For a lot of people, working with human trafficking survivors can be eye-opening and empowering. For a lot of organizations, knowing the needs and feelings of the survivors can be difficult at times. But for Noel, this was her reality– she is a survivor. No one needs to empower her. She is determined to help girls and women exploited for sex in any way possible. She does this by simply listening to them.
Noel Gomez was “in the life” for 15 years, but with resilience, she has dedicated her life to work against the industry that could have killed her.
Exiting The Life
After getting out of the life, Noel started in a job as a chemical dependency counselor working with youth in juvenile detention. As these young girls started talking with her and using vocabulary like “the blade” (a reference to Highway 99, a strip of road known for prostitution), Noel realized that a majority of these girls were sex trafficking victims. Unsure of who to reach out to and where to help them find the services they needed, Noel began handing out her cell number. There was no one Noel knew that could help. Shortly after, Noel read in the newspaper about a job with the city of Seattle to facilitate a class for Johns and sex workers. This class was for both the men who were arrested for buying sex and the women arrested for prostitution. By the end of the day-long class, their record of this crime would be wiped.
After seeing the many women in this class who needed more time to process all they had been through, Noel decided it was time to create her own organization and address the physical and emotional needs of someone who is or was involved in the sex industry. It would be a safe place for them to seek asylum.
Since the city dedicated resources to help youth trafficking victims, Noel was drawn to adult victims and wanted to give them the same opportunity to rebuild their lives and the services they lacked.
As the Co- founder and Co-director of Organization for Prostitution Survivors(OPS), Noel was able to implement all the needs she deemed necessary from her experience and from the experience of others as well.
What I find most incredible about Noel and OPS is her sensitivity to the challenges that survivors must overcome. The girls and women coming to OPS want to get out of the situation they are in, but it is not a smooth or quick process. Noel allows the girls and women to come forward and go at their own pace when exiting from their trafficker (or pimp). What Noel offers that very few other organizations do, is the ability to draw in people still involved in the trade rather than only those who have left it. She is able to do this by partnering with LEAD, an organization who directs girls and women on Aurora/Highway 99 to OPS. LEAD advocates for low-level drug users and people in prostitution to go into community-based care instead of jail.
“It’s time for men to set up and treat us and see us as equals. Not see us for our bodies.”
In addition to providing services for survivors, OPS developed and implemented a 10-week program for men arrested for buying sex in King County entitled Stopping Sexual Exploitation (SSE). OPS partners with Seattle Against Slavery on delivering this program which helps men transform their behavior. This program encourages men to focus on alternativesto buying sex in hopes that positive reinforcement will lead to a better habit. Though more is needed, it is a starting point to changing our culture.
Noel points out the tolerance for gender based violence displayed in music and media. Youth today are unconsciously singing along to words explicitly demeaning women and objectifying their bodies.
This conversation gave me pause to reflect on what sexist messages I have witnessed in the things I choose to watch and listen too: while America makes leaps and bounds to bridge the gap in equality between the sexes, the portrayal of women in the media has an adverse effect on this progress. From blatant objectification of bodies, to sexist punch lines, and movies plots that reinforce stereotypes that women need saving, it is clear that America has a long way to go.
Green River Memorial
OPS continues to support survivors by acknowledging the violence that people in the sex industry face. Most recently, the organization created a moving memorial that is being displayed to honor the ‘Green River’ victims at the School of Social Work at the University of Washington’s campus.
Through the 1980s-1990s, The Green River Killer killed over 49 children and women off of Pacific Highway because he knew he could get away with it. Although he was caught in 2000 and due process was served, many still live with the weight of their family members’ death. Sensitive to those affected from the deaths of these girls and women, the OPS team worked with the families and survivors to create clay art and display them in a memorial. They made sure that this art is publicly displayed where students, family members and the community could learn about their life and loss. Displaying these pieces of art reminds society of the danger inflicted upon those who are sexually exploited. Noel Gomez keeps these beautiful names alive.
To forget them is to surrender to the murderer’s belief that these girls were worthless. “These were our sisters. These were human beings caught up in a heinous industry they were unwillingly forced into due to financial reasons or abduction.”
These are the people Noel will never forget and these are the reasons she fights for justice.
If you are interested in learning more, please visit the Green River Victims’ Memorial at the UW School of Social Work. To support the work of Noel and OPS, click here.