Episode 100 – Rebecca Bender, Lessons from a Survivor

There is truly no better person to continue our special Resilience Series than Rebecca Bender. At a young age, Rebecca was sold into human trafficking. What transpired, and what she’ll share with us today, is an unbelievable journey. Join Rebecca and Jessica as they walk through the dire realities of this story, as well as discover the courage it takes to recapture your life and redefine your future.


Jessica: Hey, everyone. Welcome back to the Going Scared podcast. This is your host Jessica Honegger, founder of the social impact fashion brand Noonday Collection. Well, we are nearing the end of our series on resilience, and I know that these conversations, during my hard days, my days when I seriously just wander around my house and think, “When is this all going to end,” or I am driving around with my mask on and I’m thinking, “When is this all going to end?” These conversations from people who have risen back from difficulty in the most profound ways have inspired me towards hope on those days that have been really hard, and today’s story is no different. Today I am talking with Rebecca Bender. Rebecca Bender was a varsity athlete and honor-roll student with a promising future when a young man pretending to be her boyfriend lured her down a path that she never imagined existed.

For nearly 6 years, Rebecca was beaten, brainwashed, told when to sleep and what to wear, and was traded and sold across the underground world of sex trafficking in Las Vegas. Forced into a sisterhood that she thought was family, Rebecca didn’t know a way out. But in her despair, she found hope. And she found the hope that she needed to survive.

Today we talked about Rebecca’s story of escape and her decision to go back to the darkest places she had known to help other women find freedom. Rebecca Bender now assists FBI and law enforcement across the country in some of their toughest human trafficking cases throughout her non-profit: The Rebecca Bender Initiative. She’s also the founder of Elevate Academy and lives with her husband and four daughters in the Pacific Northwest. And we talk about her newest book, In Pursuit of Love.


Rebecca Bender: CEO, Author, Mother, Preacher, and Survivor

Jessica: I know we have so many shared passions, and I am just thankful for your own vulnerability. And I hope this can be a space for vulnerability for you. You are so brave. And, as you know, this is called The Going Scared podcast, and we’ll all about courage. And you truly are a courageous woman. And I want to be sensitive to your story, but I also know that you share about it so openly. So, I’d love to just hear what you’re comfortable sharing from the period of time that you were in Las Vegas. Let’s just start there.

Rebecca: Yes. I started sharing my story publicly a long time ago because I wanted to sound the alarm that trafficking was happening in every community, you know, across America. I think most people think of human trafficking, they envision kidnapped, white minivan, you know, children in foreign countries possibly or handcuffed to a radiator. And what people don’t realize is two things. One is, that doesn’t sell, right? When you’re thinking of human trafficking, it’s sex for sale. And so, traffickers want to keep their product sellable. So, in America, in a developed country where sex for sale is really rampant, that type of scenario isn’t really what’s selling. And the other thing people don’t understand is that as survivors of trafficking, we grew up in the same culture as all of you. So, we too are envisioning white minivans and kidnapping.

And when our situation doesn’t look like that, we don’t think to even ask for help, or we don’t even realize that we’re, you know… that the water’s heating up around us, that it’s getting really dangerous until it’s a point of being very dangerous. And then, you realize like, "Oh, why didn’t I see this sooner?" So, then, you feel stupid. You feel embarrassed. You just self-blame like, "Well, I got in the car. Well, I got on the plane. You know, I just have a bad picker." You know, you hear women sometimes say that when they’ve been in bad relationships. And so, survivors, domestically, we’re the same. We’re the same as you guys, and we end up having those same things play out in our own minds.

Jessica: So, tell us a little bit, for those of us that are unfamiliar with your story, why don’t you share a little bit about your story.

Rebecca: Yeah. I grew up in a small town in southern Oregon, just an average kind of all-American small-town kid, a blue-collar family, and my dad worked at the local lumber mill. My mom taught aerobics on the side, and I just grew up with a normal childhood. I grew up skipping rocks at the river and having swim holes and, you know, jumping off of the little swing in a tree into the river. I was an only child. I was real close with my cousins. I’d, you know, go out to the garden with a salt shaker and pick a tomato, and just a normal kinda small-town farm kid. I had a praying grandma, but I was not raised in a faith-based home. My dad and mom actually kinda partied a lot on the weekend, and I can remember going to friends’ houses and their parents would be all out in the living room having a drink. And the kids would be in the back playing Nintendo. And that was just kind of my life growing up.

