As a young girl, Kate Price was a victim of sex trafficking.
She wasn’t living in Nigeria or Zimbabwe or some dark corner of the Soviet Union. No, Kate was raised here, in the safe, secure, modernized, enlightened United States of America.
And she was drugged, then peddled for sex.
It’s horrifying. Beyond disturbing. But, in Kate Price (and her extraordinarily brave voice), we have a woman willing to stand up and fight back against an evil that’s far more common than most people surely think. These days, Kate is a wife (she’s married to Christopher Price, the excellent sports scribe) , a mother and—most impressive—a research scientist and leading voice in the ongoing battle against the commercial sexual exploitation of children. Her blog is amazing, as is her Twitter feed. And, if you’re feeling charitable, I highly suggest supporting her dream and visiting her gofundme page.
This is the 175th Quaz. Most (but not all) of the first 174 were about entertainment in one form or another.
This is a story of bravery and resilience.
Kate Price, welcome to The Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Kate, I’m gonna start this by being honest. Before this interview, I pretty much thought of child sex trafficking as something that happens … elsewhere. Small African nations. Russian outposts. Then I read your riveting, heartbreaking story, and learned otherwise. Am I simply dumb and naïve, or is there a mass misconception of the issue?
KATE PRICE: You’re not dumb at all. Most people do not realize commercial sexual exploitation of children runs rampant throughout America. Unfortunately, the majority of exploited kids are rendered “invisible.” I was considered worthless in my community. We were very poor and I remember feeling that discrimination very early on. I loved going to church, but I didn’t have nice “church clothes” so I wasn’t accepted. I went to school with black eyes and teachers didn’t say a thing. That’s just what “White Trash” families did to each other. I felt disposable.
We imagine ourselves as a country that prioritizes children’s safety. Yet, in reality, we don’t. The top two risk factors for commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) are a history of child sexual abuse and poverty. Many people don’t know this but the United States is first among industrialized nations for child death from abuse and neglect. We are second among industrialized nations for kids living in poverty. We have created the “perfect storm” for sexually exploited children in America.
J.P.: On your website, you write, “In my early childhood and throughout my adolescence, an immediate family member sold me for sex in order to support his drug addiction. He sold me to men at truck stops, at parties, and within my own home.” I don’t even know what to ask, so I’ll go open-ended and ask you to expand and explain your childhood. How was this allowed to happen?
K.P.: Our household was ensnared in intergenerational cycles of violence, poverty, mental illness, and addiction. My exploiter was the son of the “town drunks” where he grew up and he was sexually abused as a child. My mother’s mother died suddenly when my mom was 16. Her father had sexually abused her and his second wife resented and, literally, hated my mother. My mother had wanted to go to college far away but was told by her father she could learn everything at the factory where she worked that she could learn in college.
Bottom line is my mother and I were trapped. My first memory is of being sexually abused by my exploiter in the back of a relative’s bar. I was pre-verbal, but I just remember feeling “shattered” afterward. The rest of the world was acting like nothing had happened but my world had changed forever. I also remember years of being taken out to our garage in the middle of the night where I was placed in the mechanic’s well under a car in our garage. I was covered with an oily blanket and men paid to have sex with me. My exploiter drugged me so I didn’t fight back. The exploitation continued in the garage as well as at truck stops and warehouse parties. I was told only “special” little girls got to have sex and go to “adult” parties. So I just thought this was normal, even though I knew in my gut that something was off.
This was allowed to happen because it happened in a private home under the care of the adults in the house. Abuse was—and still is—considered a private “family matter.” Janay Rice used that very term in a public statement to describe the assault by her then-fiance Ray Rice after the surveillance tape footage surfaced of him knocking her out cold in an Atlantic City casino.
J.P.: I think people struggle to understand children going through trauma. They look at them blankly, unsure what’s running through the head. So, Kate, when one is being sexually abused … sexually trafficked, what is she thinking? Do you know it’s wrong? Are you aware it’s not supposed to be? Is it about shutting up and surviving?
K.P.: I had no idea anything was wrong until about sixth grade. And even then I didn’t know it was horrific, I just knew things were different. I started spending more time at friends’ houses and I had my first major crush, so I started to understand what I was going through was not normal. Just like many abused children, the perpetrator made me feel like the abuse and exploitation was our “special” time together and that this was “love.” So when I confronted this person I figured he would just stop because he loved me. Instead he left and moved in with his mistress. Yes, the exploitation and sexual abuse stopped, but I was really confused. I had no words to explain what had happened to me.
