173 – Harmony Dust talks about Survivor Leadership

Ending Human Trafficking Podcast Logo

Dr. Sandra Morgan and Dave Stachowiak talk again to Harmony Dust about her book Scars and Stilettos and the work she is doing with Treasures, a Los Angeles, CA, based outreach and support group for women in the sex industry.

Key Points

  • The commercial sex industry is ANYWHERE sex is being bought or sold, including porn, stripping, escorting, prostitution, dominatrix, and many others.
  • 89% of women in the sex industry want to leave but feel like they don’t see any other option.
  • There is a very small percentage of people who chose to be in the sex industry by preference, but they are a very loud group.
  • Make sure any survivor who wants to share their story is truly ready, that they’ve put in the work in their own healing journey.


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Dave: [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode number 173, Harmony Dust talks about survivor leadership.

Production Credit: [00:00:09] Produced by Innovate Learning, maximizing human potential.

Dave: [00:00:29] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandie: [00:00:35] And my name is Sandie Morgan.

Dave: [00:00:37] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. Sandie, one of the many opportunities and blessings we have of having this show going now for seven-plus years, is that we’ve been able to learn and grow along with many of our guests and today we are going to be welcoming back a past guest to the podcast, who is continuing to learn and grow herself. So, this is an adventure and a constant state of learning for all of us as we so focus on in the Global Center for Women and Justice, don’t we?

Sandie: [00:01:18] Yes, I’m really excited. If you didn’t meet Harmony Dust before, go back and listen to podcast number 37. Harmony is the founder and executive director of Treasures, a Los Angeles, California based non-profit organization for women in the sex industry. When completing a master’s degree in social work at UCLA in 2003, Harmony founded Treasures as a dream born from a broken past and a heart healed by the love of God. Treasures is the first and only organization of its kind in the adult industry capital of the world, San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles County and one of the few survivor-led organizations in the country. The mission of Treasures is to reach, restore, and equip women in the commercial sex industry and victims of sex trafficking in order to help them live healthy, flourishing lives. And we’ll talk some more about the Treasures outreach as we engage. But welcome to the show Harmony.

Harmony: [00:02:25] Thank you. Thank you for having me. It’s good to be back.

Sandie: [00:02:28] Well I’m really excited because when I heard that you had written a Scars and Stilettos second edition I preordered my copy and it came last week.

Harmony: [00:02:41] Yay.

Sandie: [00:02:41] It’s so, so exciting. Tell us what’s new in it.

Harmony: [00:02:46] Yeah, well first and foremost people who are familiar with the first edition will notice the facelift, a completely new design and just updated with the times. But also in addition to that, there is a new epilogue, some new endorsements. And I went throughout and re-read the entire thing and was able to just use the past almost 10 years of experience since I wrote the first edition to insert new insights that I’ve had, a background of a person and as a leader and new parts of the story that I wasn’t necessarily completely comfortable sharing before, but I thought were important to include for the sake of giving other people hopefully some insight.

Sandie: [00:03:28] Dr. Henry Cloud, who I’ve read all of his books he says that your book exposes the realities of the commercial sex industry and inspires hope that freedom and healing are possible. That was amazing. Amazing.

Harmony: [00:03:44] Yeah.

Sandie: [00:03:45] And I think one of the things people don’t understand is that the hypersexualized media stories that we see in our movies and sitcoms that end in 30 minutes or whatever, those are not the realities. And so, it isn’t an easy thing to write this kind of story.

Harmony: [00:04:09] No, yeah, it’s not.

Sandie: [00:04:09] So tell us about what that’s like.

Harmony: [00:04:11] Well, first of all when I first started Treasures almost 15 years ago, I just really felt like there was such silence, especially in the church around stories of any kind of sexual brokenness at all. And so, for me, the charge that I felt was to break the silence and to encourage myself and the women around me who have similar shared experiences that our story matters. And it doesn’t matter if the church is uncomfortable, it doesn’t matter if the world at large is uncomfortable with hearing the truth and the reality of the commercial sex industry. We have to be willing to tell the truth. And so that’s kind of how things were about 15 years ago.

