, you realize that you turn to substances to cope with what is happening, and that makes you a vulnerable target to an unsafe person.”
Deeply entrenched in the drug-fueled, sex trade lifestyle, Ashley moved to Missouri for a time before relocating to Atlanta and working in the adult entertainment industry as a dancer at a strip club, where she recalls seeing a lot of sex trafficking activity.
“I know now that I entered into it with a false sense of empowerment,” she says. “I was choosing, I was making my own money. I was taking from other people what I felt was stolen from me, until my trafficker came into the club and said, ‘You’re leaving with me.’ So, I left with him and began dating drug dealers and living this chaotic life and getting arrested multiple times.”
She had fallen so deeply into her trafficker’s control to the point of being trauma-bonded that when she was finally arrested, tried and convicted on 16 felony drug charges and one count of firearm possession, she felt duty-bound to protect him. She was sentenced to prison. There, she befriended a fellow inmate who had committed her time to serving God through a prison ministry. The woman, who is still in prison, guided Ashley into finding religion, which, along with being incarcerated, she credits with saving her life.
“While inside, I was definitely rehabilitated, and I fell in love with Jesus,” Ashley reveals. “I had no religious upbringing, but I got hope from it. Everything changed for me, including ending my addiction, and my life began to get restored. I wrote a letter to God saying I want to work with special needs kids and with girls coming out of the sex trade. But I didn’t have the appropriate words yet, the language that we use now to help them.”
Fortunately, Ashley was released in 2017 after serving only four years of a 15-year sentence. A few months after exiting, she got a job working with special needs kids despite her record, which she considers “the craziest thing,” and she met her mentor, Carissa Phelps, through her church. A fellow survivor, author of her memoir Runaway Girl and now attorney, Phelps hired Ashley to work with Runaway Girl Inc. that was part of her platform for survivors of all forms of human trafficking, sexual exploitation and homelessness.
“Carissa gave me a space and a voice in the anti-trafficking movement,” Ashley says. “I learned how to speak in front of people, not just to tell my story, but to educate and train law enforcement.”
She had begun walking through the tough neighborhoods of Monterey County to distribute gift bags to girls working the streets and talk with them, though still uncertain of how to help them. However, she knew inside that was what she was supposed to be doing.
In 2018, Ashley attended a local conference where she heard a talk given by law enforcement and people who ran a safe home for trafficking survivors in Illinois, Eden’s Glory. They discussed starting a similar organization in Monterey Bay to address the sizable challenges with prostitution and sex trafficking there. Ashley introduced herself afterward as a survivor. That began the birth of Set Free Monterey Bay, the organization which she helped co-found and now serves as Executive Director.
The organization provides educational programming in schools and training for survivors and law enforcement. Ashley often spends time doing street outreach with police, talking with women working “the track.” Though it’s difficult to help women in that setting because they are closely watched by their pimps – sometimes even via FaceTime on their phones – and they have been brainwashed as she was to believe they are empowered to make money and buy material goods, she has gotten some self-referrals. Set Free Monterey Bay is now well-enough established to receive referrals, too.
While she finds it difficult to compete against the material possessions their traffickers can groom young women with, Ashley says she does see the impact of helping the girls realize their own self-worth through her organization’s various programs. That’s another reason she believes in the power and effectiveness of amplifying survivors’ voices to explore solutions and legal approaches to fighting trafficking.
“If we allow decriminalization for a small percentage of people who choose sex work, then all of the other survivor voices that are sill in the life of exploitation get silenced,” she says. “It’s hard enough to gain data on this population, let alone have police respond to a call through what’s now a legal service. The violence that these ladies experience, especially at the street level, is significant. So making that legal would allow buyers to be more aggressive, since there would be less consequences because police would be completely hands-off. Survivors and police need a repaired relationship, not no relationship at all.”
Today, Set Free Monterey Bay has five staff members and runs a two-year restoration home for trafficking survivors. The house can hold up to six people, but Ashley says four is their ideal capacity. Safe housing for human trafficking survivors remains a significant challenge nationwide.
In 2021, Ashley’s personal recovery took a big leap when Georgia enacted Senate Bill 435. Known as “The Survivors First Act,” it created remedies for survivors of sex or labor trafficking to clean up their Georgia criminal history. She was able to expunge her record and received full vacature in 2022.
This May, she will graduate with a degree in Collaborative Health and Human Services and is double majoring in Social Work and Non-Profit Management. As part of an internship with United Way Santa Cruz County she worked on a project to make judges more conscious of being trauma-informed when dealing with human trafficking survivors; she also did a consultation with the National Center for Youth Law that focused on making judges more aware and trauma-informed to work more effectively with youth survivors of trafficking.
Ashley also serves as a survivor consultant for Monterey County and is a member of the California Child Welfare Council’s Commercially Sexually Exploited Children (CSEC) Action Team.
“I do these jobs because we serve girls who are 18 and over in our safe home, but the county job covers 18 and under, so that I am helping both age groups,” she explains. “I want to provide what I didn’t have when I was younger. If I can stop any of these youth before they experience trafficking or exploitation, that is 100 times better and easier than trying to undo what a trafficker does to them. So that’s my life’s work.”
Next Up: Marjan Wijers, who is an experienced consultant, trainer and researcher in the field of human trafficking, violence against women, women’s rights, sex workers’ rights and human rights. One of the pioneers of the Dutch Foundation against Trafficking in Women, she was closely involved in the development of Dutch policies on trafficking.