When I was nine, my parents divorced. It was a really ugly divorce, a lot of throwing things against walls, a lot of screaming, a lot of fighting. My dad started drinking really heavy. And I can remember someone would knock at the door, and he would have me hide all the alcohol. And now that I’m, obviously, older and hindsight’s 20/20, but you do this work when you’re working through your trauma to build resiliency. And you realize that there were these pivotal moments that took root in your heart that actually, you know, almost like lies took root that you didn’t realize as a kid. And I think in some of those moments, I started realizing or, I was taught rather, that you hide secrets in this home, right? You self-medicate, and then you hide it. And that’s kind of what was modeled for me. By the time I was starting high school, things had turned around. My mom had got remarried, and I was a varsity athlete, an honor-roll student. Also, I didn’t have a lot of boundaries. You know, as an only child, a latchkey kid. And I just kind of raised myself. I’d walk myself to and from practice, and I was always full of adventure.

“And I think in some of those moments, I started realizing, or I was taught rather, that you hide secrets in this home, right? You self-medicate, and then you hide it. And that’s kind of what was modeled for me.” Rebecca Bender

I wanted to get out of my small town and be the first girl after a football game to jump in the back of a four-wheel truck and head to the bonfire with beer, and, I mean, just kind of… you know, I liked to be involved in things. That’s why I liked sports, that’s why I liked school. I was real gregarious. You know, I was a cheerleader, and I was the goalie on the varsity soccer team and just real involved and active. And so, when I found myself pregnant at 17 and had my daughter at 18, things changed. You know, you can’t be as active. You can’t be as involved. And I’m not using that as an excuse it just was the reality as a 17, 18-year-old girl to start realizing that life was gonna be very different. And all these dreams and ambitions that you have were gonna have to change. And so, you’re kind of grieving the loss of those ideals and trying to navigate being a single teen mom. That’s hard, and giving up your dorm room at college, and staying in the small town and thinking, "Okay, what now?"

And that’s when I met the most amazing guy. He was charming, and he was fun, and he was ambitious, and he had all these big dreams too, and he wasn’t from my area. And so, he seemed like, you know, the older cool kid that took an interest in me and my daughter. And everything was about "us" and "we" and brought me into something that made me feel like I had a belonging. And he had these big ideas of, you know, getting out of the state, out of town, and just building something great. And I got swooped up in that vulnerable time of my life. I got swooped up in that excitement, and I just fell head over heels in love, just this in love 19-year-old girl. And then he told me that his job was relocating him and that families didn’t live in Vegas. And I can remember thinking, "He thinks we’re a family." And so, I begged to go not knowing that he was actually a trafficker and that he wasn’t even the age he said he was. He didn’t have the job he said he was. I mean, a complete fraud.

And when you look at the definition of human trafficking legally, when you’re actually trying to prosecute a case, and we can get into this later, but when you’re prosecuting a case, law enforcement and attorneys look for three things. They look for the use of force, fraud, or coercion at point of recruitment and at point of destination. And so, that’s something that I think we don’t understand as we’re looking for kidnap, right? I’m an ’80s kid. I grew up being taught stranger danger. Look out for the white minivan and a puppy and someone offering you candy in the back seat, you know. And you’re not taught what to look for when someone’s a con artist when they’re using fraud at point of recruitment pretending to be someone they’re not. Sociopaths do that. They actually mirror exactly what someone else needs in order to fit that need in order to get what they want. That’s a very common tactic with sociopaths. And I just didn’t know. I’m a small-town girl. You weren’t taught to look for these things. And when I got to Vegas, it became not at all what he had promised.


Things Aren’t Always What They Seem

Jessica: Tell us about that. You get to Vegas. Your little girl is with you, and when did it become apparent that you were in an abusive situation?

Rebecca: I mean, almost the day that I arrived it became apparent. His brother had helped us move. I had met his brother lots. You know, you think it’s a normal progression of a relationship when you’re meeting the other boyfriend’s family. You know, if everyone could put themselves back to remembering being, now I’m 18, maybe 19, you can remember being that age. And you think you’re in a normal relationship, and you’re meeting their family. And you’re, you know, getting ready to move in together. And so, it feels like this natural really next step. His brother helped us move. He drove the U-Haul, hooked the car to the back, and we flew in. And so, I can’t remember if it was the day or the next day. It felt like the day that his brother arrived. He said, "Get dressed up. I’m gonna take you out on the town. And, you know, my brother’s gonna watch the baby." And Vegas is so invigorating for a young girl, and I had borrowed my friends’ fake ID. This was pre-Jesus, and there’s no judging, right? This was pre-Jesus.

Jessica: There’s no judging anyway. There’s no judging anyway. This is a judgment-free zone.

Rebecca: So, I borrowed my friend’s fake ID, and I got dressed up and he drove me to this dead-end street. And I can remember pulling up along the curb. He kind of flipped his car around and parked the truck along the curb. And there was this big deserted strip mall. There’s no lights, no signs, just this gray deserted strip mall. And he said, "I spent a lot of money to get you here. I put first and last on the apartment." Went over the things he paid for, and he said, "That was the money I was using for my job, and I need to get that money back." And I remember feeling embarrassed kind of like, "Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize how much it cost to move half-way across the country." I don’t want to seem like, you know, the young naive girl at 19 when he’s this older professional executive and businessman. And so, I said, "Yeah, I need to get a job, whatever we need to do." And I had already pushed my boundaries with hypersexuality. I’d already, you know, tried dancing as a single mom. He continued to encourage it. And traffickers do that. They’ll gradually expand your boundaries. It’s never this black and white, you know, like we see on "Law and Order." It’s like they meet a guy at the mall, and the next thing you know, she’s in a miniskirt and fishnets. It actually takes a lot more time than 43 minutes, right?