I think we put a lot of pressure on kids to contextualize and verbalize this very complex issue of abuse when, truthfully, kids’ reality consists of pretty basic understandings of things like school, fun with friends, and Saturday morning cartoons. I am not saying children are stupid—far from it. Kids are incredibly smart and perceptive. But kids who are abused and exploited have probably never had much (if any) adult support and protection around them. How can we expect them to differentiate between being safe and being violated when they’ve never really known what it’s like to feel completely secure?
J.P.: I imagine it’s hard being interviewed, because oftentimes (and, to a certain degree, in this case) people want to understand the problem via details, stories, images. And, I’m guessing, the last thing you want to share are details, stories, images from the worst period of your existence. How do you balance this? Do people ever go too far in their questioning?
K.P.: People’s intentions are usually genuine, so if anyone ever does go “too far” in questioning, I can definitely take it with a grain of salt. I have actually waited about 15 years to start speaking out so publicly because our cultural understanding of sexual exploitation is still pretty basic. We are in “crisis mode” as we are still trying to fully grasp how this atrocity can even be happening.
I truly appreciate people’s intentions; however, I really need to protect myself. I am very particular about who I speak to on the record. My husband is actually a sportswriter, so he is tremendous in helping me navigate the media. I also just recently started working with a Boston-based journalist who is working on a more in-depth piece about my story. We’ve really become a team over the last two years and I have come to trust her completely. A lot of people have approached me over the years to tell my story and I waited until the right person came along.
J.P.: You mention “an immediate family member” who did this to you. You say he/she was a drug addict. You’ve lived this, studied this. What kind of monster sells a child for sex? How does one reach that point? Is it a nature vs. nurture situation, where one is bred by similar experiences to become so horrid? Are some people simply born evil assholes? And have you forgiven? Do you even need or aspire to?
K.P.: I have zero intentions of ever forgiving this person. I think we sometimes search for forgiveness so we can move on with our lives. But I have created a life for myself away from my most of my family in spite of my history. What happened to me and what is still happening to hundreds of thousands of children in this country and around the world is unforgivable.
Monstrous people sell children for sex so they can feel dominant and in control, particularly if they feel insecure and out of control in other parts of their lives. My exploiter often talked about his shame of growing up poor and being abused, as if it were an excuse for the harm he’d caused. Additionally, according to trauma expert Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, the brain’s reward system can be damaged from child abuse so that pain equals pleasure, causing abuse victims to become victimizers. This was the case with my exploiter. He derived great pleasure from hurting me.
J.P.: You write on your gofundme page that, “I am finally free.” How did you become free? How did you escape the cycle of abuse? Fuck, how are you alive and sane right now?
K.P.: I become free when I no longer got sucked back into those cycles. I literally had to move 300 miles away from my hometown to separate myself. But even then I wasn’t free right away. I would go back to visit or would talk to friends and would find myself right back in the center of the drama. I finally just decided I had had enough and cut all ties—not out of malice, but for my sanity. Leaving exploitation and domestic violence situations usually takes seven attempts until a person leaves for good and I was no different. Even though the situation was harmful, there was still genuine love for the people harming me and it was tough to break away. I never knew anything other than violence, poverty, and addicts, so it took awhile to get used to a healthy and vibrant community.
I am alive and sane right now because I had a vision of what I wanted my life to look like and I just worked like a dog until I got there. During the time I was being exploited I went to a friend’s house and her mother was a professor at the local state college. Their house was filled with books, papers, and NPR. In that moment I knew I wanted to be an academic. I read constantly and I also really loved music early on. Ironically, my very first favorite song was “Stuck in the Middle With You,” by Stealers Wheel. I played the 45 over and over on my Sears Winnie-the-Pooh record player.
J.P.: You’re a research scientist, and you’re trying to raise $66,000 for three years of graduate school in order to receive a Ph.D. Degree in Sociology from the University of Massachusetts Boston, “where I can continue my current research on the prevention of commercial sexual exploitation of children.” What, exactly, are you hoping to accomplish?
