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Sarah Ruth Hoffman
Sarah Ruth Hoffman

Recognizing Human Trafficking: Difficult Up Close

In 2018, a Reform rabbi was removed from the pulpit and suspended by his national rabbinic association for a pattern of sexual misconduct. When I first reported him, I did not yet fully understand my experience — I just knew it was very bad and more severe than most people would be able to fathom. It actually took me until 2021, four years in total, to understand what had happened to me for what it was. I spent the first two of those years simply understanding that I had been raped and abused. But the rest of it was too big, too inconceivable for me to even put into words. It took a lot of time away, a lot of healing, and a lot of healthy normalcy to be able to grasp the larger picture. For years, I kept asking myself “What happened to me? Yes, rape. Yes, abuse, but in totality, what had happened?” There was still a missing piece of the puzzle when searching for words to tell my story, to convey what indeed had happened.

My case had at least four elements that each required months or years to wrap my mind around and heal from: (1) Clergy sexual abuse, (2) Rape and other variations of sexual violence, (3) Psychological abuse of the psychopathic and/or narcissistic variety, and (4) Trafficking. Until I got to the fourth item in that list, I felt like the larger picture of my experience was not accounted for, that I still didn’t understand what had happened to me, and that something in my healing was missing. When I eventually found myself in a support group for trafficking survivors, it finally clicked.

This is not uncommon. Many victims and survivors simply do not understand themselves as having been trafficked, even when it is far more blatant than in cases like my own.

Here is what my evolution in understanding looked like, from while I was still in the situation in 2017 until 2021:

