This essay was written by Pralaya Cuomo. Pralaya was honored with CHILD USA’s Trailblazer Award in 2021. Pralaya read a version of this essay during her award acceptance speech at CHILD USA’s 5th Annual Awards Celebration.

Pralaya graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with a B.A. in Sustainable Development, after transitioning from a career in professional ballet. She is a survivor of childhood educational neglect, medical neglect, domestic violence, as well as sexual assault and sex trafficking. In 2017, She began seeking justice for victims of sexual abuse and sex trafficking and continues to do so today.

Most people, including victims and survivors of sexual abuse, tend to shy away from openly discussing sex and sexual abuse because it is highly stigmatized. This pervasive stigma leaves people who experience trauma to live in shame and forces them to figure out how to cope with the aftermath on their own. Many people also hold a common belief that sex trafficking involves individuals being held against their will and transported across a country’s borders to be sold as sex slaves. Although that is true, sex trafficking can also be much more insidious than that, and it is on the rise. In fact, recent statistics have found that as many as 50,000 women and children are forced into sexual slavery in the United States every year, making the US one of the top three countries in the world for victims of sex trafficking.

Like so many other victims and survivors of sexual abuse and sex trafficking, my experiences happened within the dark, neglected corners of society, where children and teens are most often ignored or forgotten, and where people don’t even think twice to ask if someone is in need of help because they simply do not know that they are in danger. Throughout my abuse, I was never aware I was a victim, and I didn’t know I was being sex trafficked. At the time, I believed I was in control, and then afterwards I chastised myself and thought that I should have known better, that I should’ve been smarter. The guilt and shame I’ve felt is something that I have come to learn is not unique to me, and that many others have had a similar experience. I am confiding this in you today because I believe it is of the utmost importance to expose this problem in order to change the way victims are treated by others, and more importantly, how they treat themselves.

For me, there isn’t a “before” and “after” my abuse, but rather a continuation and transformation of the abuse I endure. In a sense, the abuse my sister and I suffered began way before ever meeting our abuser, and due to our circumstances, we were basically set up to fail from the very beginning just like so many other children are who are like us. Facing impossible circumstances, we saw no way of escaping and had little to no control over our own destiny. In our case, there were a multitude of systemic failures, including those by institutions that are supposedly put in place to protect and benefit children, yet somehow we were still easily taken advantage of by a sexual predator.

Some factors that leave children especially vulnerable include lack of education, domestic violence, poverty, low socioeconomic status, disabilities, substance abuse, and other pervasive issues. These allow so many children to be preyed upon and ultimately forgotten, as they slip through the cracks of society. Our earlier life circumstances, like many children and adults of sexual abuse and sex trafficking, left us vulnerable and exposed to nefarious individuals, who many may not know, often tend to seek out victims with these predispositions, since they are easy targets.

Since my abuse, I have made a lot of progress in my transformation from victim to survivor, and in that process, I often find myself thinking more and more about how I can help narrow this overwhelming knowledge gap surrounding child abuse and sex trafficking in order to combat these pervasive issues.  Until just recently, I knew very little about what resources existed for victims, and I was amazed to find that so many hotlines, organizations like CHILD USA, and laws have already been put into place to protect and care for sexual assault victims and survivors. If only I had known about these just a few years ago, I wonder what my life would be like now.

More people, especially the most vulnerable, need to be made more aware of the situations and predispositions that enable children to be taken advantage of. Hardly anyone is informed on how the daily operations of sex trafficking really work, and even fewer people are aware of what a sexual predator might look like or understand how they seek out their victims. The public is likely not aware, for example, that children who have disabilities, live in a single parent household, or who have experienced educational neglect and domestic abuse, as my sister and I did, are prime targets for sexual predators. They don’t know that sexual abusers purposefully seek out individuals from lower socioeconomic rungs rather than those higher up in society because they know they are less protected and therefore more vulnerable.

To solve this worldwide problem, we must first work on addressing the misconceptions people have regarding sexual abuse and sex trafficking and begin spreading social awareness on what sex trafficking is, how it works, and who is most vulnerable. We can start by first addressing the groups of people who most directly influence children, so that they can not only protect them, but also so that kids have the tools and knowledge to protect themselves. Parents, coaches, teachers, individuals within government organizations, law enforcement, and municipal workers must be educated and armed with the right tools so that they have a holistic awareness and knowledge of what sex trafficking is and how multi-faceted the problem is, and then must be able to recognize the signs of sexual abuse and slavery. We all need to know what a predator does rather than stereotypes of what they look like. Because just like victims, perpetrators don’t always look the same, and sadly, they are often the people you don’t expect – family, friends, teachers, or people who hold high positions of authority and respect.

Every person on earth has the ability to make a meaningful difference, if they want to…. but each of YOU have even greater opportunities, ability, and capacity to do what many cannot. You have the power to provide resources, create programs, and change laws and policies that could result in meaningful and lasting change, so that this generation and future generations won’t go through what so many men, women, and children, are going through on a daily basis in the US and around the world today.

It is absolutely crucial that we all resign to do something about these issues RIGHT NOW.  If enough of us start to take action and begin to turn these issues around, the incremental changes we make today could save millions of children’s’ lives in the future. There is no time waste.