K.P.: I want to contribute to shifting the conversation that CSEC is not a “choice,” but rather a continuation of violence. My research looks at the 10-to-13 years before a child is exploited to see what are the dynamics and commonalities we are missing. Yes, we know a history of child sexual abuse and poverty are the top two risk factors; however, there is more to the story as to why some children fall through the cracks and others do not. I strongly believe if a child is being commercially sexually exploited then we have not done our jobs as a society keeping that child safe.
I also hope to influence our understanding that CSEC is a byproduct of our current dominance and control-based culture. We need to consider CSEC as a system where “supply and demand” is intertwined. The current popular approach is to tackle individual actions such as curbing demand and preventing children from being exploited. Yes, these directives are important; however, if we do not consider that most traffickers, solicitors, and victims all of histories of child sexual abuse, then we are missing the larger picture and the source of this atrocity.
Lastly, I want to be a part of the growing movement challenging the us to ask, “Why is this person being violent?” instead of rehashing, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” The anti-trafficking movement has learned an amazing amount from the domestic movement and I intend to continue to build on that knowledge. Leaving was not easy for me and I hope I can use my story to shed light on the difficulty of the leaving process.
J.P.: Comedians joke about the Holocaust. They joke about 9.11 and the Space Shuttle explosion and a million other awful things. Can they joke about sex trafficking? Does that cross an uncrossable line, where nothing funny exists? Can they joke about the missing Nigerian girls, for example?
K.P.: My favorite quote of all time is “If my life wasn’t funny it would just be true and that is unacceptable” from Carrie Fisher. No, you cannot just crack some joke about 300 kidnapped girls in Africa, but you certainly need humor in your life, especially if you are dedicated to looking at the darker side of humanity for any length of time. A professor gave me the book “Return to Laughter” by anthropologist Elenore Smith Bowen, which is about how a West African tribe survives the trials of hunger, child death and disease through laughter. He was the first person who ever said to me, “You are a survivor.” I didn’t really understand what he meant at the time, but I am grateful he was able to see the journey I was on to undo the cycles and to heal.
J.P.: Sex has a weird place in society. Hoochie pants and low-cut everything; sexting; raunchy videos, pornography as easy as a click. How have your life experiences impacted your perceptions of sex and culture?
K.P.: Great question. The Internet has “pornified” our culture to a point where expressions of sexuality have been reduced to imitating porn. The saddest part is we are teaching girls to mimic sexual abuse survivors. Sixty-to-90 percent of women in the sex industry (porn, stripping, prostitution) have been sexually abused as children. This normalizing of sex as violence reduces a natural and wonderful mutual experience to an act of dominance and control.
My experience is also making me a better mother. I am raising my son to know he is responsible for his choices and his body. He is very handsome, charismatic and a talented athlete who is already getting a lot of attention from girls. This notion that boys and men cannot be held accountable when it comes to their actions around the opposite sex is insulting. My son is a sweet, considerate boy and I am terrified by the notion that the way he is expected to belong and to bond with his friends is to put down women. Thankfully, my son’s friend’s parents are also incredibly strong and are instilling the same values in their sons.
J.P.: Somewhere, right now, there’s an 11-year-old girl being sold for sex. Her dad is a crack addict, her mom is dead, she lives with no hope and no awareness of a way out. What is she supposed to do? What can she do?
K.P.: Kids are incredibly resilient, so I am hopeful she will find a way to hold on. My other hope is that she can tap into her “authentic self” and not blame herself for what is happening—could be a book, sport, song, place of worship, video game, imaginary friend or a pet. I also hope a safe adult speaks up.
I still don’t always feel comfortable speaking up whenever I see an adult physically or verbally abusing a child. That just happened this summer when I was at an amusement park with my son and some friends. A little girl was being berated by her parents on this “The Flying Buccaneer” pirate ship ride my son loves. I wanted so desperately to say something to this family, but the fear for my own family’s safety stopped me. I knew security couldn’t legally do anything unless I saw the parents physically assault the daughter, which I didn’t. Influencing those laws so we can stand up for children is exactly why I do the work that I do. I still think of that girl every day and hope this is okay.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH KATE PRICE:
• Five greatest moments of your life?: 1. When my husband (then-boyfriend) took my hand and said, “We will get through it,” after I told him about my history in a Starbucks next to Boston Common. We were getting serious and I wanted to give him the option to leave. Right after that we went ice skating on Frog Pond and I met a bunch of his closest friends for the first time. They are now some of my closest friends too.