Harmony: [00:04:48] Now the pendulum has swung a little bit and now there’s a lot more not just tolerance for survivor stories but a desire to hear them. So, we have to be careful not to unintentionally exploit survivors by using their stories or asking them to share them when they’re not ready. So now my new message is my story matters but it doesn’t define me.

Sandie: [00:05:11] Can you back up just a little bit and define for everybody what is the commercial sex industry that you’re talking about?

Harmony: [00:05:18] The commercial sex industry includes porn, stripping, escorting, street prostitution, dominatrix, any area where sex is being bought or sold and people are being bought or sold for someone else’s sexual gratification.

Sandie: [00:05:37] Well and I always love the fact that you used the term commercial here because it clearly is a business and the business plan is to make money. So, it’s all about profit and greed. It’s really not about the sex.

Harmony: [00:05:51] Yeah and they’re such a facade of glamour around it, that I’m really passionate about exposing the truth and the reality behind it. And I think that not only is our media reinforcing messages that the sex industry has this kind of female empowerment thing to it, which it doesn’t. And I can go into that in a minute. But I was just talking about this with one of my co-workers. There is a very small percentage of people who are not vulnerable and are not forced into the sex industry or are not making the choice to enter out of complete vulnerability. But they’re a very vocal group of people. So, for example, I just had a BuzzFeed video done of my story and it had almost three million views. And it’s really wild because so many of the most vocal people who have been in the sex industry that are commenting are saying “I was in the sex industry and I love it and it’s great” but we’re not hearing the voices of the most vulnerable and the most oppressed.

Harmony: [00:06:48] And the reality is, as you know, 89 percent of women in the sex industry want to leave but don’t see any other options. And so, my question is then, what is choice without options? So, are these women who are very vulnerable and up to 90 percent experiencing sexual abuse? A very high percentage have post-traumatic stress disorder at rates that are actually surpassing combat war veterans.

Harmony: [00:07:11] So this is a very vulnerable group of people who want to leave the commercial sex industry but doesn’t see other options. So, what is a choice without options? But one of the challenges is even though the percentage of people who might say “hey this is great, we like the sex industry” is so much smaller, they’re still much more vocal. And so, what I’m really hoping to give a voice to is that 89 percent of us that are not feeling at all empowered by the sex industry and are in fact feeling traumatized and victimized by the sex industry.

Sandie: [00:07:43] So Harmony, your leadership has been inspiring to me. We’ve worked together, we did a presentation for the religious alliance against pornography. You’ve been a speaker at Vanguard University. I follow you around. I watch your Twitter feed and your Instagram and your voice counts, and you multiply yourself. So, I think my biggest question is how did you go from a survivor voice 15 years ago to survivor leader?

Harmony: [00:08:20] Yeah, that’s a great question. It certainly didn’t happen overnight. And for me, I do think it was important to just engage in my own healing and recovery journey first. And I think that’s really important to mention for anyone out there who works with survivors or who is a survivor, because I think right now I’m seeing a tendency to take someone who has a story of trauma and has been in the commercial sex industry or having been exploited and you know thinking like well because they have a story, let’s give them a platform and make them a survivor leader. When in reality, they might not be in a place where they’re ready because they haven’t done the work to get the healing that they need. And you know it can be just putting them in a super vulnerable position, to thrust them into that role of survivor leader before they’re actually ready.

Harmony: [00:09:10] And so for me, I went through a lot of recoveries first and a lot of healing before I got to a place where I could share my story and I could speak to this issue. And then once I got that recovery for me that kind of that first hallmark of becoming the survivor leader was this revelation that all the pain that I’ve been through, I didn’t want it to be for nothing. And that I really believed that there could be a purpose in my pain and that I wanted to use the pain that I went through and that I overcame to just hopefully help and inspire other women and girls to overcome as well. And so that’s kind of where the journey started. And you know I’m still learning how to be a leader and reading leadership books and learning from other leaders that have gone before me. So, it’s definitely an ongoing process. I think it started with that revelation that I could help other people.

