Terry Forliti came to Breaking Free because she needed help. She was a drug addict, felon, and sex-trafficking survivor looking for a way out of the cycle of sexual exploitation she calls “the life.” Now, she’s the Executive Director. Working to help women escape sex trafficking and prostitution through services such as safe housing, support groups, and survivor advocacy, she leads Breaking Free with a passion for providing stability and instilling hope. In our conversation, Terry shared about empowerment, basic needs, and the importance of eliminating shame.
October 28, 2021
How would you describe the work of Breaking Free?
We provide resources to those who have experienced sexual exploitation. By sexual exploitation, we mean commodification—trading sex for money. Based on our collective experience, we are able to build systems of support that enable our clients to exit the life, including a safety plan and guidance for achieving goals that they establish for themselves. Sometimes our clients may be navigating chemical dependency, cognitive challenges, legal issues, child protection issues, and/or a combination of all. One of the biggest barriers to escaping the life is a lack of housing. Housing is a priority focus of Breaking Free.
How does their history in the life affect the women now?
I’ll give you some examples from my own life. Cocaine was my drug of choice, and every time I hear Eric Clapton’s song “Cocaine” on the radio, I reflect on my experiences in the life because of cocaine. Or, the other day, I drove by a dope-house, which reminded me of my exploitation in that house some years ago. What I’m saying is that we can never completely escape what happened to us. We can dissociate or push it down, but it’s never going away. Breaking Free comes alongside others throughout their healing journey.
What about your work inspires you?
I'm inspired when I see change. When I see that light bulb turn on that says, “I’m going to be OK” or “I’m going to make it” or “There is hope.” When we’re able to find somebody permanent supportive housing. When we’re able to get somebody off the streets. When somebody walks through the doors of Breaking Free. When I see someone who is completely dead and has no hope transform into someone who believes in hope. That’s my incentive.
What does that hope lead to?
We all know this journey is hard, but hope allows us to switch it up. It allows us to take a look at our circumstances and bring a fullness of life and energy and spirit and positivity. Because we get to pick if we are going to be bummed out all day or if we are going to be happy. I understand what these women have been through. I have compassion for them, and I want to encourage them toward hope.
What impact do you hope to have on the women you work with?
I want to help them get to a better place. What that looks like to me is that they have a safe space in which to live and raise a family. A place where they’re not burdened by the threat of physical or sexual violence or any kind of exploitation. It looks like them being able to get the education they want and to have that afforded to them so they can attain it without too much trouble. So, I want to always be asking “How can we come alongside you? How can we empower you?” And I will never use shame to do it.
Why is it important to avoid shame?
From my experience as a survivor, I know shame does not motivate change. Many of our clients have expressed feelings of shame, guilt, and grief. They often feel that it was their own bad decision that led to them trading themselves for profit—but do not understand the larger power and control principles at work. We are often not aware of vulnerabilities within ourselves and our communities that can result in involvement in the life. We need to understand trauma and how it permeates the whole body. When survivors stop living out of somebody else’s narrative—like, “because I’m trans, I have to sell myself for sex”—we can start realizing our worth.
What happens when that trauma is understood?
You can move forward. Because it takes away the belief that you aren’t capable of making a healthy decision. And it allows for self-advocacy, self-realization, and self-empowerment. When survivors recognize the systems of shame and oppression that trapped them in the past, they start believing in themselves and loving themselves.
What do you hope is different in your community because of Breaking Free?
I want to see fewer people having to pay for their rent or their food by trading sex. I want there to be other options for people. And I want people to be able to think about their idea of “the good life” and go after it, whatever it may be. Often, that starts with the basics: food, clothing, and shelter. So, I want to help them achieve that.
Why are basic needs and short-term goals so important?
We don’t have a lot of opportunity to think about long-term goals. What’s important is that these women feel good about themselves today. That their kids are OK today. That today, they don’t trade sex or use heroin. That today, they have a key so they can lock their doors behind them and know their families are safe. That today, they’re not sleeping under a bridge. We don’t have very lofty goals, because I’ve realized we shouldn’t try to reach higher than the moon. Right now, we’re just making sure our girls get through today. Because I want to afford them the dignity of knowing they’re going to be OK.
"When survivors recognize the systems of shame and oppression that trapped them in the past, they start believing in themselves and loving themselves."
What are you building toward?
I want these women to feel empowered to feel good about themselves. To realize they matter and are accepted somewhere and can make a difference in the world. To realize their voice is important. I’m providing them opportunities to feel safe and secure, because ultimately, I’m trying to help them actualize the lives they want to live.
What drives you to do that?
I understand my assignment. It’s to provide others with the dignity and ability to find their individual callings—their directions. It’s to walk alongside people and help them visualize their dream of what life could look life without exploitation and oppression. This is very fulfilling.