What We Don’t See: A Closer Look at Sex Trafficking

With all the time I’ve spent thinking about sex trafficking lately, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised I had the dream I did last night. I was in a public space, wearing very little clothing, and someone was trying to buy me for sex. I kept trying to get away from this person but I had nowhere to hide. I woke up from this dream terrified.

Creative Commons License photo credit: TravelRendezvous

For me, this was just a dream. I could take few deep breaths and shake it off. But for millions of young girls in our world today, this is a reality they can’t just shake off and make go away. Sex trafficking is a horror of our modern world.

Girls are being sold across state lines, country borders and across continents all because there is a demand for girls to “have sex” with. I put sex in quotes because that’s what many think is happening in many brothels, but in reality what’s happening is rape. True, there are some age appropriate consensual sexual relations going on in exchange for money.

But most of what is happening in brothels around the world is rape.

I remember the first exposure I had to the idea of sex trafficking was a TV movie I saw years ago called Human Trafficking. I couldn’t get the movie and its images out of my head. I would walk around NYC imagining girls being locked away in some building just a few blocks from where I was teaching and going about my life. Since then, I have wanted to learn everything I could about it and, although I didn’t understand it at the time, I knew it was the issue that I was most called to study and immerse myself in.

In Cambodia, where sex trafficking is among the worst in the world, girls are being tortured and raped and starved every day. They are denied food if they don’t consent to allowing a man to use their bodies as they please. What is happening in Cambodian brothels is not just rape but torture, with girls being put in cages, burned, beaten with hands, guns, sticks, and metal rods.

Like any great atrocity in this world, there must be a root cause. There must be an underlying situation that leads to this. Yoga teaches us that we are all connected, that there are layers and layers underneath what we see at the surface. So when I look deeper at the reasons sex trafficking exists and how I can play a part in ending it, I have to look deeper than what meets the eye.

To put an end to trafficking, we should of course be rescuing girls and prosecuting pimps and men involved. But we have to look deeper than that to understand the reasons it exists in the first place. The fact is there is a a demand for young girls. If there is demand, pimps will continue to find a way to steal and sell innocent children. If there is demand, families will continue to sell their girls for money.

If we want to end trafficking for good, we have to address the issue of demand itself.


Why are men raping young girls, girls as young as 5 years old? How have they become so disconnected them themselves, their own hearts, their own sense of basic right and wrong? How can female brothel owners imprison other women and girls? What has happened to these men and women that make them think it is ok for this to happen?

And what about the fact that many girls are flat out sold to brothels by their families? What does it say about the state of our world that families are living in such dire poverty that they’re willing to sell their children for money?

In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge, a radical Communist group, terrorized Cambodia from 1975 – 1979, killing and torturing millions of people. A whole generation of people were left traumatized, displaced to the countryside, and poor as a result of the Khmer Rouges’s fatal regime.



According to the UN Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP),

“human trafficking has increased in Cambodia because of a number of factors, including poverty, socio-economic imbalance between rural and urban areas, increased tourism, lack employment, education, and safe migration; poverty being the most significant cause of trafficking.”

And the International Labour Organization says that

“the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge regime is still felt both psychologically and economically and plays a direct role in labor and sexual exploitation arising from ill-prepared migration.”

Poverty makes people desperate. Sometimes parents don’t know exactly what they are selling their daughters into, and other times they know but are just disassociated from the reality of it because they’re barely surviving themselves. A combination of extreme poverty, traumatization, and repeated cycles of abuse has left a group of men and women so disconnected from themselves that they see no wrong in torturing young girls.

Somaly Mam, a hero of mine, was sold into sex slavery when she was a young girl. A decade later when she managed to escape this life, she went right back into this environment and dedicated her life to saving girls with a similar fate. As part of Somaly Mam’s work, she not only rescue and helps girls reintegrate back into society, but has workshops with men to help them understand what is happening and the effects of their actions on these girls.

In order to stop the cycle of abuse, I believe we have take a look at our own fear, prejudices and anger at the perpetrators and be willing to work with them as well. I don’t expect this will be an easy thing, as I myself have trouble considering the abusers with anything but disgust. However, rescuing girls from brothels is not enough.

We have to be willing to help the abusers heal their own trauma if we want to see a real shift and an actual end to sex trafficking.

Somaly Mam’s workshops with men were doing just that. She was helping them to understand the consequences of their actions on these girls. The last I read, the workshops with men had to stop due to lack of funding. We have to look beyond the horrifying facts and statistics to understand why there is this demand in the first place. When we can do this, I believe, we can begin to address the underlying trauma that leads people to commit such horrible atrocities on others.

So I pose a question to all of you out there: Would you support programs that work with perpetrators in order to eliminate human trafficking? What do you think are the root causes behind human trafficking, and why do you it’s now happening more in the US?

