Terry Forliti is a survivor leader and has worked with The Family Partnership on UPSIDE, an initiative targeting sexual exploitation in Minneapolis. We asked her to tell her personal story and why change is possible.
I am one of the lucky ones.
I survived a 30-year drug addiction and a decade living on the streets of Minneapolis being sex-trafficked. Today, because of Fentanyl, using any chemical can be a death sentence. I’ve said goodbye to many of my street family friends because of drug overdoses or gun violence.
Not many of us who have traded sex for money (or other items of value) want to perform sex acts up to ten times a day. It isn’t normal and it doesn’t feel good, despite narratives of sex workers that you may have heard.
I never thought I would end up trading sex for drugs or money. Nor did I think that my partner would use me as a tool to secure money, drugs and status as a trafficker. Nevertheless, that is exactly what happened. As a woman, I had the body parts to generate revenue and I was forced to use them.
“My life on the streets of Minneapolis and Saint Paul began when I was in my mid-thirties, which isn’t a typical scenario.“Terry Forliti
I grew up in Bloomington in an upper-middle class family. When I was 15 years-old and got my first job, I was raped by someone I trusted, my boss. I buried my feelings and didn’t tell anyone about it, but that act took my self-worth away. It led me to bury my feelings with drug use, and to further experiences of sexual exploitation that I didn’t know how to process or cope with.
Eventually, I descended to unspeakable places and lows in my life.
I was living on the streets of Minneapolis/Saint Paul with chronic mental health issues and a real bad cocaine addiction. At that point, I had a failed marriage, the inability to care for my two babies, and I had lost a 15-year corporate career. The streets were my family now.
Surviving on the streets meant I had to learn the ‘game’
Most of the women and men that I met on Minneapolis/Saint Paul’s streets and avenues including Franklin & Chicago, Bloomington & Lake, University & Rice, and Broadway & Lyndale, were people of color and had family members that were already in the life and had many years of lived experience. They took me (a white girl) under their wing and taught me the skills to survive.
To reduce physical harm (beatings), I would have to be compliant and make quota so that we, my pimp, co-pimps and others, would have enough cocaine/heroin/crack and a place to stay for the night. I was also responsible for all food, clothing and hygiene materials that were needed on a daily basis. A woman working in sex-trafficking might be sold for 6-10 sex acts per day. I had to find a way to earn up to $500 to $1,000 every day in order to survive.
“That was my world for many years. I saw no hope. I wanted to die. I grieved my children. I was a failure and couldn’t shake it.”Terry Forliti
I did not think that I could overcome my addiction. I spent weeks at different jails, workhouses in Ramsey, Dakota and Hennepin County. When I was released, I always came away with a new ‘plug’ or new hustle. I saw my life as a burden to myself and those around me.
The crew that I ended up being a part of, would find us a place to stay by sharing drugs with a vulnerable person. One day, the young lady we had been staying with, was getting evicted from her apartment. Once again we were going to be homeless and needed to find another place to stay.
I was too tired to go on. I felt sick, nauseous and was ready to quit. We didn’t even have a car to sleep in. Little did I know, but that day was the catalyst for my life changing.
Long story short…I ended up getting arrested in Ramsey County that same afternoon. I had eleven bench warrants for my arrest in three counties. That meant that I was going to be locked up for a minute. I would have to serve my time in each county before being released. During that time, a jail guard suspected that I was pregnant and had me do an ultrasound in the jail. Indeed, I was pregnant.
I went straight from jail to drug treatment and supportive services. I didn’t know at the time that there were places that provided services for those who had been sex-trafficked like me, but eventually I was able to find supportive services and housing. Compared to twenty-five years ago, there are many more resources and organizations available to help those who have been sexually exploited.
I went on to obtain a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership from Bethel University. Most importantly, I was able to deliver a healthy baby girl, who is now in her twenties. I also have a relationship with my son and daughter from my marriage and with my extended family.
“It is my passion to help others by speaking about my life journey overcoming addiction and sexual exploitation.”Terry Forliti
I’ve spent years as an advocate and leader at several organizations walking alongside those who have had similar experiences in an effort to create community and healing. I know life can be hard, and it’s not necessarily fair or just. It’s not a cake walk, but I want others to know you can have joy and peace every day.
Change is possible! I believe that it takes a community of people that are non-judgmental and supportive. We can build that healing informed and person centered approach by mirroring it ourselves.
You can learn more about UPSIDE here.
The Family Partnership’s PRIDE program provides anti-sex trafficking services.