Sandie: [00:10:01] Well I just have to insert right here, that if you’re on this refining your leadership journey, you need to start listening to Dave’s podcast which is Coaching for Leaders. So, I love what you said about for survivors listening to you know and that part, but I want to look at the people like me who don’t have this experience. We were never exploited but we become leaders and we influence a lot of people. And there are people sitting in places like mine where they have influence, they’re the leader of an organization. And I want them to have better tools to be able to identify and assess if the survivor who they’ve identified would make a great story for this or that whatever. How do they know if this person is not going to be re-exploited by telling their story? It’s too soon.

Harmony: [00:11:04] That’s a great question and I’m so glad you asked it. First of all, I think it’s important to communicate to survivors that their story is their story and they get to choose if and when they ever decide to share it, right? A lot of us have overcome different challenges in life whether it be you know people have overcome addiction, alcoholism. People have overcome anxiety, depression but not everyone is being pulled into this experience of sharing publicly from a platform. And not all of us are going to want to do that with the things that we’ve overcome. It’s the same thing for survivors.

Harmony: [00:11:42] So we really need to respect- and before I ever talk to anyone about sharing their story from any platform, I’m very clear like you know this is a big decision and it’s your decision to make. You need to decide if this is something that you’re feeling really called and led to do. But then decide that I think it’s important that before we’re inviting survivors to this platform that we have some form of relationship with them so that we can sense and see how are they responding when they share their story in more intimate settings? Is it leaving them feeling really triggered? Are they super emotional about it? If so, then they might not be ready to do it on a larger platform.

Harmony: [00:12:21] So some of it is using just discretion about seeing kind of how they’re responding. But the other thing that’s really important too is that if and when we do decide to invite a survivor to share their story and to speak from a platform that they also be given just really empowered to share what they feel comfortable with and only that, and that their experience of trauma is not the only thing that they can put a voice to.

Harmony: [00:12:48] And I think it’s important also rather than just saying here we want you just to come and share your story, to actually invite them to a deeper conversation that they have the expertise to be a part of. Like for example, what do you think is needed in the movement? What do you think survivors need in their recovery journey? How can we better support and care for survivors? And giving them opportunities to answer deeper questions like that beyond just reliving and revisiting the trauma from their past. I think that’s a more empowering way of giving them a platform.

Harmony: [00:13:19] I remember there was one time where I was being interviewed by a very well-known documentary maker and he was asking so many really in-depth questions about my story and really going places that I thankfully have the kind of boundaries to be able to say, “you know what, I’m not comfortable answering that question.” But that’s after 20 years of recovery that I can say that, and do that, and I know that about myself. But he was still asking. And at the end of the interview, he says, “you know is there anything else you want to add. Is there anything we didn’t cover?” And I said, “yeah actually we haven’t talked at all about who I am today. We haven’t talked at all about Treasures or the work I’m doing. I’d like to include that.” And he paused for a second, and he looked off, and he turned back to me, he said, “you know what, I think we’ve got what we need.” And he had the cameraman and the camera off. All he wanted was the trauma, right.

Harmony: [00:14:06] And so when we do that to people we are really re-exploiting their trauma. We are just, we’re disempowering them and the message behind that is that the most important thing about you is the trauma that you’ve been through. So, we’re still defining them by their past and by their trauma. And that’s not what God does to us. So that’s kind of my experience.

Sandie: [00:14:27] Wow.

Harmony: [00:14:27] Thank you for letting me share.

