Lauren Hersh began her legal career as an intern at the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG), representing women in domestic violence cases. She later worked at the Brooklyn DA’s office prosecuting domestic violence cases, and at that point recognized that her legal calling was in the arena of combating violence against women and girls.
For 5 years, Lauren became the Domestic Violence Prosecutor in the Brooklyn DA’s office, focusing on sexual violence cases, including assault and murder. She tells the story of how stumbling upon a case became a game changer for her.
A young woman of 18 walked into her office with police paperwork that pointed to her abusive boyfriend and the body bruises she sustained. When Lauren began asking her some questions, the young woman shut down. Lauren was confused and took time to think about the situation and realized she may have been asking the wrong questions and making the wrong assumptions, maybe even silencing her. Lauren needed to re-frame the problem. After asking more open-ended questions, Lauren learned that this woman’s abuser was once her boyfriend and had become her pimp and trafficker.
Lauren knew little about trafficking in the US. At the time, she thought trafficking involved smuggling women across borders. What Lauren did know was that if this happened to a young American-born woman in Brooklyn, she could be pretty sure this wasn’t an isolated case. Lauren suspected there were many other women who suffered from a societal misunderstanding of the signs of trafficking.
Lauren began studying trafficking cases from the organized crime unit and rackets division. No one was talking about these kind of cases. For a year she listened and learned about how to prosecute these cases.
Lauren left the DA and went to work at Equality Now, a global human rights organization for gender equity, as a Director handling their US trafficking cases. From there, Lauren worked at Sanctuaries for Families, focusing on local trafficking.
Lauren recognized that there was great work being done all over the US in direct services, the policy front, messaging, shaping laws and prosecuting gender violence. However, no one was bringing the work together to leverage partnerships, to be efficient and impactful. In October of 2016, World Without Exploitation (WorldWE) was launched to develop a national coalition of organizations to combat violence and sexual exploitation.
To date, WorldWE has 120 organizations from around the country working together to combat human trafficking and sexual exploitation. They are working on many fronts, including the policy front. WorldWE brought people together on January 11th, 2018 with 100 key leaders and partners, including many survivors, to the Hill to lobby for PassSESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act).
WorldWE is also working on the communications front. They work with the Voices and Faces Project to help them ‘market the movements’ to effectively communicate messaging around these complex issues. WorldWE has an extraordinary survivor leadership team that guides their perspectives on communication, policy and legislation. The survivors guide their work on every level.
WorldWE connects the dots on these issues, with messaging that sexual violence and trafficking does not happen in a silo, but in a culture that normalizes this kind of behavior. This includes the early messages that our children get in the media, online, in classrooms and on playgrounds.
Lauren says it is so essential that the current #MeToo movement move into the mainstream. This is the time to seize this collective desire to act and change. The message has to be clear that its not just about these celebrities, “we all have to do our part for long lasting change.”
People are craving information and asking questions, like, what can I do? Lauren suggested many ways people can act. You can go to your place of work and ask if there are clear, concrete and progressive policies about sexual harassment, or go to your schools and ask if there are educational programs for students, call Congress and urge your representative to vote for SESTA and hold web sites accountable.
Personally, Lauren is leading many workshops with young people to educate boys and girls from elementary school to college; about social media and gaming sites for the youngest ones, to pornography and solicitation for the older students. It is important to discuss the inherent inequality in the system, those who are purchasing sex and those who are being purchased, recognizing the inequality between gender, race and class.
Recently, WorldWE created a powerful PSA on SESTA with celebrities Amy Schumer, Seth Meyers and others as a communal call for action and to create awareness about sex trafficking, #I am Jane Doe.
Lauren says its critical to look at this online culture. Girls are being preyed upon by mainstream social media like Snap Chat, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. We need to heighten awareness that this is how exploiters are reaching young people. Online exploitation has shifted the menace from the street to peoples’ homes, recruiting and trafficking the sales of boys and girls, young women and men.
Lauren explains, we can’t just be concerned about children and not young adults. She said its vital that we recognize that once children reach the age of 18, exploitation continues and they need our advocacy and support as well.
Lauren emphasized, we can’t do this work without the survivors’ voices. They are the ones who will inform us about what is going to work and help and what isn’t. It is a mistake to just listen to survivors to hear their stories; we must have them at the helm of the actions we seek to make to create change.