“It’s never this black and white… In real life, traffickers take their time to really expand your boundaries, little by little by little.” Rebecca Bender

And so, that’s why episodes go so quick because they don’t have that much time. But in real life, traffickers take their time to really expand your boundaries, little by little by little. And so, I thought, "Yeah, whatever we need to do." And he said, "Well, this is an escort service. I need you to go in and sign up." And I said, "Escort? That’s prostitution." And he goes, "No, no, no. This is just dancing. It’s just like dancing. It’s just like doing those private parties, and this is how it works in Vegas. This is how they get girls, you know, in bikinis at those really fancy suites where there’s bowling alleys and basketball courts in the hotel rooms. And this is just how it works here." And I thought, "Yeah, I’m from a small town, but I’m not that naive. Escort’s prostitution. No, that’s where I draw the line. You want me to go dance, I’ll go dance, but escort’s prostitution." And that’s when he slapped me across the face, and he said, "You’re gonna go in that room and you’re gonna get my money back."

And I can remember having this moment of, obviously, you’re being hit for the first time as a 19-year-old girl by someone that you love. And so, there’s this moment of real sadness. And then I remember feeling this like splash of cold water in the face of, "I don’t know where my baby is. I don’t know my address by heart. I didn’t write it down and send it home to my mom. Like, I wouldn’t even know where to tell anyone to take me if I jumped out of the car and ran in my, you know, what I thought was my going to the club gear. He’s in tennis shoes. I’m in high heels. Like, I wanted to say, "Okay. Well, maybe I can trust him. I love him. It’s gonna be fine. I can trust him." When I got in that escort service room, it was a whole bunch of women, phone girls at these desks like butted up together. And on the wall, there was a dry erase board. It had categories, blonde, brunette, redhead, Asian, exotic, and all these kinda like stripper names underneath, Candy, Bambi, you know. I mean, I apologize if anyone listening is named that, but they had names that would align with this front for being…

Jessica: Personality type.

Rebecca: Yeah, and the front of being a dancing service, right? And so, I thought, "Okay. Well, this is like a dance club," because in a strip club you also have a board with your name of who’s next on set. And so, you’re like, "Okay. Well, this kinda looks similar." And the lady pulls out paperwork and, you know, it’s like the medical paperwork with all this fine print. No one’s really reading it, and you’re kinda just initial next to each thing, and you’re just kinda skimming pretending like you’re reading. And the lady says, "It just says that you won’t solicit sex. We don’t hire those kind of girls." And it was like, "See, I can believe him. Okay. Maybe he is right. Maybe this will just be how it works in a big city," but it wasn’t. It wasn’t dancing at all. And I can remember within an hour getting our first call, within moments even, getting our first call, and so, within an hour realizing that this was not what I was tricked to believe. Holding my daughter pretty much hostage even if he didn’t say the words, it was that implicit, "We have your baby," type of feeling.

And I just remember thinking, "I just want to get back to yesterday. I just want to get back to this place of being excited and in love," and finally have this family that, you know, broken nine-year-old me really wanted, and the ambition and sense of like, "I finally met someone that had all the answers." And the other option felt like I didn’t want the dream to slip away. And I thought, "Well, maybe this will get better tomorrow. Now that I’ve made the money, the moving money back, tomorrow, it will be better, you know." And you justify, and you rationalize staying in bad situations, whether it’s a job that you’ve witnessed sexual harassment at. You turn the other cheek and you think, "It will get better tomorrow. And, you know, that guy will end up getting fired," or whether it’s staying in a toxic friendship and you know that even though you’ve been friends for a very long time, that this might not be what God has. And you think it will get better, and I’ll keep praying for her. So, I think we all have moments where we have justified a really bad situation and hoped that it would get better. And I was no different in that moment of being 19 thinking, "It will get better tomorrow. It will get better tomorrow," but it didn’t.

“And you justify, and you rationalize staying in bad situations, whether it’s a job that you’ve witnessed sexual harassment at. You turn the other cheek and you think, "It will get better tomorrow” … I think we all have moments where we have justified a really bad situation and hoped that it would get better.” Rebecca Bender

Jessica: What are some of those tactics of abuse that kept you in this enslaved, both physical situation and even in your mindset that you were trapped?