Sandie: [00:14:29] If anybody is listening to this podcast and you only have five minutes, just pull out this section and share it with your friends because that is absolutely imperative. When we’re asking survivors to tell their stories, there’s so many risk factors and kind of backing up still because I want to stay here for a little while. The idea that someone has trauma and someone with power and influence invites them into our space to tell their story. And they say yes, you mentioned and kind of implied earlier that that trauma impairs some of their decision makings and until they’re- you know it takes a while. And I’m stumbling here because I don’t have words around this. But as a leader, I have a bigger responsibility in protecting a survivor that I invite to speak and to share their story. And they may be very eager, “Oh yeah I want to do this. This is going to be great. And I feel really called to do this.” And then afterward you know they’re having flashbacks and all these- I should be wiser and that’s what I’ve learned, not to just assume that because they say OK, that it is OK.

Harmony: [00:15:48] Right. Absolutely, and I learned this, unfortunately, the hard way where you know I had a woman about 10 years ago say, “yes absolutely, I want to do this interview for this newspaper.” And she was super eager and excited about it and she did that interview. And she completely relapsed and went back to using drugs after it and it was just I don’t think that was a coincidence. I think it was too much for her, it opened doors that she wasn’t ready to open.

Harmony: [00:16:14] So we have to be really careful and really responsible and discerning about this. And then the other thing is for people who have been exploited and their identity, and their sense of boundaries and sense of self through exploitation has been completely kind of disempowered and stripped away from them. There’s a process in recovery for people who’ve experienced that kind of victimization that includes learning boundaries and learning that you can say no, it’s OK to say no and you don’t have to say yes and please the people in power around you because that’s what the sex industry tells us is to say yes to everyone and everything, that is our job is to say yes and to say we like it. And so, it takes a while for us to learn to say no and to even know that we’re not ok with certain things, so there’s a certain amount of recovering and healing that has to happen for a person to get to that place.

Dave: [00:17:07] So I have a question for both of you. Because I think this is a really key point and a point we’ve made on the show before of being very careful were not re-exploiting survivors. And I’m looking at one of the graphics you shared on social media a while back, Harmony, of the recovery process of the expectation that it’s a straight line and yet the reality is this really squiggly line that goes back and forth all over the place.

Harmony: [00:17:29] Yeah.

Dave: [00:17:30] For both of you, what are the things that you have found that have been indicators when you’re talking to a survivor and you’re trying to, as a leader, make that determination, even if they say that it’s OK. What have been the indicators, to you, that have been the things you’ve noticed that both inform you that maybe it is ok to move forward? And what are the things you notice that maybe tell you it’s not OK? Because I think there are probably others in our audience who would benefit from that perspective.

Harmony: [00:17:59] One thing I look at is when they share with me about their experiences, are they just telling me about the trauma or have they started to have insight about the trauma? So, it’s one thing to say, “I was sexually abused as a kid.” And to talk about that abuse. But it’s another thing to then see and connect, “oh, that experience of being sexually abused left me comfortable with feeling sexualized and objectified. And that played a part in me entering the sex industry.”

Harmony: [00:18:30] So it’s when you start to hear those kinds of insights when someone’s sharing their story that’s giving you an indication that they’ve done some work and they’ve started to process the trauma and to connect dots. And the other thing is again this is through relationship, which is why I think it’s important to you know have some kind of relationship if you can with the person that you’re invited to the platform. But again, are they really triggered when they share their story? Did they get really emotional? Are they in a place in their life where you’re seeing them start to give back, and support other people, and process another people’s pain? And that tells me that they’re moving to a more of a leadership place as well.

Harmony: [00:19:10] And I have the benefit of working very closely with these women so I’m also looking, am I seeing a lot of co-dependency and enabling? Are they trying to rescue the people around them or are they really able to show up in a way that is healthy for other people? So, it’s kind of looking at those clues to give you an idea of whether or not they’re ready.

Dave: [00:19:29] That’s super helpful. Thank you. Sandie, what’s your perspective?

