The Importance of the Survivor Leader Voice in Public Policy

In 2011, I graduated with a B.A. in Political Science with an emphasis on Public Policy and a minor in human rights from the University of California, San Diego. In choosing my educational goals, I recall asking myself, at over 40 years old, the question: “How can I make a difference for survivors of commercial sexual exploitation on a broader, more far-reaching scale?”  I decided to ditch the paralegal/law degree idea after trusted colleagues assured me that a law degree wasn’t necessary to read law and make recommendations for implementation from a survivor perspective. Albeit, I wasn’t sure because in 2000 when the TVPA passed and my boss dumped what looked like a ream of paper on my desk, the light bulb in my mind went off into an AHA moment. I realized I must go back to school and obtain higher education. In a moment, my life changed based on the realization that in order to have confidence in the policy area, education was imperative.

When I think about my decision to accrue a boat-load of student loans, spend a ton of resources and time studying to pursue the benefit of education, I reflect on the resources and sacrifices in areas of life-social, monetary, time, balancing family, friends, finances, and school.  I graduated in 2011 with a decent GPA, a sense of accomplishment and a new found confidence. When I speak to the women and girls I work with, I promote education and say, “Education is something nobody can take from you-you own it.” Education is empowerment and so worth the resource commitment.

In addition, I think about a story I heard on YouTube, told by survivor, Trisha Baptie. As the story goes, babies were flowing down the river. As the women were helping the babies, one woman goes to the top of the river  The group of women said, “wait we need your help here,” while the other woman continued to the top to figure out why these babies were in the river in the first place. I encourage you to listen to the 15 minute YouTube, Trisha’s words are powerfully profound. I strive to be that woman, encourage others to do the same, and ask why are we only providing Band-Aids to the problem and not truly solving it in the spirit of ending it.

In December 2012, I was nominated and accepted to speak at United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York City in preparation for the Commission on the Status (CSW57), which made history due to including the survivor voice at the UN level.  I spoke alongside survivors of various types of gender-based violence from around the globe to heads of countries and UN staff. I spoke on prostitution and sex trafficking; not my story, but from my subject matter expertise. The following year at CSW in March 2013, I attended CSW for the first time and met and reconnected with survivor leaders.  My world changed by establishing those vital connections. I joined various Survivor Leader groups where I let my policy flag fly high with confidence and pride. Guess what I got? A slew of backlash, comments like “get your policies out of here,” and controversy over everything imaginable. Well, Friends, commercial sexual exploitation in all its forms is a political issue.  Laws govern what types of sexual exploitation are legal or illegal in countries and what types of penalties are administered and to whom.

As many of you know, I am constantly working on letter campaigns.  You wouldn’t believe what that entails-more backlash, have you thought about this or that or our lawyers say this, why do you have others review your letters, are you aware this legislation could have this consequence? Yes, I take all that into consideration, all my work is peer-reviewed by experts and/or lawyers who have many more years experience than my 20+ years combating the commercial sex trade.  My education affords me the skill to understand and be aware of the unintended consequences, as we call it in public policy. Assured no harm, I run the campaigns, countless hours of answering questions, technology learnings and challenges, dealing with backlash and finally signed with accuracy, sealed with survivors at the forefront in all ways and sent with a sigh of relief. Sounds glamorous, doesn’t it?

I want to personally and sincerely thank who take the time to sign-on and put up with me cluttering your inbox.  Your voice matters! We are setting a precedent at the federal level and in some states that our voices must be at the table and we will accept no less.  To be current yesterday on April 11, 2018, the President signed the SESTA/FOSTA legislation.  We did that together with survivors, families, and allies!  Last month, New Hampshire killed a bill about studying legalizing prostitution—we did that too!  On March 15, 2018, I participated on a panel at UN headquarters alongside survivors and allies regarding prostitution and the #MeToo movement. These times and in these moments, we change hearts, minds, and culture.

Survivor community, I have stuck to my guns, I believe public policy has a critical place in the issue of the sex trade-in fact; the survivor voice has an imperative role. I know we make a difference when we send letters to legislators or visit their offices or testify on a bill. Ultimately, that difference matters for the individual being exploited right this moment. These individuals are the most important and determine what position I take. You see, I work for those who have not had the good fortune of exiting and no one else. In my mind and heart, the prostituted are at the forefront of my policy work. My hope and dream is that one day, they will not only survive but also thrive in whatever they choose to do after they exit.

Together WE can!

Autumn Burris is the Founding Director of Survivors for Solutions, a member of SPACE International, a Co-Founding Member of the Executive Council and Co-Chair of the Survivor Leader committee of World Without Exploitation and an Expert Consultant with OVC-TTAC.