Posted by:

- who has written 3 posts on Yoga Modern.

Heather Snyder is the Regional Leader for Off The Mat Into The World in NYC. She is a conscious activist, birth doula, and teacher of The Alexander Technique, pilates, and yoga. She brings together communities of inspired, empowered, like minded people to explore possibilities of what a community can create together. Heather is committed to the work of bringing awareness of sex trafficking to the yoga community as well as to mainstream America. In January 2012, Off The Mat NYC is partnering with the Somaly Mam Foundation to launch the Yoga Freedom Project. This project is a monthlong campaign in the yoga community that will raise awareness and funding to put an end to human trafficking. If you would like to get involved, you can read more on the OTM-NYC website or email Heather directly at offthematnyc@gmail.com.

13 Responses

  • Michelle W. says:

    Thank you for taking on such an important issue. I agree with you that the key is to engage with the offenders- and using a restorative justice model to break the cycle for good. By engaging all of the stakeholders and digging away at the layers and layers of trauma and abuse, perhaps relationships and roles can be transformed.

  • Heather, I am a little more then half way done with Somaly Mam's book. This morning after reading, still in shock and horror of her life story…I walked over to the table to mindlessly drop the book down and I stopped myself. I couldn't "drop" it…instead I gently stood it up and displayed it. Somaly and all the other women and children mentioned in that book have been too disrespected to even have this book mindlessly "dropped". I think many of us who do not know how to handle such a severe situation, even after gathering knowledge on the topic, often "drop it" or walk away because it's too heavy and we just don't know what to do. Maybe because we think "I am only one person – what can I possibly do?" Or maybe because we're too afraid to imagine that something like sex trafficking still exists (or exists at all for that matter). And so it continues. I think it is FEAR that fuels much of what is going on – I only hold the awareness on the topic from what I've read so far in Somaly's book – but I sense there is fear in the families that sell or trade these young girls – they are desperate and they want to survive and maybe this is the only way they see possible because of their culture and upbringing. There is extreme fear in the girls who do not know how to escape this life or flat out can't – especially in Cambodia where they are taught to stay mute or they will be beaten and raped. And I believe there is even fear in the men that abuse – where are they coming from? Where have they been mistreated that they are perpetrating the cycle? And while yes, they make me sick, too – what is fueling their fear?
    So, would I support programs that work with perpetrators in order to eliminate human trafficking? Absolutely, because if you never get to the root of the problem, how will it ever stop? Somaly is doing such amazing work saving thousands of girls. She is one person who isn't afraid. She is a living example of how one person can change the wold.
    And Heather, so are you. Thank you for sharing her story with me and SO many others. Thank you for making me aware.

  • Chelsea says:

    Fantastic post, Heather. Thank you so much for being willing to speak from such a personal place on this.

    We've talked about this a lot one-on-one, but I wanted to comment here nonetheless and just mention the fact that we also have an epidemic of domestic trafficking happening right beneath our noses. I work with girls at a local detention center, and the majority of them are victims of sex trafficking. This is an issue that hurts close to home. I get tears in my eyes just reading your article.

    One thing I learned that asbolutely astounded me when I started working at the center is that in many states of the US, the only way the police can get children caught up in sex trafficking away from their pimps is to charge them with prostitution. That means young girls — maybe 13 or 14 years old — are branded as sex offenders before they've even reached the age of consent. It's a terribly complex and frustrating situation, because to get these kids off the streets authorities have to charge them with a crime. So at least legally, we're telling our victims they're offenders.

    • Chelsea says:

      Our group has been so affected by our work at the center that we've started getting very involved in the prevention and aftercare sides of things. In Texas, theyare starting to offer "John's Classes" which are kind of like the DWI classes that are offered to reduce jail time — except it's for men who have picked up children for sex. Kind of like the workshops you mentioned Somaly Mam used to offer. I am having a hard time, because part of me wants to jump right in… Maybe we should be offering yoga at these John's classes as well? Like you say, the cycle of abuse will just continue to perpetuate itself if we don't start dealing with the underlying cause… like the trauma these men have probably experienced. But another part of me wants to run 200 mph the other way. Would I support programs that work with perpetrators? Absolutely. Would I be able/willing to be involved with them myself? I'm still trying to figure out the answer to that question.

      • Chelsea says:

        Whether it's happening on the other side of the world or right here in our own backyard, I think this is a trend we as a community cannot continue to ignore. Yes, the reality is painful, but we do not have to be merely helpless observers to the crimes. We can step out of our safe little yoga studios (and safe they are, let them be our sanctuaries) and into the spaces where people need a hand. Maybe we give a hand by contributing money to organizations combatting trafficking overseas, maybe we do it by becoming a mentor for an at-risk young kid in our own community. Maybe we even tell our government officials that we want treatment programs for perpetrators to integrated into the prison system. No matter the avenue, action is necessary. Now.

