For East Bay woman, healing wounds of sex trafficking
proves difficult but rewarding
By Lou Fancher
Under Amy Lynch’s watchful eye, the red “do not enter” sign and wavering blue lines of “hurt” drawn with markers in a young girl’s “Me Now” body map disappear. After a movement therapy session, thick purple lines of kindness intermingle with pink love lines, and the forbidding sign is replaced by a flower in a green circle symbolizing relief in a “Me Later” image. The art work is a tributary to a phrase of which Lynch is fond and often repeats in an interview: “Competency trumps trauma.”
Founding in 2012, Lynch is a somatic movement specialist and health instructor. With undergraduate and masters degrees in health educARM of Careation and recreation therapy, respectively, the 59-year-old whose nonprofit is based in Walnut Creek uses creative art therapy to restore strength, empowerment and hope to people in Contra Costa and Alameda counties who have been traumatized. Lynch and ARM’s select team of specialists partner with organizations, agencies and juvenile halls that serve child and adults victims — or those at risk — of commercial sex trafficking and exploitation.
In 2018 ARM served more than 500 participants, providing more than 200 program hours to eight agencies. At about $431 a year per participant, partner organizations and clients pay no fees to ARM. Support comes from donations, the annual “Reach to Restore” fundraiser on Sept. 8 this year at the Pleasant Hill Senior Center and special events like “Pilates for a Purpose” (Dec. 7 at Sports Basement in Walnut Creek).
Funding provides for staff salaries, materials ranging from art and sewing supplies to musical instruments and for transportation and fees related to recreational therapy that includes hikes, cultural and sporting events, even a recent body surfing expedition.
On the website, a surfing participant claims to no longer be viewed as suicidal or a failure. Instead she is “a human being in the waves!” In another anecdote shared by Lynch, a girl after a dance workshop said, “I feel like my body belongs to me for the first time.”
“We’re doing creative activities that are fun, meaningful and memorable,” says Lynch. “The girls we work with, their nervous systems change. They feel excited, hopeful, elevated, open, alive. We have a front-row seat to people transforming and healing.”
Of course, Lynch and her staff also have prime seats to the real and devastating impact of sex trafficking that leaves — especially young people — viewing their bodies and themselves as landscapes of terror, trauma and pain. Contemporary culture doesn’t improve the situation.
“It’s not just that people in the suburbs think, ‘There’s sex trafficking over there in the city, not here.’ It’s the divorce rate, kids from broken homes, the family justice system where a dad can pay a lot of money to keep a child he’s abusing in the home. Rapists don’t get convicted, and businesses make sexuality the headstone for the way they sell fashion, with clothes that make a 9-year-old look like a 28-year-old,” says Lynch.
Statistics and language she quotes — 97 percent of girls who are sex-trafficked have also suffered sexual abuse, and terms including “child prostitute” — extend the complexities.
“If we’re not addressing sex abuse, we’re not addressing the problem. No one grows up saying, ‘I want to be a prostitute when I’m older.’ These people are not prostitutes; we say they have been prostituted,” says Lynch, who believes that people in suburban, wealthy areas are gaining awareness but still fail to understand the “ill in their culture.”
She recounts a recent experience speaking to a Rotary Club — almost all men — and issuing a warning: “If you are or know someone who is watching pornography, you and they are part of the problem. We’ve lost our sense of what sexuality should be. It’s easier to look away from your darkness.”
Perhaps to disrupt misperceptions but also because it’s accurate, Lynch often tells people about participants like three women who are currently clients. All have masters degrees, are employed and were sex-trafficked as adults. Vulnerable and in shock after a breakup, one woman was approached by a “Romeo” pimp, just one profile of the kind of people who force, coerce or use fraud to traffic their victims.
Foster children are a particular target. Lacking consistency in relationships puts anyone at risk, according to experts in social psychology, and children in group homes or aging out of the system at 18 are endangered.
“They haven’t had the guidance about who to be suspicious of,” says Lynch. “Grooming (by pimps) comes with promises that are manipulative. Boys in the foster care program have seen uncles or dads or other males exploit or be inappropriate with girls, and they’ve heard it’s an easy way to make money. They then recruit to sell foster girls for sex. We’re on the front line for hearing the darkest things.”
Of course the atmosphere in therapy sessions at which girls and women undo the damage is entirely different. By writing about their fears and hopes, cheering at a Giants or A’s game, waving their arms and spinning, they reawaken what Lynch says is “a beautiful thing to watch.”
Asked what immediate steps — in addition to volunteering or donating money — can be taken, Lynch recommends that people put the number in their cell phones for the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline (888-373-7888). Reporting of suspected sex trafficking through phone calls, texts, emails, web chats and web forms through the hotline identified 25 percent more human trafficking cases last year, she said. In schools, Lynch said preventative health programs that offer information and resources to kids are a necessary first step.
“There’s a way of trauma proofing: basic education delivered through expressive and somatic activities. Prevention is helping a child be and live with all their gifts: that protects them. If I dance, and I feel really good and someone then comes to me and my body feels icky and collapsed, I’ll be able to tell I don’t want that person near me. Like I said before, competency trumps trauma.”