One room. Hundreds of faces. It’s an unlikely group: a huge spectrum of races, religions, and political views. A gathering like this hasn’t happened in 27 years.
Some of us have crossed continents. Many would never dream of sitting in the same room together. But here we are, united for one cause. We are part of the Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation.
Friday morning, I wake up early to spend a little extra time with my boys. I love to snuggle them in the morning before the insanity begins. After making lunches and kissing little cheeks, I scramble them to the bus stop and the babysitter, and then I’m off!
I always feel a little weird when I’m in my truck by myself. It’s so … quiet. But today on my drive to D.C., I embrace it. I don’t even turn on the radio. Instead I bask in two hours of silence.
Upon my arrival at the Marriott, my pulse races. I score an awesome parking space and get out, blinking in the bright sunshine. What a day!
I stroll into the beautiful hotel in my high heels and business attire, laughing a little to myself. On a normal day, I’m usually hanging out with a three-year-old about this time, maybe playing with dinosaurs or digging in a sandbox.
My mind flashes to the past, during my years of mourning over an empty womb. In retrospect, I now see those childless years as a gift. During that time, I earned my bachelor’s degree in journalism and worked in my trade for five years. Now, as I walk into a crystal-lit lobby in the nation’s capital, I feel the familiarity of my professional role wash over me like spring water. It simultaneously soothes and excites me.
My mommy duties have made me a little late, but I don’t mind. I sneak in the back and am suddenly nervous. A silent, massive crowd packs the ballroom. Everyone is focused on the speaker at the podium. They sit clumped together at huge round tables, but I stand apart scanning the crowd for familiar faces. Then I see one of my sweet friends. She smiles, beckons me, and clears a space at her table.
I am overwhelmed to be in the same room with so many amazing leaders. I wonder if I belong here. Yes, I’m passionate. I’m dedicated to the work. But I’m not quite sure where I belong … or if I belong. I express the sentiment in confidence to a fellow attendee. “A lot of us feel that way,” she says with a wink. “At these kinds of things you just have to be bigger than you are.”
The presenter is finished and we break for lunch. With my friend’s advice ringing in my ears, I observe the others, meet and greet for a while, and start to feel more comfortable. Actually, I’m surprised. I don’t know if I’ve met so many extroverts in one day. I guess we have to be outgoing. We’re activists. It’s our job to get our message out and inspire people to do something about it!
The hours pass, and the program is tough for some. The first day focuses on the problems we are facing. A renowned MD, famous for his work in neurosurgery and brain science, educates us about the effects of addiction. A brave survivor of sex trafficking shares her story first-hand. We hear terrifiying statistics and learn about how the sex trade feeds the porn industry. Triggers are everywhere.
Overwhelmed, I retreat to the hallway outside the ballroom to take a breather before plunging in again. The funny thing is, I am not alone. Many wander the hallways with faraway expressions. The burden is heavy for all of us.
I approach a colleague and see she is fighting back tears. “You look like I feel,” I say. She tells me she is okay, just trying not to lose it. “I’m usually tough as nails with this kind of stuff,” she tells me. I don’t want to cry.” Throughout the conference I hear the same thing from several others. But then I realize … This is the whole point. We FEEL. That is what makes us different from the evils we are fighting. Porn objectifies. Trafficking dehumanizes. But we are real people facing real problems and having very human reactions, experiencing emotions that propel us to fight for change. If we can’t feel, we’ve missed the boat. So bring on the tears!
As the hours pass, I flow in and out of presentations meeting like-minded fighters and watching alliances form. I am amazed and amused by the dynamics of the group. Although most of us are meeting for the first time, there is a camaraderie and in many cases a feeling of familiarity. On the other hand, some personalities clash, and we see a few fireworks.
The last presentation ends at 11 p.m., and we all look quite haggard. The conference began at 7 a.m., which means many of us have been at it for 16 hours. We have about eight until we start up again, yet many whisper to each other late into the night and into the next morning.
The second day is lighter. We focus on our successes and solutions. We’re tired, but hopeful. Tangible energy whirs through the group, assisted by abundant cups of coffee after our late night. (At one point, we actually ran out and had to order more from the hotel.) Newfound friends mingle and twitter throughout the conference rooms and hallways. We inspire and applaud each other. We remember why we do what we do.
We learn that our efforts are not isolated, but actually part of a huge continuum. Trafficking leads to porn. Porn leads to addiction. Addiction injures not only the addict, but also loved ones. And the performers–they are people too–prone to PTSD, disease and other horrors. Afterwards, all those who have been harmed deserve the opportunity to heal: addicts, loved ones, and performers. But what about if we could pre-empt all of this in the first place? That is where prevention and parenting come in. We are all connected.
I love the way one speaker put it: “We often exhaust ourselves with our efforts to pull survivors from the river and help them recover. But if we truly want to be successful, we ought to go upstream and figure out who’s pushing them into the water in the first place.” This really captures the essence of the entire conference for me.
Then suddenly the summit is over. Snap! Just like that. We exchange business cards, write down a few last-minute notes and head to our cars and airplanes and hotel rooms. It feels funny to walk away. I didn’t even say “good-bye” to many of my favorites. But it’s okay. I have a feeling we will be together again soon.
On my trek home, I reflect on the gathering. It feels so familiar. But why? Where have I seen these dynamics before? And then it hits me: a family. I feel like I’ve just left an enormous family reunion. I chuckle at the thought, but it’s true.
Joy and despair, laughter and tears, fun and exhaustion, good food, late nights talking in whispers, a couple of disagreements that sparked the air like electricity. We’ve experienced it all in just a couple days. And everyone was there, too: the grandmas and grandpas, the mamas and papas, the needy and the needed.
If I learned one thing from the summit it was this: We are all connected. (And that goes for everyone on the planet, beyond the coalition too.) Traditionally we have worked in our areas separately–secluded from one another. Blind to each other’s efforts, projects and victories. But over two days, we experienced a paradigm shift. Specialists in trafficking, addiction recovery, healing, spouses, parenting, education, and politics came together and heard the other side.
Above all, I hope we remember. I hope we don’t forget about each other in all the stress and bustle. Because the Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation isn’t just a fancy title or a nice idea or a single meeting. This alliance has the potential to change the very face of our industry. I hope coalition members spread the word. And I hope you’ve realized it too. We are all part of the same human race. We are all affected. And we can all help.
For a list of organizations dedicated to parenting and families, check out the CESE website: www.endexploitationmovement.com. The two most relevant categories will be “For Parents” and “For Teens & Children.” This is only the beginning. If you know of any other great resources, let me know! ~MamaC