“My abuser forced me to post ads online, pay the phone bills and get his cars fixed. Those actions were enough to land me in prison. I am still facing many hardships and I’m still being punished for being exploited.”
Keyana Marshall is a trafficking survivor. Her story is in many ways typical of the countless thousands of vulnerable young people who are targeted, groomed, manipulated, addicted, dehumanized and then sold while still not old enough to drive or vote. But hers has an additional layer of horror. In the eyes of the law, Keyana is considered a trafficker herself. She served time in federal prison for conspiracy charges she obtained while being abused in a pimp-controlled exploitation.
Keyana and her husband recently moved to Ohio so she could work with a program supporting other survivors of sex trafficking. She is also working on developing her own survivor-led organization called “We Survived”. This organization is to support survivors and give them resources to navigate in many different areas of life. Keyana wants to support survivors’ journeys in academia, entrepreneurship, and community re-entry.
In any state Keyana lives in or visits, she is required to register as a sex offender. She feels this has stifled her ability to flourish in the community and limits employment opportunities. “I have been threatened, denied employment and stigmatized on this sex offender registry. I was exploited and I couldn’t choose who my trafficker exploited. I was charged with conspiracy to commit sex trafficking of children. This forced me onto a sex offender registry 3 years after I was released from federal custody. I didn’t do anything wrong. My abuser forced me to post ads online, pay the phone bills and get his cars fixed. Those actions were enough to land me in prison. I am still facing many hardships and I’m still being punished for being exploited.” Keyana explained in frustration.
Keyana grew up in Alaska in an environment of both love and chaos. She was born a few weeks before her mother turned 16. Her stepfather, also a high school student, began dealing drugs to support the family. “He was so young and naive, the game swallowed him whole,” Keyana explains. “He developed a persona who was much more crass and aggressive than the gentleman my mother initially met in high school. Drug dealing spread like religion amongst his social circles and my family went along for the ride.” Her grandmother was a loving and supportive figure in her life, but her family had many elements of dysfunction. Her mother was very strict and punished her harshly. “I was grounded all the time and beaten on a regular basis. I felt like I didn’t fit in my own family. I also had a lot of responsibility placed on me when my dad went to jail. The parentification only added to the family drama. I wanted to get away and I started running away as early as the 6th grade,” she recalled.
Ultimately, Keyana rebelled against authority. Her troubles began while she was working as a babysitter for a woman named Treena who ran an escort service. The grooming began. First, Treena showed her young babysitter what the good life could feel like, driving her around in a fancy car, sneaking her into clubs when she was underage. She and her friends frequently provided 15 year old Keyana with alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine. At the same time, she expanded Keyana’s duties beyond babysitting. She had her answer phones at the escort service and book appointments. She convinced her that she could buy her a high school diploma cheap and drop out with no consequences. “I live a good life, and I don’t have a diploma,” she told the impressionable young girl. Eventually, with the help of Treena’s girlfriend who supplied her with drugs and alcohol, Keyana was convinced to go on a “date.” She was 15. She didn’t even know enough to ask for the money and the buyer manipulated her. Treena was furious and Keyana had to do other dates to pay her back. Once she began, the actions made her sick. After Treena’s aggressive training and promotion, she eventually felt like that was what her life was destined to be and her only opportunity for success. Treena would discourage ‘recreational’ sex and say, “All these bitches are out here doing it for free, you might as well get paid!”
Keyana continued in “the life,” reliant on the constant flow of drugs and alcohol to keep going and doing the only thing she had been trained to do. Treena was abusive, manipulative and threatening but it was the only way Keyana knew how to survive. “She would be under the influence and become violent. She would pin me down, try to control my friendships, and even punched me in the face,” Keyana said. The cycle went on for years, in other cities and with other pimps. Eventually she wound up under the control of another, male trafficker who fed her addictions, manipulated her emotions, threatened her, beat her and kept her firmly under his control. What the pimp told her to do, she did, to avoid or deescalate the violence she knew would follow if she said no and because that was the only life she knew. Sometimes that meant posting pictures of other recruits on Craigslist. Sometimes it meant having unprotected sex with him against her will. Sometimes it meant counseling the other girls and women, supporting them, doing their hair and makeup and whatever illegal task he put her up to.
“When I didn’t want to do these things, he would become frightening and violent,” she explained. “He told me that since I was black I was destined to be a madam and needed to learn how to ‘run those bitches.’” Whenever I made suggestions he would tell me, “You want a mind of your own, don’t you?” and “We aren’t using your mind. This is my shit. You don’t have a mind of your own.” He also expressed that he didn’t want the other girls learning how to post ads and learn the business because they would leave him and make someone else rich. There could be 10 women in the apartment and he would remove them from our sight so they wouldn’t see how it was done.
I lived in a constant state of confusion. He was grooming me to be his madam and his wife. In street terms, this made me the ‘bottom girl’ or ‘bottom bitch.’ This means I was in longer standing than the women who came and went, and that I was to handle his affairs when he was around or even in jail. Due to the fact that I’d been exploited since the age of 15, he didn’t have to break my spirit or teach me how to book calls. Treena greased my wheels and he was ready to take me on the most unpleasant ride of my life.”
Eventually, the FBI learned of the pimp’s operation and began investigating. Keyana remembers at the time that she was actually glad law enforcement was stepping in because she thought it would help her break free from the pimp and start to rebuild her life. Instead, she got swept up in the process, given a lawyer who paid little to no attention to her case, and got charged with sex trafficking herself. She took the deal that was offered because she would likely otherwise spend 20 years behind bars. “I pleaded out because I was in fear, I was pressured, and completely uneducated,” she realizes in retrospect.
The worst part, for her, was the injustice. She has to register as a sex offender whereever she goes now. “The charge I ignorantly pleaded out to made it look like I was doing the same things he did to me, to other women and girls,” Keyana said. “The reality of the situation was that I was on drugs because that was the trafficker’s tool to achieve compliance. I did not consent to, nor did I profit from any illegal misconduct involving other girls/women that resulted from my exploitation. Just like every other slave, I was there because I was manipulated, in fear of homelessness, struggling with drug dependancy and fearful of the abuser.”
Today, Keyana is still struggling with the pain, the unfairness and the humiliation of having to register as a sex offender, but she is determined not to let her hard-earned experience go to waste. In addition to working with other trafficking survivors she is writing her own story to help others understand how the system works against victims in many cases, and how to survive even this, and come out strong, resilient and powerful on the other side. “When people google me, I know they’re getting just one side of the story. Most people don’t know that I was a bottom girl in an abusive pimp-controlled scenario. They just see me as a 34 year old woman.”