Sandie: [00:19:32] And I kind of have in my tool chest kind of a little checklist of assessment questions and asking them and I try to ask a question that I know might trigger something in a private setting first, and let them know ahead of time. And that actually reminds me of years ago when I was a facilitator for a panel and I wanted to ask you a question and I let you know ahead of time that I want to ask you what would have changed everything for you? And you talked about if somebody had helped my mom and you became kind of emotional on the phone. So, I said, “well maybe we won’t do that,” and you were like, “no I want to tell that.” You could see that you could connect the dots and you could see how that would educate a community to be more proactive and preemptive in engaging the most vulnerable before they’re exploited and that kind of conversation was just an example of how you and I were doing this.

Harmony: [00:20:38] Yeah, yeah that’s a great illustration. Even though that was a situation where that question brought up emotions for me, I’m not saying we should share our stories in a completely emotionless, robotic way. Although after I told my story one million times, sometimes it’s difficult to connect to it emotionally. But if it is emotional like you said, that we’re still able to connect the dots and bring that educational piece to it I think is really important.

Sandie: [00:21:05] And that kind of brings me back to where we started, with leadership. So, you didn’t just rewrite this to provide an up to date copy. You had some goals in mind. So, what do you want people who read Scars and Stilettos addition two to understand?

Harmony: [00:21:25] To be totally honest, one of my survival mechanisms has always been to be strong. And so, when I first wrote Scars and Stilettos, I definitely was writing from a place of not being comfortable with my own victimization and vulnerability because that didn’t feel safe for me to show that so clearly. Also, I’m really big on responsibility for choices and so I aired really on the side of taking personal responsibility for what I take responsibility for.

Harmony: [00:21:57] But also, co-dependently I didn’t share certain things because I was afraid, I didn’t want to hurt people’s feeling and even now and the people who know my mom and know my situation intimately are like, “wow you are really gracious with that because you didn’t share everything that you could have.” But I do think in this edition, I’m more comfortable with how vulnerable I was. And the ways in which I was victimized and manipulated, and I’m more comfortable seeing that in myself. And I felt more comfortable shedding light on those parts of my story.

Harmony: [00:22:32] And then just, in general, I’ve gone from a place like you said from survivor to overcome and now we call it a survivor, overcomer, liberator. So, you know to survive something means you got through it and you’re alive. To overcome something, to me, means that you’ve gotten past it and it doesn’t have a grip on you anymore. But to move to the next phase is a liberator. And that’s when you’re using your freedom to bring freedom to other people. And so that’s the place that I’m at now in my life. And so, I was able to also write a little bit more from that perspective as well.

Harmony: [00:23:07] I also updated the end of the book with just a bit that I wrote on getting past your past, and you know hopefully practical steps that people can take in their healing journey.

Sandie: [00:23:20] I read that whole chapter last night before I went to sleep and it was such an encouragement. And so, as we get into the last five minutes of our time together and you are going to have to come back because I would like to spend a half an hour on the boundaries section. But, what do you see for Treasures in the future? Training others to become liberators, your leadership is exploding. I think you’ve been on like six different continents teaching. Tell us about the future of Treasures.

Harmony: [00:23:54] Yes. So, years ago when we when I first, there was an article on glamour magazine that was written about the work that we do and we started receiving calls and e-mails from women all over the globe looking for help. And we also started receiving calls from people and churches wanting to help. And so, for me connecting the dots was OK this woman in this city needs help and this person in the city wants to help. But I think it’s super important that people are equipped and given the tools they need.

Harmony: [00:24:21] We had a situation that happened in 2007 where a woman contacted us and I just encouraged her since there weren’t any resources in her very small town to get connected to the local church and she did, and she went there and asked for prayer at the end of the service and ended up speaking with the pastor’s wife and told her that she had been exploited. She was feeling stuck in prostitution and she was a single mom. And the pastor’s wife said, “I really wish she wasn’t telling me this right now. You’re making me uncomfortable.” And so, she went home and the next morning her car was vandalized and on it was written, “so and so is a blank.” Just fill in the blank with a horrendous word. And she thought well maybe that was a coincidence. So, she went back to that church the next week again, and I couldn’t believe that she was actually that bold and willing to do it. And when she did she came to drop her child off at the children’s ministry and they said, “I’m sorry you and your child are not welcome here.”