  • 4 years ago (2017): “Everything is good. Even my friends say I seem so happy lately. All I can tell them is that I made really good friends with this one family. In actuality, all the gifts and food and affection are overwhelming. I didn’t ask for this. He says our meeting is a “miracle.” It’s been some months and things have happened that were odd, disturbing even, but they are drowned out by all of the affection. Now he told me that whenever we go to any place out of state, or even an Airbnb in the same state, Person A needs sex. Person A is very upset if not and it will make his life and my life miserable if I don’t give. They’ve also asked me to flip their Airbnb between guests. I’m not seeing any money from this but I am a ‘friend’ and I guess it’s a reasonable favor for all that they have given me and continue to give. They say that they ‘pay’ me with letting me stay upstairs and eat from their kitchen. But I did not understand how much work it actually is. There are two loads of laundry, vacuuming, cleaning a kitchen and dining area, setting up the futon, and cleaning the bathroom and more, all so that they can get hundreds of dollars and me nothing. I don’t know how I feel about this. I like it better when he asks me to check out books for him or proofread a sermon. This, on the other hand, is just weird.”
  • Some months later: “Now they tell me that they are going out of town and need me to flip the Airbnb on a set number of days. It feels very presumptuous and disrespectful, like “do this.” I am concerned about this one foreign looking lady I saw who doesn’t talk to me who also flips the unit sometimes but never at the same time as me. I asked if she was paid and he said she was a ‘friend’ — like me. I never saw her again after that. I am having a lot of financial and medical issues and these people are so supportive of me, offering to let me live with them to save money, feeding me all of the time, showing me so much generosity, how could I possibly be so mean as to think anything negative or accusatory about them?”
  • Some months later: “Person A is coming over and even though he isn’t around, he’s told me that Person A will want sex, and I know that I am supposed to do that even if I’m not interested or there will be problems for him and everybody. It’s clear from what he’s said that things will be more complicated and worse if I don’t. I am afraid, but don’t know how to get out of the relationship given the loss it would entail in terms of emotional support and other resources, including food and a sense of family, as well as the spiritual stuff and religious goals that I have. He’s starting to show me off to other powerful men in the community, and encourages me to drop hints when we are at events. He talks about prospects of me or Person A sleeping with them. One of the powerful men talked to me quite a bit at an event and he didn’t get jealous, which is odd as he usually gets upset when I talk too much to people in the Jewish community. I tried to leave but he convinced me to stay with him; he needs me. As a bearer of so many of their secrets, how could I betray their trust? How could I leave knowing what I know? I feel paralyzed. Whenever I express concerns, he snaps at me, guilt trips me, or tells me that I am a ‘mean’ person. He’s the Senior Rabbi… He’s popular and nationally loved. How could I doubt him? I must be wrong about everything. After all, I am so lucky that he chooses me as his ‘soulmate’ and ‘spiritual’ wife. He flatters me so much and pays so much attention to me and I’m supposed to be grateful, even though I didn’t ask for and even initially resisted and declined his overwhelming affection and attention. I feel stuck. I am starting to think he is really messed up, sick in the head, or just plain evil. So why can’t I just leave? I must be so awful and needy and such a failure as a person that I am sticking around for this. What is wrong with me? I am so ashamed. And yet, I feel G-d is close at hand.”
  • The month or so before I left: “He [the rabbi] is pressuring me to be listed on Craigslist to have sex with strangers, and Person A keeps trying to convince me to agree to sex with gross men I don’t have any interest in. Like really gross. I don’t even know how Person A has sex with them, but somehow they do. Person A also tries to have sex with pretty much anybody I introduce them to and inquires sexually about anybody I mention. I am standing firm and saying no, but the rabbi is insisting that I said yes already [gaslighting] or that I would like it. Why, after many months, does he feel it is so urgent and necessary to list sex with me  on Craigslist and why do I get the sense that my feelings are of little consideration in this decision, and that Person A has something to do with this sudden shift? He has the key to my home and has said before how he has organized ‘surprise’ gang sexual encounters ‘for’ another woman using Craigslist. This woman recently said that these things were not her idea and started crying. I don’t even know what is up versus down anymore. I am afraid every time I return to my apartment that I will be met with a group of potentially violent male strangers expecting sex. I imagine the scenario in my mind as I unlock the door. How will I fight them off? How will I explain that it was not me who asked for this? How will I survive if they don’t want to hear that? If life has taught me anything, it’s that there is no violence like a certain type of man who thinks he’s about to have sex but then doesn’t get what he showed up for. Lately the rabbi says increasingly disturbing things to me and has started to show physical aggression that he would normally conceal around me, and the woman describes physical abuse from him too. I am terrified but feel dependent on these two people and don’t know how to leave. My own social circle has gradually been replaced with their network of people who are all doing strange things like this, too, and so if I leave I am facing a real void. I am especially terrified since he is such a respected rabbi and this is all so well hidden and secret. Who would even believe me? What’s the point? Lately he’s been talking about having me move into their place in a small room where I wouldn’t have space for my own furniture and the things I’ve collected over a lifetime that are part of me. He is literally and figuratively erasing me and putting me into smaller and smaller boxes the longer I stay involved, all while telling me it is my job to protect him and his reputation by keeping quiet, and all under the guise of chesed. But I think that true chesed is empowering — not subtly or slyly belittling the other while making yourself out to be a hero. What on earth is happening to me and why am I not able to just walk away? One of my last remaining old friends who left a cult says that I am showing signs of not being myself and that they worry I am going through something dangerous. I need to consider what they have said and take that notion very seriously.”
  • December 2017: “I am leaving today. If I stay, my mind and soul will die. I would rather just let them kill me physically, if it comes down to that. I am willing to take that risk to save my soul and my mind. I came here to get a PhD, not to become a prostitute. They do drugs and I don’t. Why am I even hanging out with these people? They lack sophistication for all their worldly veneer. I’m struggling right now as all students do, but there are systems in place to help me such as special grants and loans and student social groups. I don’t need this. And I take issue with this rabbi doing these things while duplicitously leading a congregation. I am morally opposed and disgusted and yet I feel I cannot leave which is how I know that something very dangerous is happening and I can’t fix it by staying. I can’t fix it at all and it’s not my responsibility to. Furthermore, I am finally seeing that I am not the problem here. Eleven months ago I was minding my own business and my life was stable and sane. Now I’m a mess all of the time. These people are dangerous and I must get out now as it will only likely get worse if I stay. To hell with Person A and good riddance. And if he also cannot treat me like a human being, then same goes to him, a terminally sinful rabbi. Somebody should alert the FBI to these people, for Heaven’s sake.”
  • 3 years ago (2018): “He was abusive. I am coming to terms with the fact that he raped me and I did not want to confront that fact. I reported him and he is now out of the pulpit and cannot work in our region for at least two years. He might not be allowed to work nationally pending the outcomes of this current ethics process with his professional association. I am working on healing. I see how past abuse made me vulnerable to this abuse. There is still so much I don’t understand and I still cry for hours at a time. I feel as if I am in a body cast and coming out of a coma. I still feel confused often about whether he ever actually loved me. I still don’t understand everything that happened, but I’m doing a lot of reading about rape and clergy abuse and sexual violence and psychopathic abuse and these things are helping me to understand. But still something is missing; there is still some element of my experience that is not being accounted for in my healing. But what is it? I am lost and feel broken. The investigation is traumatizing me.”
  • 2 years ago today (2019): “I am scared. He is still near me and performing in venues in my area. Someone saw him on campus where I work too. I have a blog now and I am having weekly conversations with another clergy abuse survivor. I have done a support group with the rape crisis center and started seeing a therapist who specializes in sexual trauma. I am working hard to take charge of my own life, and to study Torah, and get closer to Hashem, and to not let him take my religion away from me. I am terrified of people and still look to see if every car that passes by is him, but it’s not as much as it was a year ago. I see that I am making progress. I have angry outbursts sometimes, but the crying is less frequent. I’ve been watching documentaries on sex trafficking and learning about pimps, and seeing how my situation with him was very similar, or even the same. I am still trying to wrap my mind around this massive trauma. I still don’t fully understand what happened to me, but I understand that it wasn’t my fault and that it was horrendous and traumatic and terrible, but I am still in some shock from it all. I don’t know what to think of it. I need to focus on getting out of this town because I’m living in constant fear of running into certain people. I have told the police that I think some of what I saw may have been trafficking but I am confused and don’t know if it counts.”
  • 1 year ago (2020): “I am in therapy with a rape crisis center therapist. I just joined a human trafficking survivor support group. Not sure if I really belong. Will read, talk, listen, and learn more.”
  • Today (2021): “I knew something had been missing. The clergy abuse survivor groups, rape survivor groups, and abuse survivor groups together still didn’t completely cover the essence of my experience. I have learned a lot from the trafficking survivor group, and from reading, and finally understand the shape of what happened to me. Something has clicked. I’ve been able to report my experience to the National Human Trafficking Hotline and they reported it to the police. I feel a sense of grief, but also a sense of long last understanding and closure — closure to that years’ long chapter of my life during which I was simply trying to understand what had happened to me. Now I finally get it.”