A Cycle of Abuse

Rebecca: You know, I think traffickers, they’re very good and calculating. They’re being very thoughtful of their plan. They’re a long-term con artist. They’re not… you know, this isn’t a crime of passion. This isn’t a rageful night of, "We’re gonna abuse a girl and then put her through this honeymoon." You know, they’re actually very calculating in the way they continually feed you lies. I can remember getting to this place where I felt like as quickly as I tried to remind myself with truth was as quickly as he would refill my cup back up with, "Well, now it’s because of this. Now, it’s because of that. Well, you know, now it’s the drugs. Now it’s…" And a lot of people say, "Why didn’t you just run? Why didn’t you call your mom for help? Why didn’t you just tell somebody?" And my answer is, "I did run. That’s why I’m standing here." Like, I did, eventually, run. That’s why I’m here.

One of the girls I was trafficked with, she’s still being trafficked. I did run. Why didn’t I run sooner? Well, over the years that passed, I learned patterns of behaviors, and I started catching on. And I did try to run. I had multiple attempted escapes. I learned that post-9/11, you can’t buy a plane ticket with cash. Most people don’t know that. So, I got all the way to the airport with my baby, and they wouldn’t sell me a ticket. And I can remember just like begging them to let me have a… Like, "I have the money," and like, "We only take credit card." I’m thinking, "My trafficker didn’t leave me a debit card. Like, what are you talking about, you know?" And just those panic moments when you’re running for your life with everything you own in a bag, you’re not always thinking clearly. I mean, anyone who says, "Why didn’t you just run," of course, you would think that. You’re thinking from a healthy adult brain. I’m thinking in the moment from being traumatized, beaten, brainwashed. You know, I’m in flight, fight, or freeze mode. I’m in trauma mode. I’ve got a baby I have to worry… Like, it’s not as simple as someone who’s thinking from like a really safe, healthy moment of, "Why didn’t you just run?"

And so, I think we forget that. We forget brainwashing is a very real thing. Why did everyone drink the Kool-Aid in Waco? How did Marilyn Manson get people to do all those…? Like, brainwashing is very real. And we all think we’d be smart enough to recognize, but it’s such a slow indoctrination. Actually, Hitler said, "Keep the lie simple, keep it small, and keep saying it. And, eventually, they’ll believe it." And that, for me, when I visited the Holocaust Museum, it hit me to see… This was a person who convinced a grown adult, the Chancellor of Germany, he convinced him to come into his regime. And they thought, "Well, we’re gonna keep an eye on him by bringing him in closer." And yet, it took 12 years to slowly indoctrinate so many people. And you think about traffickers, that’s how they… it’s that same spirit of manipulation in order to meet their own agenda. And so, that’s what they do with victims. It’s these slow tactics of abuse. It’s saying lies over and over. It’s mantras that you’d have to repeat. It’s sleep deprivation. It’s food deprivation. And so, you’re not thinking with a really clear brain.

Jessica: How many years did you remain in that cycle of abuse?

Rebecca: I was there for almost six years.

Jessica: About six years. That’s a long time.

Rebecca: Almost six years. I was traded between three different traffickers in that time. I had been to jail multiple times, arrested on multiple occasions for solicitation-related charges. I’ve been branded twice. So, two of the men tattooed their names on my back like a piece of cattle so I could be returned if I ran. I’ve had my face broken in five places. I had my palette cracked, my nose twice, my maxillofacial and turbinates impounded. And I became addicted to drugs. I was very, very hopeless, and I tried to kill myself. My family came and took my daughter from me. They thought, "She’s on drugs. Something’s…" Everyone always knew something was wrong, but no one thinks human trafficking. That’s kidnapped kids in other countries, right, and no small-town family… I don’t think any family, but I think even a small farm town family 20 years ago, you didn’t think it was human trafficking. They were like, "Is she a stripper? Is she on drugs?" And you’re like, "Yes, all of the above, because I’m being forced to." There’s a difference. It wasn’t vice-versa, you know.

Jessica: Tell us about the day that federal investigators raided the home that you were in.

Rebecca: Well, we knew that we were being watched by the feds. And, actually, what’s really great that people … you know, I was … I ended up being recruited into this organized crime family for three years. I was in this last trafficker I was with for three years, which is the longest that I was the other two. And in this home, there was three other women, my daughter, and another child. And so, for three years, you create this real sense of family. It’s very much like a cult. Actually, Northern Colorado University has proven that domestic human trafficking fits every indicator of cult behavior. And so, you form these trauma bonds with not just your abuser, but also the other women, right? They’re the ones that are… they’re with you on the street. They’re having your back. They’re helping you get out of dangerous situations. And then you’re doing life throughout the day. So, I can remember birthday parties with my "sister." I can remember Christmas morning with our kids.

