What it Means to Overcome

Autumn Burris ’11 and the fight to end systems of prostitution.

When Autumn Burris applied to UC San Diego she was in her mid-40s, a single mom, and a sex trafficking survivor.

I never thought in a million years I would get in. But there is nothing impossible in my world. So I applied and got in,” she says, smoothing out a strand of long brown hair.

We’re at an outdoor table at a hotel just off campus, not far from the fresh-faced wedding party dressed in bow ties and lacy dresses that has taken over the lounge. Burris explains how she thought she’d complete the accelerated paralegal program, but instead she ended up with a degree in political science and public policy, with a minor in human rights.

“I am an activist,” she says. “I wanted to make a different kind of impact. I wanted to work on policies and make sure they are survivor-informed. I wanted to help make things better for the exploited person right now. I felt like, at my age, that is where I could make the biggest impact.”

Burris graduated in 2011 at the age of 46. By December 2012, she was invited to speak on behalf of sex trafficking survivors at the Stakeholders’ Forum in preparation for the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. “I spoke in front of heads of countries and global stakeholders. I wasn’t nervous because I graduated from UCSD, so I knew all about how the U.N. worked. I knew what stakeholders meant, and I knew who in the room was important.” Burris smiles at the memory before continuing. “When I walked into that room it was such a rush. I had five minutes. I said, ‘Five minutes isn’t enough time to talk about prostitution,’ and they said, ‘Heads of countries don’t even get five minutes!’ So, I sucked it up and I made my shit happen.”

Burris has been invited back to speak at the same conference numerous times. Last year she spoke on the #MeToo  movement, about how “prostitution is #MeToo on steroids.” Today she’s just come from another speaking engagement at UC San Diego, the Time to Rise! Global Empowerment Summit, an annual event hosted by the Social Impact and Innovation Program at the Qualcomm Institute. As Naila Chowdhury, summit organizer and director of social impact & innovation at UC San Diego explains, “It’s time to rise with action and solutions, time to build bridges, create a platform for voices, time to empower women and youth, the next generation of leaders who are the custodians of our future. We want to leave behind a safer, engaged, inclusive, compassionate and responsible campus, society and world.” Burris is an accomplished and highly-sought after leader toward this kind of world, one in which human trafficking and systems of prostitution have no place. She is also a firm voice for those who have survived those systems—having been through them herself.

Burris grew up in the coastal town of Corpus Christi, Texas. “I was a straight-A student,” she says. “I was an overachieving kid. I came from a family that was upper middle class. I grew up in a mentally ill and dysfunctional family,
but, like, who didn’t?”

When Burris talks about her past, her demeanor changes. Without realizing it, she shifts in her chair. Her eyes move to the walkway beyond us, where a couple walks by with a fluffy dog. A bike whips past. She lights a cigarette and exhales toward the tree-lined path before continuing.

“I feel like it wasn’t necessarily only my childhood that drove me into being vulnerable to the sex trade,” she explains. “It was more about the things that happened to me as a teenager.”

She collects her thoughts for a moment and says that there are aspects and locations in her life story she does not feel safe to share.

In her early teens, Burris was involved in an abusive relationship. Her boyfriend told her she was fat, ugly, and that no one would ever love her but him. Then, at the age of 17, she was gang-raped by a group of authority figures on the beach after exiting the water from a boogie board session.

“Texas is a good ol’ boys club. You don’t tell. You kept your mouth shut and you moved on. I ended up having to [move away] because of the excoriating shame around the gang rape. I didn’t tell anyone about the rape. I mean, the whole community knew it happened—the kids in my age group—but back in those days it wasn’t like we had #MeToo or #TimesUp, it was like, ‘You are the bad girl.’ It’s always the bad girl,” Burris explains with a heavy sigh.

It wasn’t until leaving her hometown, to a location she does not want to disclose, that Burris became a sex trafficking victim.

“I ended up getting trafficked by organized crime into the stripping industry,” she says. Burris doesn’t elaborate on this chapter in her life, due to safety concerns. But she says grew tired of stripping quickly. She didn’t like having her hours controlled or paying stage fees and tipping out at the end of the night.

“I decided to follow the American dream and go into business for myself,” she says. “I went into [what was called] back then, street prostitution. Most of my buyers were politicians. A lot of it was high-end, some low-end, and all points in between. But it all feels the same to the human psyche and the physical body, because it is paid rape. Compensation and vulnerability have nothing to do with consent.”

She is staring off in the distance, at a spot in the sky past the tree line.

“I just kept telling myself, ‘Suck it up! Suck it up! You’re a bad girl! Suck it up.’”

She talks about the violence at the hands of sex buyers. She was beaten and thrown out of cars. “The police wouldn’t help you back then,” she says, “so you dusted your knees off and walked on. I was beaten so badly [by a sex buyer] that my face was literally deformed. Sex buyers continued to buy me without asking if I was OK. Sex buyers don’t give a shit if you’re being trafficked or if your face is deformed. They’re not looking for your face. They still picked me up. Even when I was just trying to get back to my hotel to wash the blood off, I was still being bought and sold.”

