How One Woman Is Using Dresses to Fight Sex Trafficking
Blythe Hill is the founder and CEO of the Dressember Foundation, an anti-trafficking nonprofit organization that engages women and men in the fight to end modern-day slavery. Read her powerful essay about why we need to act now below, and join the challenge or donate to the cause here.
I was 19 years old when I first learned about sex trafficking. I learned that women and girls are bought and sold for profit, against their will, in places like India, Cambodia, and Thailand. Three years later, in 2008, the film Taken—in which Liam Neeson plays a former government operative who springs to action when his teenage daughter and her friend are abducted by traffickers in Paris—hit box offices and made the conversation around sex trafficking mainstream.
The more I learned about human trafficking, the more I felt compelled to get involved. I was not merely interested; I felt a sense of personal urgency to do something to stop the exploitation of women internationally. People have asked why I care so much about this issue. The answer points back to my childhood.
I was 4 years old the first time I was molested. It wasn’t until I was 12 years old that the memories surfaced and the trauma began to set in. For years, I carried the weight of guilt and shame, and wrestled with questions no teenager is equipped to answer. Am I lovable? Am I disposable? It took years for me to process what had happened, release myself from the burden of shame, and ultimately forgive my abuser. I feel lucky to be able to say I have moved forward to a place where my abuse experience does not define who I am or who I will become; but to this day, when I hear the stories of women forced to perform sexual acts—sometimes servicing as many as 40 men per day—the fire inside me grows stronger.
We know more about this issue than we did at the time I was first hearing of it; we know that slavery exists in every part of the world, and in every city in the U.S. It is the fastest growing criminal industry in the world and pervades pornography, escort services, strip clubs, truck stops, and more. You may or may not know that a very small percentage (less than 2 percent of reported cases) of trafficking involves kidnapping, even though the Taken franchise and news stories of suspected near-abduction cases lead us to believe this is the primary method of recruitment. In fact, the primary method of recruitment involves coercion. Here in the U.S., 72 percent of trafficking victims are U.S. citizens, and many have ties to the foster care system. Traffickers prey on foster care runaways in particular: it’s estimated that one in three runaway foster care children will be recruited by a trafficker within 48 hours.
When I was in college, though, this was an issue I perceived to be happening in faraway countries. I felt an uncontainable amount of passion to do something yet at the same time felt powerless to do anything. I wasn’t a lawyer, a social worker, a cop, or a psychologist—what could I do? I sat feeling powerless for no less than four years.
But in 2009 everything began to change, and I didn’t even know it at the time. It started with a dress.
Still in college, I decided to create a personal style challenge. I came up with the idea to wear a dress every day for a month, just for fun. The next month happened to be December and, being a lover of puns, I came up with a name for my style challenge: Dressember. Then, I did it. I wore dresses everyday for an entire month, never planning to do it again.
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But the next year, some of my girlfriends said they wanted to do it with me. So I did it again, thinking they were either also bored or humoring me. The next year, in 2011, my girlfriend’s girlfriends wanted to join. It was at that point I realized people liked Dressember apart from knowing me, and I started to dream about what more it could be.
It was an easy choice for me to align Dressember with anti-trafficking and, after researching, I chose to partner with International Justice Mission (IJM), the world’s leading anti-trafficking organization, for their commitment to rescuing and restoring victims of violent oppression. I reached out to IJM, and to my surprise they responded that they loved it and would help promote Dressember.
In 2013, our first fundraising year, I set what felt was an ambitious goal: $25,000. We hit that on the third day of the campaign, and proceeded to raise over $165,000. Last year was our fourth campaign year, and we raised $1.5 million—enough to fund 238 rescue operations.
A lot of things have changed since 2013—we’ve added two grant partners and formalized our grant-making process—but, at the same time, not a lot has changed: at the heart of everything we do at Dressember is the belief that every life is valuable and that no one should be robbed of their inherent right to a free and vibrant life.
I make a point to visit one of our partners’ offices in the field every year. A couple years ago, I visited IJM’s office in the Dominican Republic. In Santo Domingo, IJM focuses on cases of child sex trafficking. I will never forget meeting Mariam*, whose story still shakes me. Mariam’s mother couldn’t care for her, and so for years, Mariam was passed between family members. When she was 14, her mother decided she wanted her back, and Mariam was hopeful she’d finally have the life and relationship with her mother she had craved for years. Soon after they moved in together, Mariam’s mother sold her to a trafficker.
When IJM found Mariam, she was working the streets of Santo Domingo. She was 15 years old and 5 months pregnant. IJM led an investigation to rescue Mariam and represent her in court. When I met Mariam she was 17 and radiating hope. Instead of appearing weighed down by the betrayal of her mother and the trauma of being exploited, she seemed puzzlingly joyful. I realized that because of the work of our partner IJM, Mariam’s story doesn’t center on her abuse; because of her rescue and the process of restoration, her story is continuing, and it is bending toward redemption.
One of the things I love most about Dressember is that it is an opportunity to celebrate the fun and freedom of fashion while using it literally as a tool for the freedom of others. It’s also a reminder that every choice we make—what we buy, what we wear, what we say—is an opportunity to advocate for the dignity of others.
*Name has been changed for survivor’s protection.