Like, there’s part of you that feels this survivor kind of guilt if you were to leave that you’re not just leaving, you know, him and this danger, but you’re leaving the only friends you’ve had and this family you think loves you regardless of your past. And he would make sure you felt that, like, "No one’s gonna love you but us. No one’s gonna love you despite all you’ve done. It’s only us. We know all of you, and we love you here. And, you know, you’re welcome here." And that’s not always how the world makes you feel. And that’s not always even the church makes you feel sometimes, right? And your family might not even make you feel like that. And so, it’s easier to sometimes stay in a place where you have a sense of belonging, of real belonging, regardless of what you’ve done. That can be really attractive to people who are living through situations that the world would say is really shameful, right? "You’re a prostitute." The stigma, it can be crippling.

“There’s part of you that feels this survivor kind of guilt if you were to leave that you’re not just leaving, you know, him and this danger, but you’re leaving the only friends you’ve had and this family you think loves you regardless of your past.” Rebecca Bender

And so, here we are. We’re in this, you know, really tight-knit cult-like family. You have to repeat mantras. You know, you all have the same branding. And our neighbor, actually, tipped us off. And so, we always say, "If you see something, say something." And I think we’ve all heard that when we’re all learning about trafficking or especially during the Super Bowl, there might be an ad in the airport. “See something? Say something.” And sometimes it’s like, "Well, what does that mean exactly?" But in this case, our neighbor saw something suspicious. She said, "We’ve got a whole bunch of young girls. They drive really fancy cars and one man. They must be drug dealers." That’s what she said.

And so, she called. She had a friend I guess in law enforcement. I think they were at an event. And she said, "I think my neighbors are drug dealers." And he looked into it, and he immediately knew it was an organized human trafficking ring. And he…

Jessica: Wow. Immediately.

Rebecca: It was immediate identifiers for prostitution. And so, he thought, you know, RICO Act, racketeering, bank fraud, money laundering, tax evasion, which is what organized crime, you know, gets charged with. So, they sent it to the feds, and the feds began an 18-month surveillance operation, which we didn’t know about until one day, one of the girls saw our trash man hand a bag of trash to a guy like in a suit. And so, the next trash week, our trafficker went out and violently, aggressively I should say, not violently, aggressively approached out trash man and said, "What’s going on?" He said, "Oh, man, every week some guy with a badge takes your trash." And at that point, we knew we were being watched. And so, he started having us burn everything, burn receipts, burn paperwork, burn photos. And one morning, they raided a home in Dallas, Texas, so up in Denton, North Dallas. And they came with search warrants and two arrest warrants for two of the victims. They thought, "We’re gonna take these two victims, and we’re gonna pressure them to talk. They’re gonna talk, and then we’ll nail the bad guy because we’ll have victim testimony." That was their goal.

But when they raided the home, there was only one girl there. I was with… The second girl, we were up in Vegas. So, within a few months, at that point, we knew they had a warrant for her arrest, and within a few months, federal marshals had come up to Vegas and taken her. And I took the kids and jumped a fence and sat in our neighbor’s back yard at about 6:00 in the morning until I got a phone call that it was safe to come home and then, we went and lived in hotels for a few months. Yeah, it’s pretty insane.


Finding Strength in Faith

Jessica: It is. And I deeply appreciate you sharing your story. How did you process that freedom? How did you begin to remember your past once you were free?

Rebecca: You know, I mean, in the middle of all of this, this is how much… God is so good. In the middle of all of this, God was pursuing me. I had a praying grandma. I’d done Iwanis as a little girl. I went to vacation Bible school as a little girl, I said the little sinner’s prayer at seven, you know. Do you want to take Jesus in your heart? And so, when Jesus started pursuing me throughout all of this, I started having radical little encounters with God. And I started thinking, "Is this God thing real? Like, is this God thing my grandma used to talk about actually real, or am I high?" That’s what I thought. "I am really high today." And about half-way through my trafficking, I got radically saved, delivered from drug addiction in the blink of an eye. And I knew in that moment that I knew that I knew that God was real, and no one could… you couldn’t argue. You know, sometimes we argue theology. We get into apologetics. We do all the things.

“And about half-way through my trafficking, I got radically saved, delivered from drug addiction in the blink of an eye. And I knew in that moment that I knew that I knew that God was real, and no one could… you couldn’t argue.” Rebecca Bender

But I had a radical encounter with Jesus that I knew what happened that day. And you can’t debate that. You can’t debate your own lived experience, you know. And so, when I got out, finally, I remember hearing the voice of God and, again, immediately. It’s like as soon as I opened my Bible, I could hear him. It’s like my Father just ran to meet me right where I was at like he did with the prodigal son. And it was this moment that I realized, you know, sometimes we can feel like we’re supposed to clock in a certain number of hours in prayer before you can hear God or, you know, God doesn’t talk to sinners or all of these, I think, limitations and boxes that we can put God in. And it felt like I finally, this relationship with my dad, like my heavenly Father, my dad, started to get rekindled. And I felt this actual relationship with God, not just religion, but a real relationship with the creator of the universe wanted to pursue me.