Clarity about my own situation was particularly painful because it came with new awareness about a problem that once sounded foreign and far away from me. The phrase “human trafficking” brought to mind dramatic images of runaway children or foreign women. Like “rape,” a situation did not register as “counting” unless it was “severe and dramatic” in a way that could not possibly happen to me. Yet, sadly, looking back after much healing, my own situation does sound pretty severe and dramatic — the problem is, I didn’t see it that way at the time.

My perpetrators were super slick about making things seem consensual that were not, and at making things seem normal and acceptable that were not, and blaming things that could not pass for normal on me — a random unsuspecting person whom they intentionally targeted, groomed, and exploited. And this is exactly one of the reasons that trafficking is difficult to take through the legal system; victims can think that they are doing things willingly or that their situation doesn’t “count” because it isn’t “bad enough” because they can always think of someone who has it worse. And if the victims do not see themselves as victims, or do not become aware until years later, there may be no possibility to make a strong case.

I have been in a new state and a new community for two years this month (at the time of writing). Before moving here, I had gone public about many aspects of my experience. I acclimated to my new community while continuing heal from this experience, and my new community, to date, has shown me a normalcy that has helped me tremendously in my healing.

Most importantly, today I am allowed to form friendships with other young Jewish people and just be a normal young person. I didn’t get to have that when I was under my perpetrator’s control; he literally did not allow it, and any time I tried, I was keeping this huge secret about everybody’s rabbi and it was traumatic and dark and evil. Now I am here and can play games and talk Torah with my peers and just be myself, and it’s such a relief and such a miracle. The simple things that one cannot enjoy when they are being abused or exploited are of tremendous importance. They are the simple pleasures of freedom.

So what can we do to end human trafficking?

First, understand that trafficking is a broad term and can involve sexual or non-sexual servitude including grooming and subsequent psychological enslavement of vulnerable people, and that force, fraud, and coercion are not always obvious to onlookers.

Second, learn the Action-Means-Purpose Model (link). Once I filled out the bullets with my experience, I was finally able to understand what had happened to me. Action includes recruiting, harboring, and transporting, for example. Means includes force, fraud, and coercion. Purpose includes labor and sex acts.

Third, understand that anybody, including you, can be trafficked, and that traffickers can be anybody, including people you know. Traffickers can be the white, middle class mom who lives next door, the popular and even esteemed rabbi, or even a young high school drop out who decides his girlfriend ‘owes’ him. Some people don’t even realize that they are committing this crime as, like rapists, they tend to justify and rationalize their behavior to themselves. Even a person with an advanced degree and a decent family can be exploited in this way by someone in or outside of their own family. Before you jump out of your chair and scream, “I’m not having any sympathy for those people” please understand that I ask not for your sympathy but only for your help eradicating this evil, as perpetrators who go for people with advanced degrees also go for far more vulnerable people who you would feel it acceptable to feel sorry for. You won’t usually know who these people are, and you probably interact with them here and there or every day and don’t even know it. And even if you did know it, there may be little you can do to immediately stop the problem as they may not be willing or able to cooperate. Accepting these facts is an important step to ending the problem.

