SHELBY COUNTY, Tenn. — A survivor of human trafficking is telling her story in hopes of changing the perception of the sex trade.
“I found myself living in this hotel room with all of these women being pimped. I never thought that could be me,” said Leah Gunn. “When I knew that’s what you wanted to talk about. I’m like, I’m not doing this, because I want to see myself as a willing participant. That’s easier.”
Gunn said she prayed before talking about what happened to her is not easy.
“There are no words to explain why I stayed in prostitution for 20 years, and I’m only 32,” she said.
So she just started from the beginning. She told WREG she came from a broken home. She started doing drugs when she was a teen, which exposed her to older men and a promiscuous lifestyle.
“It took my life by storm,” she said.
And then at 19 years old, Gunn said she was kidnapped and brought to Memphis. She convinced herself she would be able to escape. That didn’t happen.
“I will never forget walking into this hotel room and seeing six women, all of them with their hair halfway done. It’d been done at one point. Their nails broken. You can see once upon a time they were taken care of, but the dream had run out,” Gunn said.
She felt her dream had run out, too.
“The years had gone by and I realized, you don’t have an education, Leah. You have this drug addiction that you can’t kick. What are you going to do besides using your body?”
“I found myself living in this hotel room with all of these women being pimped. I never thought that could be me.”Leah Gunn
Sitting next to Gunn was Casondra Austin. She also agreed to share her story with WREG.
She said three abusive relationships and a drug addiction destroyed her self worth.
“I had to get attention just to feel like I was worthy of anything,” said Austin. “All I ever wanted to be was a mom. I left my kids for this.”
Austin says she sold herself online and met men in sketchy motel rooms.
“Where was I going to go? I didn’t have a place to live. To sleep in people’s houses, they would ask for sex,” she said.
Both women are now in A Way Out, a program run by Citizens for Community Values that offers sex trafficking survivors and those arrested for prostitution safe housing, counseling, Bible study and more.
Gunn said she learned about the program when a judge recommended it.
“More and more jurisdictions are beginning to see the vulnerabilities and victimizations involved in this work and this life,” said Rachel Haaga with Restore Corps, a non-profit working to stop human trafficking.
She helped Memphis police and the Shelby County District Attorney’s office launch a diversion program called Lives Worth Saving. Anyone arrested for prostitution can avoid jail time and get their charge expunged by attending a class.
The class also offers health screenings, rehabilitation, shelter and other support resources.
Haaga’s team partnered with the University of Memphis to do an assessment on some of the classes. They discovered a majority of the participants had adverse childhood experiences.
She said 62% reported being abused, 58% said they lived on the streets before the age of 18, 27% were in foster care, and 37% said they traded sex for something of value as a kid.
“From the sexual abuse in my home, the physical violence, the drugs, the exposure young to sex,” said Gunn.
Gunn said those were all oppressions outsiders don’t think about. Instead, she said most people looked at her as a criminal, but accepted lies and apologies from the men who paid for the sex.
“A lot of times it saves men from being exposed as criminals. A matter of fact, they’re the first ones to say, ‘Don’t believe her she’s a drug-headed prostitute,'” she said.
Wednesday on News Channel 3 at 6, state and local officials are working to change perceptions. They said they have been increasing efforts to nab buyers and traffickers, and they explain why it will work.