And, so that’s when I started really trying to work through not just my trauma but figuring out why. Why did I live when others had died? I knew girls that had murdered in the streets. They’d been strangled to death by buyers and thrown out in the hallways and chopped up in a box by a serial killer. Like, this is a dangerous, dangerous world. And so, I wanted to know why, and I felt like that’s what building resiliency was about for me. It’s about saying, "All of this can’t have been for nothing." And so, you fight to create something greater than before. “Why God? What’s the purpose? I want to figure it out. I want to dig in. I want to go to therapy. I want to get laid hands on. I need to create new habits in my life.” I wanted to dig and fight to create something greater, that all of this had to have been for a purpose, and I wanted to find out why.

“I felt like that’s what building resiliency was about for me. It’s about saying, "All of this can’t have been for nothing." And so, you fight to create something greater than before.” Rebecca Bender

Jessica: After you experienced freedom, at what point did you even use the terminology, "I am a survivor of human trafficking," or you were able to actually say, "I was trafficked." Was that a journey as well?

Rebecca: Oh, it was such a journey. At first, I actually didn’t say it. I would say, "I was forced into prostitution," but I wanted to leave trafficking for like the kidnapped kids. You know, I felt like there was this line that I wasn’t even worthy to be in. And so, I even got quoted in the book a long time ago saying, "Forced into prostitution, but like not a trafficking survivor," right? And so, this is something… we work a lot with survivors now on telling your story too soon. And that’s a hard lesson I’ve learned is probably coming forward publicly before I was ready and using terminology that is inaccurate or seeing my trauma through an inaccurate lens, being pressured by people to share parts of my story at their fundraisers so they could make money. It’s been really hard. It’s been a hard journey to be like a public survivor, especially when the topic’s so, I don’t want to say trending, but everyone’s starting to talk about it. It’s great.

That’s what we want, but I think survivors are being pressured to sometimes share things before they’re ready. And we have to be really thoughtful of not re-exploiting a victim for our own agenda, not tokenizing a survivor or sensationalizing the issue because it just fuels misperceptions, and it continues to fuel that misperception of what trafficking looks like. And we keep then victims from reaching out for help because we’re painting a picture that’s inaccurate, right? And so, it was hard. It actually took a documentary called "Nefarious" produced by Exodus Cry, which is such a great circle because now I serve on their board. But a long time…

“And we have to be really thoughtful of not re-exploiting a victim for our own agenda, not tokenizing a survivor or sensationalizing the issue because it just fuels misperceptions, and it continues to fuel that misperception of what trafficking looks like.” Rebecca Bender

Jessica: Yeah, that’s cool.

Rebecca: I watched their documentary at a church event, and they showed what trafficking looked like in four different countries. And one of the last one… so, they went through, I can’t remember, Moldova, Cambodia, maybe the Philippines, and then their last one in the documentary was Las Vegas. And that one hit me, that I was like, just because I lived in a culture that was different doesn’t mean that trafficking didn’t exist. It didn’t mean that just because we live in a first-world, developed country with internet and different cultural stigmas, it doesn’t mean that I wasn’t trafficked. It just looks really different, based on the culture and community in which you live. And so, the more I got educated about this issue and the more I would attend events and go to workshops and conferences and read books, take classes, the more I started realizing that, you know, there’s 25 different types of human trafficking. That’s proven research by the Polaris Project.

And if we’re only looking for one type, we’re literally gonna miss two dozen other ways that it may look in your very own community, whether it’s elicit massage or cantinas, local brothels, street prostitution, online ads, cam girls, stripclubs, pornography, any form of commercial sex if someone else is profiting from that victim, it’s a concern that we need to be sure that someone’s there by choice and not force. And even with choice, it’s like, "Hey, choice can be kind of subjective." Like, "No, I want to do this. But I’ve been in foster care my whole life, and I’ve been abused. And now, I think this is how…" You know, it’s like, okay. Well, I think people need to know they’re valuable. And I want all women to know that they can go after the call of God regardless of their past and to really figure out what that is and that their story matters. We all don’t have the same story, but we all have a story. We all have a testimony, and it matters. And it’s gonna change your legacy. It’s gonna change your kids. It could change your community, and it could change culture. And that’s what we’re really pushing to do is to help people see that this exists.


Our Past Does Not Define Us

Jessica: It’s incredible because so many people, the idea of going back to the source of their trauma, is overwhelming. And yet, for you, you’ve openly shared your story, but you’re not just sharing your story. You are the CEO and founder of the Rebecca Bender Initiative. You’ve gone back to help law enforcement. You’ve leaned into being an activist for other women who are still enslaved. When you think about some of the factors that have helped you in your path to becoming resilient and not letting your past define you, what have some of those key milestones been? You know, it sounds like one of them is actually naming your past in a correct way, you know, that you were trafficked. And what are some of those other turning points for you where you began to be able to shed your past and define a new future for yourself?