Burris is an abolitionist. She is adamantly against the current movements for the decriminalization, legalization, regulation, and normalization of prostitution. If you mention the words “sex work,” Burris fumes. After the Women’s March Movement and the World Health Organization started supporting the term and Amnesty International called on governments to decriminalize pimping, brothel-owning, and “sex work,” Burris petitioned international organizations and urged Amnesty International to change the language being used in regard to prostitution, and explained why the legalization of prostitution is a human rights atrocity.

“I am not going to pull any punches; I want [prostitution] to end. Look at Germany, where prostitution is legalized—the women in the brothels there are having sexual contact with up to 60 men per day,” she says matter-of-factly.

Burris is a fierce advocate for change not only in the dialogue surrounding the sex trade, but in policy and enforcement matters as well. She is a firm believer in the Nordic Model, also called the Equality Model, which essentially penalizes sex buyers, decriminalizes those who are prostituted, and offers support services to help sex trafficking victims exit.

“The Equality Model is what works,” she says. “We need to put the onus via criminal penalties and fines and, in some cases, jail time, on the purchasers of sex, and the traffickers, or as some people call them, pimps. We need that onus to be legally and appropriately placed. But, most importantly, we need to offer some type of exit services to the prostituted persons. We don’t force comprehensive exit services onto people, but we offer them, we invite them.”

The services Burris speaks of are ones that saved her from the sex trade.

“My exit [from sex trafficking] was very unintended,” she says. “I intended to continue on being a ‘bad girl.’ I really thought I was going to die out there. What happened instead was, I got a thing called deep vein thrombosis in my leg. I was in my early 30s. That doesn’t medically normally happen. I was 85 pounds. I went into a clinic in San Francisco. They never judged me even though they knew what I was doing. They were nothing but supportive. While I was hospitalized, someone from a substance abuse community came in and said, ‘We would like to offer you some services.’ I said, ‘Get out! I’m just trying to get through this.’ But I ended up hitting my bottom, so I became willing to get help.”

She received peer counseling from a woman named Norma Hotaling, founder and executive director of Standing Against Global Exploitation (SAGE), a rehabilitation project credited with pioneering the approach for holistic treatment and recovery following prostitution. What’s more, the organization was predominantly survivor-run—including Hotaling.

“Norma looked at me from across a table,” Burris continues, “and said ‘I was there where you are now 15 years ago, and you can be where I am.’ I believed her. She built trust and rapport with me much quicker than a clinician could, because she had been there, done that.” Within six months of leaving the sex trade, Burris became heavily involved in running SAGE administratively and doing local activism. “That’s where I found my passion: being involved in the fight, alongside other survivors, holding sex buyers accountable and ensuring that exploited persons had a way to exit.”

Her time at SAGE led her on a path to become a consultant for law enforcement, helping officers and detectives understand prostitution from the perspective of those being trafficked. It was work she continued to do even as she worked toward her degree at UC San Diego—she attended police task force meetings, and even recalls occasions in between classes, being on the phone with detectives and lending her perspective on their cases.

Autumn Burris ’11 has spoken before the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women numerous times, speaking on behalf of sex trafficking survivors.

“Almost a decade ago, Autumn was ahead of her time in putting forth a survivor-informed approach to the fight against human trafficking,” says Charisma De Los Reyes, a former social worker who worked with Burris on the task force. Now a policy analyst, De Los Reyes is able to apply the concepts Burris introduced on a much wider scale. “This is not just talk,” she says. “Autumn’s advocacy work directly impacts the lives of those who are going through terrible experiences, and helps them thrive once they make their exit.”

Shortly after graduating, Burris launched Survivors for Solutions, her own business committed to reaching back and assisting survivor leaders who desire to enhance their lives though professional development and leadership. The organization also offers sex trafficking survivors a platform to be heard via public policy reform, education and training. Burris is also sought for her perspective not only at conferences and change summits, but as expert testimony in sex trafficking trials as well.

My goal has always been to engage and develop survivor leaders,” she says. “I also want to continue to work on the public policy piece in the area of international human rights, which I was trained for here at UC San Diego.”

Burris believes the need for creating survivor-informed policy is becoming especially critical, as she has seen an escalation in the trauma sex trafficking victims are enduring in recent years.

“I don’t diminish my story,” she says, “but I am telling you, the stories I am hearing now with the internet and legalized prostitution are clearly a violation of human rights and the spirit and integrity of us as women. I can ensure you with 100 percent security that pornography, illicit massage, stripping and sex trafficking are all connected. It might not feel the same, but they are inextricable.”

Burris is looking me square in the face now. She continues, passionately explaining.

“We have to put money into prevention,” she adds. “Prevention is about educating sex buyers too. It’s about not letting them off the hook. It’s about looking at that male toxic masculinity and helping men and boys to make the change and engage them in the fight. Education is power. One instance in any form of male violence against women is one too many.”

Burris takes a long sip from the drink in front of her. She looks past me at a spot just behind my shoulder. I turn to look, thinking perhaps she recognizes someone walking on the winding path behind us. But there is no one there. She is deep in thought, lost in a memory. Finally, she says, “At the end of the day I just want people to know I am a normal human being and survivors of any type of violence can overcome and be whatever they want in the world. My life could be anybody’s life.”

If you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, call 888-373-7888. humantraffickinghotline.org.