A survivor’s story

Autumn Burris, founder of Survivors for Solutions, was in college when she was forced into the sex industry. Because of the trauma of the entire experience, she admits she isn’t exactly sure just how many years she was in it.

“I was trafficked through the stripping industry,” said Burris. “We didn’t have a lot of laws back then, so it was organized crime that recruited me and trafficked me into the stripping industry. That was my entry point into systems of prostitution. It was coerced. I had never been in a strip club in my life. They recruited me that first night in the South.”

Burris faced both physical and mental abuse while being trafficked. “I was physically abused by the purchasers of sex pretty regularly—whether that was high-end or low-end or all points in between,” she said. “A trafficker kept me in a hotel room one time and he made me stare at a spot the whole time—and that is hard to do for two to three days on end. I accidentally looked up and he said, ‘If you look up again, I’ll cut your eyes out.’”

For her, it was all about surviving. “There is a significant amount of physical and psychological harm, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). You are just trying to survive that one sex buyer—and make sure that you walk out of that hotel room alive,” she said. “That is the goal. Whatever is going on in the world, to me, it didn’t matter.”

Throughout her time in the sex industry, the exploitation often took place at hotels—and not just one type of hotel either. “As I was continuing to be exploited, I was definitely in and out of all types of hotels—I think that is really important,” she said. “There are lower-end hotels and then there are higher-end ones, and then there are all points in between. I definitely hit all of those spectrums over the course of my exploitation.”

She was finally able to get out in 1997 through a group called Standing Against Global Exploitation when she lived in San Francisco, where she met someone who had been through same situation. “It took that ‘been there, done that’ approach for me,” she said. “I was way too hard at it to listen to somebody who had not been there. They had no commonality of what I had been through. There were levels of guilt and shame—and everything else that you feel when you are first coming out—and hopefully you will work through it. I can definitely say I have. That is what I want for my sisters as well, to be able to be that listening ear and help empower women to do this work if that is what they want to do, and if they don’t, that is okay, too. You don’t come out of that unscathed in a number of different ways. It is a journey, but healing is definitely possible. I think survivor-led programming is what makes it a whole lot easier.”

Today, she works with organizations like BEST, and through her own organization, Survivors for Solutions, to help those who have left the commercial sex industry, and to train those who can stop it. “One of my main passions is helping survivors with their professional development and helping mentor them from a business standpoint,” she said. “I want people to rise up and have the same opportunities that I have had.”

—Gregg Wallis

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