Rebecca: That’s such a good question. Yes, I think naming it, calling it out by name is so important. Identifying lies that you’ve believed that you maybe think is normal, and that’s just your character, and that’s just who you are, but it might not be. And so, looking at the lies or kinda like the vulnerabilities that got you into situations, that’s important. So, not just looking at like trafficking, but going back to childhood and be like, "What did put me at risk? What were the vulnerabilities that made me at-risk for this," and being able to identify desensitization to violence in the home, right? My family, my parents fought during the divorce, and my mom had a jerk boyfriend before things turned around. And so, you get desensitized to violence. So, when I’m experiencing it with my "boyfriend," I’m immediately like, "Well, we’re adults now. This is what adults do," you know. And so, identifying some of those factors that led to… It’s really important because you can pray and seek healing over those. You can go, "God help me to realize that I am valuable. I am wanted. I am important, even if the divorce made me feel less than those." And that’s then when the enemy sent this trafficker into my life, and I fell for it, but identifying some of those lies.
“I think naming it, calling it out by name is so important. Identifying lies that you’ve believed that you maybe think is normal, and that’s just your character, and that’s just who you are, but it might not be. And so, looking at the lies or kinda like the vulnerabilities that got you into situations, that’s important.” Rebecca Bender

The last thing I would say that’s been really helpful for me is doing a lot of inner healing work, a lot of inner like prayer work, coupled with therapy. I think therapy is really important. EMDR is a therapy modality that’s been really successful for people who have experienced trauma, realizing that there’s different types of therapeutic modalities, and finding what might work for you. Maybe it’s equine. Maybe it’s dance. Maybe it’s art. Maybe it’s one-on-one counseling. Maybe it’s EMDR. Maybe it’s TFCBT. Like there’s all these varying therapeutic modalities. And so, figure out what works for you. Don’t be afraid to try some, and be like, "Oh, that didn’t work for me." It doesn’t mean that all of them won’t work. It means you gotta kind of try what works for your personality. But I coupled therapy with some really intense inner healing sessions. And what I did was a thing called Sozo, and there’s a lot of different ways. I’ve seen churches call it all sorts of things, Kyros, Sozo. It’s a facilitated guided prayer with a facilitator.

And one thing I loved about this inner healing moment was it made me be able to get really into prayer and ask God where He was in the moments of hardship. "Where were you when he was beating me? Where were you standing in the room?" We all talk about like, you know, God’s so powerful and da, da, da. And then, we have something bad, you wonder, "Why me? Why did you allow this?" You know, you can get mad at God. And these inner prayer moments allowed Him to kind of show like, "Well, I was here. I was stopping him from getting a knife. I was picking up your face when you were crying on the ground." And it makes you grateful. It turns your bitterness to gratitude to be able to identify that God was there, and He was stepping in. We just might not have seen it.


Choosing Hope and Resilience

Jessica: What are the sort of situations that trigger you even now where you realize you’re responding out of a place of cynicism and bitterness as opposed to hope and resilience? Like, do you notice those things still?

Rebecca: I’m getting a lot better at identifying actual triggers, PTSD actual triggers from the trauma versus a heightened emotional response. I think finding that line has just taken time. I had a moment. I was in Berlin. We were doing this big training with a therapist friend of mine. And we were walking, and we were talking about something. And I got upset, and when we got to the event, she said, "I noticed back there you had this real heightened emotional response to what we were talking about. Are you upset because something hurt your feelings or are you having a trigger because you need to process a memory?" And I remember turning to her with tears and saying, "Honestly, I don’t know that I know the difference," because as humans, we do have moments where something hurts our feelings.

And that’s okay to have a normal, healthy… It’s not a trigger just because you’re having a normal, healthy human response to something. That event, that hurt my feelings. That was mean. You know, that was concerning but where is that line of going, "I’m actually being triggered because this is reminding me of something." And it takes a little bit to process those. Like, "Oh, this guy actually, that teacher smells like the buyer I used to have." And so, his cologne itself is making me want to have a panic attack. And I want to snap at someone, and I want to get angry. And there’s no real reason. He hasn’t said something necessarily that should have been hurtful. It’s just a trigger." And figuring out what that difference is and how to either process being hurt or really process an actual memory that needs to potentially, like trauma.

Jessica: Yeah, that’s harder. That’s really helpful. That’s really helpful though. In your book, In Pursuit of Love, it’s not only a gripping memoir, but it’s a call for us to take our own journey to places that we never thought possible. So, tell us, how did you sort of land on this story? Where do you want to take the reader in your book?