        Thank you, thank you, thank you for being courageous enough to bring this issue to light in the yoga world. And for speaking so articulately about your own experience. Much love.

  • dezengo says:

    I have wanted to write something about this for so long … but the words … they just do not come to me. It hurts to think, to SEE what is going on all around – and feel so helpless to assist these women and children. Most or maybe I should say "many" do not want to open their eyes. They do NOT want to use their voice on a subject that is "tainted" and not sparkly & beautiful. Sex Trafficking … is not PRETTY. Nothing about it is pretty or nice or healthy or SANE. I teach yoga and I have tried to write from a place of love .. balance and peace … but this angers me and I cannot understand (who / what / where / when) about this subject – because there is no sane logical explanation. I do NOT want to hear, " I was abused as a child myself!" We have seen too many cases of the abused child growing up to be a Healthy & loving adult –> Changing the world for others, especially for their OWN children. There is no excuse and if these people are mentaly ILL – then they need to be institionalized and NOT be allowed to reproduce! Sadly, would this be about 50% of our planet population? Could we even afford to put all the sickos away to protect innocents? Is that the answer? I don't think so, but I certainly do NOT know how to protect humantiy from other HUMANS. Technically, these people are no longer human in my book. If you can commit such atrocities … you have already lost your humanity. Thank you again for speaking out. I am sharing this. Love & Endless Light, deZengo

  • Nicole Brown says:


    Your compassion for the perpetrators as well as the victims will change the world. You are so right that both are being wronged by desperation and poverty. Thank you for sharing your passion and allowing to become aware!

  • Holly Meyers says:

    Hey Heather. I just read your post about Trafficking. I like that you state the facts, pose your point of view, then ask for ours. Sadly, this is a subject that I know too much about. I'm not in the position to say why, however. I will say that, in my opinion, you hit the nail on the head by pinpointing that men (and women) who desire, watch porn of and rape young girls (and boys) are ill, and need help. Many of those men and women were, themselves, sexually or somehow traumatized at some point. The cycle of unresolved trauma in our world, I believe, causes much of the world's injustices. So yes, I think it's important to work with the offenders, and I think they deserve the help. I believe in every human's ability to recover and transform. You are also spot-on regarding poverty's role in this cycle. We have to choose where our energy will be the most effective, and lend our hand and heart there. Thanks for the great article. Please keep writing!

    • dsunshine says:

      –Apple-Mail-100–73387675 Content-Transfer-Encoding: quoted-printable Content-Type: text/html; charset=us-ascii approve

  • natandilana says:

    Yes, yes, yes. Wonderfully written, Heather. It's so easy to think, "Oh, that's so terrible, and so massive, there's nothing I can do, that's just the way the world is." The tragedy is the continual cycle of abuse- the abused learn to believe that this is the way of the world, this is how people behave and function to survive, and often in order to survive the abuse one can grow up to become an abuser. Like any cycle you wish to break, it must be combated with love from both sides – for both the victims and the perpetrators. Despite the horror of their acts, abusers are still human beings with broken hearts acting from a deeply disturbed psyche that has become so distorted it's not sure it recognizes the right way anymore. And how difficult, then, to send love to someone who does something that is absolutely disgusting and abhorrent. Who knows what lies underneath the horror? Chelsea, in her comment above, notes that she doesn't know if she's personally able to work with the perpetrators, and that's beautiful and absolutely good and well. Not every person is equipped to help people who have done really terrible things. But every one of us has a contribution to give to helping change the world's mentality regarding sex trafficking, from raising awareness regarding the issue to maybe being so beautifully blessed to be able to work with victims. That is our power: Our enlightenment, our understanding, and our love can be used as best as we know how. That might mean having to overcome your disgust to be able to work with someone who has done something that's a crime against humanity, that might mean having a nightmare and sharing your experience of that nightmare with the world through your writing…Being blessed to have that privilege to love means we have the power to combat the things that horrify us.

  • Carol Horton says:

    Very thought provoking post. I think that you're asking the right questions: what's the source of the demand and how can we stop it? I agree with the value of working with perpetrators, definitely (although, like Chelsea, I can't see myself being up to the task). But I also feel that it's very difficult to change people deeply, quickly, and on a massive scale – each individual takes much time and care, and even then may not be open to change. Therefore I also think that to the extent it's possible, simply having stronger deterrents through tougher criminal sanctions is really needed. I'm sure there are all sorts of political obstacles in the way, but nonetheless. Many men will do what they can get away with. If they know that there's possibly a big price to pay, many will think twice and back away.

  • Amanda says:

    trying to type through the tears… heart wrenching