Trafficked girl: ‘I was sold to strangers at 13’
ZOE Patterson was living in a children's home after a horrific childhood where her mother abused her constantly. She couldn't have imagined it was going to get worse. The following is an edited extract from Trafficked Girl, her memoir about her experiences.
"This is Zoe," Abbie said as she opened the front passenger door of the car and got in, while I clambered into the back.
I don't know how old I'd have expected her friends to be if I'd had time to think about it. Probably not as old as the three men in the car, who must have been at least twice our ages and, I felt, quite intimidating as I sat there with my shoulders hunched and my hands clasped tightly in my lap, trying to avoid making any physical contact with the man sitting next to me, and wishing I hadn't come.
The rundown terraced house they drove us to was just a few streets away from the unit, and there was no party going on when we got there. Which was a relief in one way, because it meant I didn't have to try to think of things to say to a bunch of self-assured people who would think I was stupid. In fact, I didn't have to think of anything to say to anyone, because the three men joked and talked to each other, and sometimes to Abbie, and only seemed to remember I was there at all when one of them refilled my glass with vodka or handed me a joint.
After a while, when the alcohol and cannabis had just started to dull my senses, the man who had told me his name was Yasir stood up and said, "Come with me. I want to show you something."
"Me?" I asked, looking up at him from where I was sitting on the floor leaning against a grimy sofa.
"Yes, you." He smiled at me. "Come on. It's upstairs."
Maybe my senses had been dulled even more than I'd realised, or maybe it was just the naivety of a 13-year-old schoolgirl that made me feel safe, if a bit awkward, with Abbie's friends and made me think as I followed Yasir up the stairs that he really was going to show me something.
"It's in here," he said, opening one of the three closed doors on the landing. I could smell the damp as soon as he turned the handle. But it was only when I stepped inside the room and saw the bare floorboards and stained mattress that I realised I had made a mistake to trust this man I didn't know.
"I don't think ..." I said, taking a step backwards just before he grabbed me by the shoulders, pulled me inside the room and tried to kiss me. I was still more embarrassed than scared as I turned my head away, trying to avoid looking at him as I dodged his kiss. But I started to feel mildly anxious when he attempted to kiss me again, tightening his grip when I started to struggle, so that I couldn't break free. Then, suddenly, he twisted his fingers in my hair, yanked my head backwards and began to unbutton his trousers. That was when the fear took over and my whole body began to shake uncontrollably.
When we went downstairs and into the living room, Abbie was having some kind of disagreement with Yasir, the first of the two men who'd raped me. They seemed to be arguing about some money she was insisting he owed her, and as I sat down on the floor beside the sofa again, as if nothing had happened, it dawned on me that the money she was demanding was for taking me to the "party".
In a way, understanding the role Abbie had played in what had just been done to me was almost as much of a shock as being raped had been, because it hadn't even crossed my mind that she might have betrayed me in that way. I don't know if she had sex with any of the men that night, although I'm sure she'd done so in the past, but I know she really believed they were her friends. So maybe she didn't realise that they were exploiting her just like she'd exploited me, and quite possibly other girls before and after me. What I haven't ever been able to understand is how she could do that to any other girl, even one she didn't know or care about.
She was still arguing with Yasir when the man who hadn't raped me handed me a glass of vodka and said, "Drink that." Maybe I looked as traumatised as I felt and he was trying to be "nice", although that's difficult to believe in the context of what had just happened. Whatever the reason, I was grateful for the drink and for the very slight easing of the tension in my body as I felt it burning the back of my throat, cleansing some of the dirt and disgust that still threatened to choke me.
I was just swallowing the last mouthful of the vodka in my glass when Yasir handed Abbie some money, then phoned for a taxi to take us back to Denver House.
"Don't tell anyone about anything that happened tonight," Abbie threatened as soon as we were sitting in the back of the taxi. "Do you understand? If you breathe a word to any of the staff at the unit, there'll be really serious consequences." And because I was as scared of her as I had been of the men, I agreed to do as she said.
It was about 2am when the taxi dropped us off outside.
Although we could come and go pretty much as we pleased during the day, the door was always locked at night, so Abbie rang the bell. It was a member of staff called Tess who let us in, a very short, slim woman in her late forties who had tightly curled blonde hair and an attitude that normally ranged from cold to indifferent, but who, instead of being angry and shouting at us as I'd expected her to do, responded good-humouredly to Abbie's cheerful banter.
