Ep. 027 – Real Escape from the Sex Trade (REST) – Amanda Hightower

Ep. 027 – Real Escape from the Sex Trade (REST) – Amanda Hightower

This week’s guest is Amanda Hightower, the Executive Director of the Seattle non-profit Real Escape from the Sex Trade (REST). REST’s mission is to provide pathways to freedom, safety and hope for victims of sex trafficking and people involved in the sex trade.

Highlights From This Episode:

  • RESTs mission is to “provide pathways to freedom, safety and hope for victims of sex trafficking & people involved in the sex trade”.
  • They are a faith-based non-profit doing direct services providing opportunities for people who have been trafficked in the sex trade locally to have a place where they can escape the sex trade and start to rebuild their life and pursue their goals.
  • Many people are shocked to find out that sex trafficking in Seattle is such a problem, as many of us assume it’s something that happens “out there” in foreign countries and such.
    • Some Seattle stats on sex trafficking:
      • 300-500 youth trafficked in Seattle each night.
      • 3,000+ adults trafficked in Seattle each night.
  • How did you become aware of the issue in the Seattle area? – In 2007, Amanda was working with Homeless Youth and Young Adults and was doing street outreach to sexually exploited women on N. Aurora. As she was working with these woman involved in prostitution, she realized that the barrier was so significant for them to be able to leave the sex trade that everyone she talked to wanted out but didn’t have the opportunity or means to get out. Often times, there was a trafficker or pimp keeping them physically or emotionally bound. She felt that they needed to do something different then what they were doing for just generally homeless youth or people experiencing drug addiction, so they could provide better opportunities for them to exit the sex-trade.
  • What led you from just being aware of the needs of woman in the sex-trade and their desire to exit it, to founding REST?
    • in 2008, she moved from the Eastside to downtown Seattle and got involved with a church that had more of a “mercy and social justice vibe” to it and brought this need for outreach to woman involved in prostitution and in 2009, they started doing direct outreach on the streets, in strip clubs and bikini barista stands.
    • The initial goals of REST:
      • To build relationships with woman in the sex-trades and build trust.
      • Find out their needs.
      • Help them connect with resources.
      • In connecting them to resources, they also saw what resources worked, didn’t work and where there were gaps in the resources needed
        • Their growth became focused around what resources where needed and how to provide those.
  • Common themes and needs that they found woman in the sex-trades have:
    • A safe place to go, shelter, housing, beds.
    • Due to the layers and layers of trauma that come with being in the sex-trade… many woman also have a history of abuse prior to being exploited.
      • These layers of trauma can make adapting to mainstream services very difficult or services don’t know how to accommodate what this trauma recover looks like.
  • What did REST do in light of these needs?
    • They knew they needed to provide safe places for woman to go to where they could recover, ride the up & down waves of that recovery, be welcomed back even if they left because they know it takes a long time to recover.
    • They invited the woman whom they were serving to inform them about what they needed and what was and wasn’t working for them.
    • Coupled with the actual serving the woman, was a lot of research around all the aspects that often come into play… like drug addiction, physiological effects of this type of trauma, mental illness & how to provide the best quality of care that will be most effective and not just rely on the “good intentions” of their efforts.
  • They realized they needed to figure out a way to make a shelter space work for woman who were dealing with the specific trauma responses common in woman coming out of the sex-trade.
    • When someone experiences years and years of trauma, their brain gets stuck in “fight or flight” mode, so the littlest thing, even though not a danger, may trigger that response (so many conventional shelter situations don’t work for them… they may only stay for a night or two before they leave).
    • REST opened their 6 bed residential program in 2012, where woman can stay up to a year, where they each get their own room (long-term while in recovery).
    • REST opened their 7 bed emergency receiving center/shelter last month (Nov. 2016) to meet the immediate needs (short term while stabilizing).
  • The residential program is not a graduated program like Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission‘s (UGM) Re:novo house.
    • The woman who stay in these long-term shelter are likely in the very beginning of their recovery journey.
    • Instead of having classes to attend all day, they help them build their individualized program based on what they say is most important to them to work on… like education, getting a job or getting a child back, who may be in the system.
      • REST adapters their weekly schedule around what is most important to them to help them restore their sense of agency and control over their own lives.
      • Because the program is centered around what they want to do, it helps them want to stay in the program and shelter. When someone goes from years and years of chaos and crisis, it can feel really uncomfortable to be in a stable environment… it doesn’t feel normal.
      • The make sure their is trauma counseling and life-skills activities and survivor support groups.


