“The harm has been devastating and the violence extraordinary”: A powerful call to action from Lauren Hersh

LifeWay Network was delighted to name Lauren Hersh as our 2019 Freedom Award Honoree at our annual Event Towards New Life. Her entire career has been spent advocating for survivors and the work she is now doing as the National Director of World Without Exploitation is incredible. The following is the speech she gave upon accepting her award:


I am incredibly honored to be here tonight and have my work recognized by such an extraordinary organization.

This award really goes to every person who is out there fighting human trafficking and sexual exploitation. Every LifeWay staff member who spends each day helping a survivor to heal and thrive. Every volunteer who gives precious time to advocate for change. Every survivor that I have the distinct honor of working with at my organization World Without Exploitation: survivors who are out there fighting to prevent exploitation from being someone else’s reality.

I am often asked what does sex trafficking look like on the ground, in the trenches. When I first began doing this work as a NYC prosecutor, I believed that I would see foreign born victims from far away places smuggled over international borders. And friends, that would have been horrible. But what I saw was drastically different. The majority of victims that I worked with were American-born women and girls and they were being exploited right here in our backyard, in all of our neighborhoods.

They were not kidnapped like in the movie Taken, not chained to radiators or snatched off the street. These were women and girls, mostly of color, often poor, who were lured into prostitution by a boyfriend who promised to love her and care for her, then sold her repeatedly to anyone who would buy her.

You may have heard the old adage, “prostitution is a victimless crime.” Friends, in nearly every sex trafficking case that I have worked on, the harm has been devastating and the violence extraordinary, and this is important, there would be no sex trafficking if there was no prostitution. Put simply, there is nothing victimless about it.

This is what LifeWay works toward helping people understand.

For those ensnared in the sex trade, getting out and truly moving on takes numerous attempts, extraordinary intervention, and comprehensive exit strategies and services. This is precisely what LifeWay does every day.

They are housing victims and helping those who have been victimized heal after extreme violence.

They are empowering survivors to truly thrive and go on to do extraordinary things.

They are advocating for long-lasting, meaningful change and working to prevent destructive and frankly outrageous practices that some of our law makers are proposing.

Let me explain: right here in New York, there is a movement to decriminalize pimping and sex buying. Yes, you heard me correctly: some of our lawmakers think it’s a good idea to make sex buying and pimping legitimate here in NYC. LifeWay is working to make sure this doesn’t happen. They working to make sure that people in prostitution get exit strategies and services, not criminal records. But those that exploit, the pimps and buyers, are held accountable for the harm they cause.

This is the moment when you are probably wondering what can I do? And lucky for you, I have some three things you can do starting tonight!

1.  Call your NY state lawmakers and tell them that pimps and sex buyers must be held accountable for the devastating harm they cause.

2. Our young people are vulnerable to exploitation, especially in this moment in time when they are being lured on social media apps like Instagram and Snapchat. Call your schools and make sure that our students are being educated on sex trafficking, healthy relationships, and online safety.

3. There has never been a more critical time to support organizations like LifeWay that are on the ground, in the trenches, doing this essential work.

Tonight, when you are asked to fill out a pledge card, please don’t consider it simply a donation; consider it a lifeline for a person who really needs your assistance NOW!

Before I finish, I would be remiss if I didn’t seize this moment to say a few thank you’s.

To my husband, Sean Altschul- I cannot thank you enough. It is not lost on me how lucky I am to have a job that I love. I would not be able to do what I do every day without your endless support, your love and your partnership.

Ryan and Sasha, who are on the baseball field and in the dance studio- you are the reason I do this work. Because I truly believe that we must create a better world for you and all of our children.

In this critical moment in time, we have a choice. We can maintain the status quo, a status quo that candidly is unjust.

Or we can choose to ignite change and create a better world.  I hope we can join together and choose change.