The waking night office was at the end of the same first-floor corridor my room was on, and as I followed them down the corridor, through the first fire door, past the contact room and up the stairs, I heard Abbie tell Tess, "I'm never going to drink with Zoe again. She just can't hold her liquor," and Tess laughed, as if she'd said something really funny. They were still laughing and joking together when we reached the office, where I left them and walked on down the corridor, crying silent tears with every painful step.
When I'd closed the door of my room behind me, I leaned against it for a moment, feeling very frightened and lonely and wondering what to do. Then exhaustion suddenly overwhelmed me, so I took off my clothes and was just pulling on the pyjamas with pictures of teddy bears all over them when I realised I was bleeding.
I hadn't had many baths during the three weeks I'd been at the unit. For the first few days no one had given me a towel and I was too embarrassed to ask for one, although just the thought of being naked and vulnerable with so many people around - even in a locked bathroom - made me feel sick with anxiety. Now though, I wanted a bath even more than I wanted to sleep, so that I could wash away the blood and the stench of the men who'd raped me.
It seems ridiculous when I think about it now that my confidence was so low I almost didn't dare go to the waking night office and ask Tess if I could have a bath. But when I did go, she said, "No. It's far too late." So I went back to my room and was just turning the handle on the door when a wave of nausea swept over me and I knew I couldn't go to bed with blood on my legs and someone else's sweat and semen on my body.
"Please can I have a bath," I asked Tess again when I went back to the office. "You see, the thing is, I've just started my period and I'm in a real mess."
"Well, give yourself a wipe in the sink then," she said, sighing as she turned her back on me.
Upstairs again in my room, I cleaned myself up as well as I could using the flannel I'd been given when I arrived at the unit, sobbing because of what had just happened to me and because I had no one to turn to for help or even just a sympathetic word. I can remember wondering why no one ever seemed to realise that I had feelings just like they did, and that having to go to bed covered in blood would make me feel as though I really was less than nothing. Did Tess have a daughter, I wondered just before I fell asleep, and if she did, would she have told her to wipe the blood off her legs with a flannel and go to bed?
When I woke up a few hours later, my first thought was that I might be pregnant. So, as soon as I was dressed, I found a member of staff and told her I needed the morning-after pill. I didn't explain what had happened - I was even more afraid of Abbie than I was of being pregnant - and after I'd shrugged in answer to the couple of questions she asked me, she shrugged too and said, "We'll have to inform your social worker that you've had sex.
And, of course, your parents will need to be told."
At that moment, I think I wished more than I had ever done before that there was someone I could trust and confide in. It was horrible knowing that my first sexual encounter was going to be discussed by people who didn't care about me and who'd assume I had chosen to have sex at the age of 13. I felt dirty because of what had happened, and I hated the thought that everyone would think it was my fault, when the truth was that the only thing I was guilty of was naivety and being lonely enough to have believed that someone like Abbie would really take me to a party, where maybe I'd make some friends.
By the time my social worker, Valerie, came to the unit later that day, I was so upset I'd decided to risk Abbie's retribution and tell her what had really happened. I was crying and could feel my cheeks burning with humiliation as I described what the two men had done to me. But I felt a sense of relief too, knowing that whatever happened next was now the responsibility of an adult who would know what to do because it was her job to look after children like me.
"I told Abbie I wouldn't say anything," I said, suddenly afraid again of the "really serious consequences" she'd threatened if I breathed a word to anyone. I'd been staring at my feet while I spoke, and when Valerie didn't say anything for a few seconds, I looked up at her and saw, to my amazement, that she was smiling. "Well, Zoe," she said at last, "you're never going to be satisfied now with what most girls your age would think was a normal relationship. No heavy petting for you from now on. You're only going to be happy with full sex." Then she laughed.
For a moment, I couldn't make any sense of what she was saying. I remember thinking, "She can't have listened to a word of what I've just told her. She wouldn't have said something like that if she had." I think I was expecting her to say that what had happened to me was wrong, that I had been raped and she was going to have to report it to the police, because it's a crime to rape someone, and a crime to have sex with a 13-year-old child under any circumstances. It certainly never crossed my mind that she'd laugh and make a joke of it, even if I hadn't been so obviously distressed.
Trafficked Girl by Zoe Patterson is published by Harper Collins, $19.99. Available now.