Fourth, listen to stories of all types of survivors, and learn to recognize the common elements (e.g., grooming, force, fraud, coercion) in these kinds of stories so that you can better protect yourself and others from exploitation.

Fifth, build a strong community and don’t let vulnerable people go without social support if you can help it. One of the things that predators look for is someone without much in the way of social connection. Not only does this render the victim more emotionally vulnerable and easy to exploit, but it also makes it so that they have fewer people to talk to and potentially share incriminating information with about the trafficker. They specifically look for people who feel alone even if they are not, or those who are genuinely not well supported even if it’s for a transient period. Go to shul, talk to people, check in on them, try to care about how they are doing, and invest in relationships with them, even if they seem established and well taken care of (married people can be exploited to). The point is not to detect if they are being exploited and to save them, but to be a source of strength so that they may not be exploited in the first place, or so that they have people to turn to if they are and do manage to escape.

Sixth, watch for and eradicate victim-blaming. It is easy and extremely tempting to blame someone, especially someone accomplished and intelligent, for falling for a con or for not leaving. Learn to recognize the psychological manipulation involved in these cases. The attention should be towards eliminating the threat from the community, not on the flaws of the victim(s). This is particularly important since vulnerable women especially may be those with a prior history of abuse or exploitation and/or trauma-based behavioral issues that may make her seem less than worthy of your sympathy, as our society seems to view such women as disposable (e.g., “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I was not even her first lover” in Lolita, or the common and banal statement, “Oh her? Well, she already had…problems.”) Your problem isn’t the victim who reported the offense, it is the offender’s behavior. As someone who has been exceptionally close to a network of perpetrators, trust me on this. I anticipate that my perpetrators and their flying monkeys will continue to accuse me of seeking out victim-status for attention or sympathy while people who actually know me could tell you how hard I have been working to move on while also acknowledging and honoring the truth of my experience.

Seventh, do not partake of the myth that hiring a prostitute or watching pornography are victimless crimes. Work on your own inclinations so that you do not enable trafficking by engaging with these endeavors. Looking back, I realize that I was coerced into one video which may or may not be available on the internet, and that there is a high probability (extremely so) that many encounters were filmed and shared online without my knowledge or consent. Viewers would probably have no idea of the situation and how much it traumatized me. There are many, many more problems with pornography and how it enables and relates to trafficking which can be read about easily online. I was heartbroken after my experience, when one of the statistics professors at my school was caught as a John in a prostitution (trafficking) sting. I remember what it was like to be dangled in front of men by my perpetrator and co-perpetrator and to feel that sense of confusion and obligation and all of that trauma. I didn’t let it show. I was pleasant and polite and cooperative on the outside. Don’t fool yourself into thinking the woman likes this or that it is somehow okay. Years later, the men involved in my situation also contributed to my trauma by standing by and doing nothing, or perhaps even engaging in these dynamics even a little without evidence of conscience. If you are a John, understand that these women, if they do make it out, may have nightmares about you years later, as much as you kid yourself into thinking that you are a nice guy. Teshuvah may be possible for you, but not without the pain of experiencing genuine realization of your role in enabling the perpetrator and genuine remorse for participating in the desecration and enslavement of another human being as both an idle bystander and fellow exploiter.

Eighth, once able to recognize these behaviors, create consequences for perpetrators in our own communities. Cut them off socially. Do not pity them. Do not engage with them whatsoever. Let them move, like I had to. Let the shame be on them.

Ninth, commit to living by this new understanding every day, and every place you go. If each one of us who is not morally insane keeps ahold of our moral sanity, then we just might be able to combat these problems at a higher level and solve the most depraved cases both domestically and abroad. But until we learn to recognize and uproot evil from our midst, we will fail to rise to the level that is needed to resolve the problem. Our faith provides a framework for thinking about good and evil and if we would see clearly what it is trying to tell us and would only live by it and be strong in that, then goodness will certainly prevail.

About the Author
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not represent the views of any organization that she is affiliated with. Sarah Ruth Hoffman was a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when an older male rabbi (now suspended by his rabbinical association) groomed, raped, and abused her. She has since completed the PhD and converted to Orthodox Judaism. She continues to write as part of her healing, and she often writes what she would have found comforting and useful to read during her lengthy exodus from the ongoing sexual violence that was inextricably linked to roles and scripts in Jewish institutions. She hopes that this blog will help the public to understand the dynamics of clergy sexual abuse, whether the victims are adults, or children. Much of what is written can apply to non-clergy relationships as well. If any one person is helped by any of what is written, then the purpose of this blog has been fulfilled.
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