2. Our son was a mop of curls eating a powdered doughnut the first time we met him. (My heart just started racing as I am recalling this moment.) He was four and in foster care at the time. We went to the social services office to meet him. That was the moment I became a mother.
3. We adopted our cat from a rescue shelter. He hopped right into my lap the moment they brought him into the visiting room. His paperwork said he wasn’t a lap cat. Ever since he’s been disproving that statement as well as the notion that cats aren’t needy.
4. The first time I had a side-splitting laugh with my best friend Mo. It was something really stupid, but we both found it hilarious. We have an unspoken shorthand that all great friends have together. Whenever I am out of sorts my husband sends me off with her for “some Mo time.”
5. The first time I heard the Psychedelic Furs song “India.” They were already my favorite band, but I’d never heard their first record. The song starts very quiet and builds to an abrasive rumbling: sounded exactly how my family life felt.
6. Can I play the sympathy card and get one more? [Jeff’s answer: Yes!] The first time I went to New York City. Our seventh grade went to the National History Museum for a field trip. I realized there was a world “out there” away from my family and rural hometown.
• I’m sitting in a coffee shop, writing these questions, and the guy at the next table won’t shut up on his cell phone. Am I allowed to grab his phone and drop it in my café mocha?: Definitely. Although, I would drop it in his drink. Why waste a perfectly good café mocha?
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Michael Kors, Ethiopian coffee, Will Venable, Michelle Branch, KRS-One, patio furniture, “You’ve Got Mail,” Paul Tagliabue, nail polish, Vancouver, the letter V: Michael Kors (I am a fashion apologist), “You’ve Got Mail” (my hubs says I am the Meg Ryan character), patio furniture (love eating outside), KRS-One, nail polish (I am not a girly girl, but I recently found the perfect shade for pedicures), Will Venable (would have put him higher if he’d played in the Cape Cod Baseball League—we are huge Brewster Whitecaps fans), Michelle Branch (that 1,000 Miles song is catchy), Vancouver (I have a thing for nice neighbors), the letter V, Paul Tagliabue, Ethiopian coffee (I am a green tea kind of gal)
• There’s a drought in California. I say we shouldn’t flush after pee, just poop. Some disagree and think that’s gross. Your thoughts?: My son is 9-years old, so poop is the center of just about every conversation in our house, including this flushing debate. A member of our extended family shares practices you “if it’s yellow, let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down” philosophy. I also spent a lot of time with hippies in my 20s so I am all for it.
• What happens when we die?: Hopefully we have left this world a better place.
• I always ask my son, “How do you know this isn’t a dream?” Is it possible you’re answering these questions, but it’s only in a dream?: Please. I am juggling work, school, fundraising, and being a spouse and mother. My entire life feels like a waking dream right now. Do you remember those first months of becoming a parent when you weren’t even sure the last time you’d showered and if you’d changed clothes at all in the last two weeks? I am back there.
• Should Ray Rice be allowed to play in the NFL again?: Definitely not. I think the larger question, though, is if Roger Goodell should lose his job. All of this hooey out not seeing the tape is a joke. Of course they had access to the tape and, besides, what do you think it looks like when a man punches a woman hard enough to render her unconscious? However this shakes out, the tide is definitely changing for the NFL. Hopefully the league was taking notes during CBS sportscaster James Brown’s amazing speech before the Ravens-Steelers game.
• Twelve round boxing match between you and Gisele Bündchen. What happens?: Well, our husbands spend an inordinate amount of time together (my husband covers the Patriots), so ending up at the same place at the same time is no that far out of the realm of possibility. Although, I am not much of a fighter, so I would just ask her if we could go meet Michael Kors (see previous answer).
• Celine Dion calls. She want to do a movie about your life, but insists she play the title character, and that all the other actors have to be either blind or Emmanuel Lewis impersonators. She’s offering $1 million. You in?: First I would have to negotiate the $1 million plus 20 percent of the box office gross (domestic and international). And she would have to agree to a cameo by Ana Gasteyer doing her SNL Celine character (“I am the best singer in the world”). After that I am definitely in. That cast of characters has nothing on my family, though. Plus I would want to create a whole script for watching the movie like Rocky Horror Picture Show. We would throw toast at the screen whenever someone drinks a PBR pounder.