Some American societal issues benefit from being out in the spotlight. They might receive aid, political assistance, or public support thanks to this status. Yet, other, marginalized, stories may be less fortunate. Enter Bootless Stageworks’ production of Body & Sold, a play written by Deborah Lake Fortson, which highlights, underscores, and shouts-from-the-rooftops the struggles and trauma faced by children and teens who have been forced into commercial sex trafficking. Using dialogue pulled directly from interviews with survivors, Fortson demonstrates the hard truth: that these stories are happening in America.
Body & Sold collected the stories of several survivors who recount the ordeals they experienced as part of the sex trafficking industry. Many of the narratives shown in this work begin where you’d expect human trafficking would: sexual abuse from a family member, LGBTQ, challenged home life, or some other form of trauma. What this work does is also highlight the unpredictable starting circumstances, like the average runaway or abused significant other. Just think, over 100,000 young Americans run away from home every year. Within 48 hours of being on the street these teens may be approached by a man posing as a friend, offering food, shelter, and love. Most of the time, he will turn out to be a pimp and sell the young person for commercial sex.
“It made me think about how easily this could have happened to me,” says Alicia Alaimo, who portrays Dora in the production. “In college, I would walk to my apartment by myself at night all the time. Someone could have easily lured me away and anything could have happened.” While this might be a terrifying concept, it’s important to push off the “this could never happen to me” shroud and begin a discussion about the events happening in your own backyard. “I think the thing that surprised me the most was that this stuff actually happens in real life,” continues Alaimo, speaking about her first time reading through the script. “I see it happening in movies all the time – you get numb and don’t think about it. I know these are very real issues, but since nothing like this directly effects my life, I just didn’t think about it that way.” This is one of the major points the production wants to drive home to audiences: that a conversation needs to start. This play continues, unchecked, until people begin to speak out about these atrocities.
Which is exactly what the actors and production staff at Bootless Stageworks are doing.
More than that, though, the performance also tackles the question of what comes escaping the sex industry. What happens to the men and women who “rejoin” society? Unfortunately, these survivors are often pushed to the fringes of a community because of their previous taboo struggles. They often go around blamed for their conditions – and media depictions only worsen the situation at times. “I think that Body & Sold humanizes sex workers and their struggles to an audience which might not have otherwise encountered such portrayals,” says Kirtsten Valania, who plays the spirited Jeanette in the production. “I think that many people think of human trafficking as a faraway problem that happens other places. I think that Body & Sold brings this issue to the forefront. This humanization could serve to foster empathy for the all-too-real counterparts to our characters.”
It’s hard to not be empathetic when statistics are presented alongside these haunting stories. It’s difficult to imagine these men and women don’t need support when 94% of women who are raped experience post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s painful to contemplate that 33% of women who are raped contemplate suicide – and 13% act on those urges. Those portrayed in Body & Sold are as real as their stories – and they’re everywhere. Though the piece is not an interactive theatrical work, it certainly aims to engage its audience members. “I want the audience to walk away from this performance more informed than they walked in,” continues Valania. “I want them to be able to use the experiences that we perform to be able to help others that they encounter in their lives.”
When the lights dim, hopefully these stories will be a call to action for many in attendance. This cause deserves to be at the forefront of America’s mind.