Rebecca: Writing this story was so fun, and I have learned so much about just the publishing process. You know, you well know this. When you sign your book deal, you’re contracted for a certain number of words. And I was contracted for around 55,000 to 60,000 words. And I turned in the manuscript, and it was 93,000. And they were like, "Oh, so we’re gonna have to cut half of this." And that was really hard to figure out like, "Well, what stories do you keep in? What stories do you leave out? Where do you really want to take the reader?" I wanted people to be exposed to bad and good sides of every person. I wanted people to see the bad cop and the good cop. I wanted people to see the bad buyer and the, I don’t want to say, good buyer. No one’s really a good buyer. But the humanity and the empathy that the Father has for everybody, I wanted moments of that for people.

“I wanted people to be exposed to bad and good sides of every person. I wanted people to see the bad cop and the good cop… But the humanity and the empathy that the Father has for everybody, I wanted moments of that for people.” Rebecca Bender

But I wanted to tell a story of why we’re not running so quickly because that’s always the question everyone asks. Why didn’t they just run? And, I hope, that through this memoir, people get a much better idea of what this daily family is like, what this real sense of feeling a member of this "family" can be so hard to leave because you feel like you’re leaving all of your friends behind. The guilt of, "What if he starts hurting her or hurting him if I leave?" You carry some of that. And as women, we do that naturally, right? We naturally like put others first and put our kids first and put our friends first. Put our parents, our family first. We’re not choosing ourselves first often. That’s a really… that’s just not an innate thing we do anyway. And so, in those moments of like, “leave all the other girls behind to suffer and figure it out, while they all go to prison, you worry about you,” that’s just not how you’re thinking anyway, let alone, you add all the trauma.

So, I wanted readers to really get it, get what that would be like to live in a world of human trafficking where you’re afraid all day and you’re afraid all night, and they don’t really know how to navigate normalcy. And the real fear of figuring out normalcy… how do you navigate a world you know nothing about? How do you start going to church and make friends as an adult, as a 28-year-old adult? You have this crazy past that people are gonna look… How do you try to be a normal 28-year-old girl after all this? How do you run with nothing in your name? My trafficker put one of our utility bills and my social and didn’t pay it on purpose as a form of punishment so that when I got on my own I had such bad credit and such debt that I wouldn’t be able to get, like, power turned on in my own name. They do that. It’s not just physical violence. There’s very calculating forms of punishment that they do to inhibit you from starting over. And it’s just hard. Like just navigating this whole new world is hard, and I wanted to invite people into this life and, hopefully, in a real empathetic way.


Reclaiming Our Past for a Purpose

Jessica: Okay. So, we’d like to wrap up and ask everyone how they are going scared, which feels like such a trite question because you’ve literally escaped human trafficking and have lived a very courageous life. But I also know that we are constantly growing and have new boundaries that want to push us out of our comfort zone. So, what is pushing you out of your comfort zone right now?

Rebecca: I’ve been in this fight against human trafficking for almost 11 years. I serve on the National Advisory Council to Congress. I’m on a presidential advisory committee for… You know, I work with the FBI and we work cases and I take the stand, and I testify, and I do all these things. And it’s great, and I’m grateful that God’s been able to turn everything the enemy had intended for harm around for His honor and glory. But at some point, I want to move beyond my story, you know, which is hard to have a memoir come out. But I’m so much more than one bad thing that happened to me 20 years ago. I’m a Bible teacher. I’m an entrepreneur. I’m a mother.

And so, I’m really excited and scared when you’ve… You know, I’ve kind of closed down a couple programs of my nonprofit to really pursue being an author and a preacher and, you know, a speaker. And so, I’m nervous about that, but I think the transition is going to be good. And any time God leads you somewhere, He’s never let me down. I can trust Him. I can trust when He says, "Shut that down." I shut it down. God’s voice is the best business insight you can get, right? When He’s like, "Turn left. Don’t turn right," you know, learning to trust that has been a journey, but I’m glad I do. And so yeah, that’s how I’m going scared is kinda trying to move out of all of just the law enforcement and trafficking work and move more into like ministry where you’re writing Bible studies and teaching them on things that don’t have anything to do with exploitation. That can be scary. And for people to be like, "Can you really teach the Bible? You know, you were a former prostitute. Can you really do that?" you’re like, "Well, Mary Magdalene did. Why couldn’t I today?"

Jessica: I’m actually recording this in real time, but I recorded this conversation with Rebecca a few weeks ago. But I still remember when she talked about naming that she was trafficked. Naming that she had been victimized. There’s so much power in being able to name our stories, and it’s only when we can accept and name our stories that we can begin to heal from them. So, I think that’s an important, important thing to know for this time that were in right now. What maybe do you need a name, with grief do you need to name, what emotion do you need to name? “When we can make it,” as my therapist used to say, “we can tame it.”

Thank you so much for joining me on today’s episode. Today’s episode is produced by Eddie Kaufholz. The music is by my friend Ellie Holcomb. And until next time, I’m Jessica Honegger. Let’s take each other by the hand and keep going scared.