The services that REST provides:

  • Street and text outreach – They still do some street outreach but have partnered with a technology company and now do mostly text outreach, as the majority of soliciting for prostitution has moved from the streets to online.
    • They are able to use technology to comb “personal escort” sites for the phone numbers of the “call girls” and send texts to them from one of their volunteers, who used to be in the sex-trade (currently they send out about 250 texts per week).
      • The text message will be something to the effect of, “Hi, I used to be in the sex-trade for x years, I’m out now. We serve individuals who are trying to get out of the life themselves and would love to chat if your interested or if you need anything.”
  • Community Advocates – They meet with woman out in the community, who are trying to get connected with services but don’t necessarily come to their drop-in center or call the hotline.
  • Emergency (short-term) and Residential (long-term) shelters / safe spaces.
  • Relocation services – Help someone move out of the area if their pimp or trafficker is local and posses a threat to them.
  • Prevention Team – Goes into juvenile detention centers and works with young boys and girls in the justice system who will learn from their team about gender based violence and do prevention work around exploration to help train young boys and girls to work agains exploitation… not just avoid it.
  • Quarterly community training – Geared towards raising awareness about the sex-trade and what they can do get involved with helping fight against the sex-trade and the elements that empower it (societal messages that encourage the objectification of woman, pornography, girls with low self-esteem, guys who don’t respect woman, ect).
  • Ambassador program – help inform and empower people to be able to carry forward the message and raise awareness in their workplace and community.


Current size and scope of REST:

  • 31 employees & around 50 volunteers
  • Serve 80-100 woman & sometimes boys per month.
  • Receive about 40 hotline calls per month.
  • Since REST started, they have worked with around 1,400 women.


Common Themes for woman who end up in the sex-trade:

  • One of the primary reasons they have seen woman get involved in the sex trade is because of an abusive relationship.
    • An older man approaches a younger and vulnerable younger woman or girl and sells this dream of a fantasy life together in a loving relationship, she actually believes they are in a romantic relationship and maybe she is running away from a dysfunctional or abusive home life or is in the foster system and so doesn’t really have any roots anymore.
      • The “relationship” makes her feel like she belongs, like she is somebody, like she is seen, loved and valued… sometimes for the first time and is promised all these things that she has not been able to have… so she gets swept up into this fantasy and promises of this dream.
    • It can be weeks or months down the road and then he’ll ask her to prostitute, “I just need you to do with one thing for me this one time”… and then it becomes a regular thing with the promise of, “this is how we are going to make our dreams come true even faster”.
  • There are numerous ways that he can coerce her into engaging in a commercial sex act and because of her emotional attachment to him, even if she doesn’t want to do it, there is such a connection to the idea of that dream someday coming true, that she’ll stay.
  • A lot of psychological coercion, manipulation and shame is used to keep her in this situation.
  • This isn’t always the story but it’s not uncommon.
    • Sometimes it’s a family member forcing their child to be involved in prostitution or actual forced servitude using kidnaping and drugs used to keep them in the life.
  • Because it is often a relationship (as mixed up and abusive as it is) that got them into this exploitive position… it will be a relationship that is able to get them out.
    • The main need they see with everyone they work with is the need for healthy trusting relationships. A sense of belonging. A sense of community. Having a meaningful purpose with other people again.
      • As these meaningful and fulfilling relationships gets stronger in their lives, there is less of a draw pulling on these woman back into a relationship with a trafficker.
  • Their need for economic stability… the ability for them to make money in a job.
  • In such a heavy and emotionally draining field of work, What keeps you going? – Those times we we get to walk around and see evidence of healing and recovery happening. When walking through their spaces and hearing laughter and bonding, she gets little glimpses of hope being restored. When she hears about their woman getting a job or getting their first car, they take the time to celebrate each of these milestones, as they are significant in these woman’s lives towards their own personal independence and self-sufficiency. Digging into her faith is also really important, as they do this work out of their faith convictions about how everyone is a child of God and image-bearers of God… worth of personal dignity and freedom.
    • Because the work of REST is faith driven, they want to make sure they don’t become the “saviors” of these woman. They recognize that they have a part to play in bringing opportunities of freedom, safety and hope and sharing hope and compassion to some of the most vulnerable people in our community but also recognizing that she is not the savior and will not be the one to solve this whole problem…
  • Additional events like Dressember are great in helping bring awareness to the existence and problem of sex-trafficking.
  • Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking (BEST) is a partner of RESTs – aligns and equips leaders to use the power of business to prevent human trafficking.
  • Pornography has largely become acceptable and mainstream in our culture and has had a huge negative impact on the culture’s attitudes regarding men objectifying woman.
    • The average age for boys to first view porn is 11 years old.
    • The nature of porn is addictive and leads people to need more and more extreme sex-acts to get the same effect and it does’t take long before the sex-acts get pretty violent and extreme and eventually the porn viewing isn’t enough and they desire to act out it out.
    • The young mail mind sees this and thinks this is normal, expected and what woman want… they expect to live this out sexually in their relationships. When they find out that the woman they are in relationships with are not ok with those sorts of aggressive and violent sex-acts… but they still want to play these acts out in real life, so purchasing sex is the next step when porn no longer does it for them. (Obviously not everyone who views porn is going to purchase sex but it is an on-ramp to this and fosters an unhealthy and violent attitude towards woman).
    • Plenty of former “porn star” actresses have come out about the damage that participating in porn has done to them and the effects it has.
    • It’s common to hear from girls and woman whom REST has worked with, that porn videos where used to “train” them to how they needed to act and what they needed to do… and even filming the prostitution and selling it as pornography.
    • All this to say that not all porn is between consensual adults or something the girls would be doing if they had other options.

What can I or the listeners do to help and make a difference in this?

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