Harmony: [00:25:19] And I was of course completely outraged, and hurt, and devastated for her. But what I also learned in that experience is that the church needs to be equipped, because if that is the church’s response to someone who’s been a victim and been exploited, then we have a long way to go. And I am passionate about educating the church and also training and equipping those people who do feel called to reach and care for women in the sex industry and victims of trafficking in their cities.

Harmony: [00:25:46] And so we started a training program, where we do training to teach people how to do outreach and how to do care in a way that is using best practices, is sustainable, and is actually effective. And so, we have trained outreaches in over 120 cities on six continents now. And it’s my desire to continue that work and train people in every city on the globe where the commercial sex industry is operating.

Sandie: [00:26:13] Well, Harmony, you are a multiplier. And my favorite book that Dave gave me to read this year was by Liz Wiseman about multipliers, and you definitely are on the top of that list and that defines your leadership. You do for others and set them up for success so that they can replicate the kind of success that you’ve lived. And I know it has not been an easy journey and there’s been a price to pay. And I’m just delighted to recommend this book to our listeners as a great way to get up to speed on how to engage with people caught up in the sex industry.

Sandie: [00:27:01] And I’m not sure how we can start to change the vocabulary but I feel really strongly that as long as we use normal business language and we talk about sex trade, sex industry, it kind of has a way of taking away the exploitative nature of that and makes it sound like it might be a real job. And this is like the next conversation. So, I want to have boundaries for how I talk about that. And we have to start having this conversation about how we can better define how this works in our communities. Media can’t define for us a glamorized image of sexual exploitation.

Harmony: [00:27:49] Absolutely. That is a great conversation that we need to have.

Sandie: [00:27:53] So we’ll fold that in and we’re going to get this planned and talk about boundaries and our language. We have to have boundaries for that as well. So, I’m going to give you one final statement as we sign off. Then, we’ll look forward to seeing you again. Anything you want to say?

Harmony: [00:28:11] First of all, thank you for listening. If you’re interested in getting trained, we would love to train you. If you’re interested in my memoir Scars and Stilettos, you can visit our website at Iamatreasure.com. And find out more information about training, our memoir, and the other resources we have. But I just want to encourage people out there, who have a heart for this, to get equipped, to do the work, to do it well because it’s so important and caring for survivors is such a delicate thing and I really want to make sure that we’re doing it in the best way that we possibly can to set them up so that they can become liberators.

Sandie: [00:28:47] Outstanding. I’m your number one fan. Well no, I’m not. I know that other people in your family that are. I’ll take number 11 or 12.

Harmony: [00:28:56] Aw, thank you.

Sandie: [00:28:57] Ok thanks, Harmony, for being on the show today.

Harmony: [00:29:00] Thanks for having me.

Dave: [00:29:01] Well thank you, Harmony. Sandie, gosh so much here that we continue to learn to grow from. And we’re also now inviting you to take the very first step. I hope you’ll hop online and download a copy of Sandie’s book The Five Things You Must Know The Quickstart Guide to Ending Human Trafficking. The guide teaches you the five critical things that Sandie has identified that you should know before you join the fight against human trafficking. You can get access to that right now by going to endinghumantrafficking.org, right on the main page where you’ll see a place to get access to that.

Dave: [00:29:39] We will be back in two weeks for our next conversation. In the meantime, if we can be helpful to you in any way, send us a message feedback at endinghumantrafficking.org, especially if today’s conversation has raised some questions for you, we will be sure to address that in a future episode. Sandie, always a pleasure. Thank you, Harmony. And we’ll see in two weeks.

Sandie: [00:30:01] Thanks, Dave.

Dave: [00:30:02] Take care everyone.

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