Raven Kaliana’s fight to end sexual abuse is borne of a childhood shattered by it. Her story is nothing short of tragic; from an early age, she was sold into the sex industry by her own parents. Kaliana told The Guardian’s Nuala Calvi one of the earliest memories of her tormented youth:
[She recalls] being taken to a family portrait studio by her parents, at around the age of four. The studio was in the basement of a department store in a town 50 miles from their home. Once there, they waited for another couple to arrive with their child.
“Would you like to have your picture taken with this cute little boy?” her mother asked, before the parents left the kids with the photographer and retired to the café upstairs. But while they sat eating ice cream, the images being made in the studio down below were far from happy family portraits. Raven and her companion had just been sold into the child abuse industry.
It was to be the beginning of a 15-year ordeal, which saw Raven regularly trafficked by her parents and other members of an organized crime ring from her home in a middle-class suburb in the American northwest to locations all over the US and abroad. In her teens, the crimes were often perpetrated in Los Angeles, where many film studios provided ample opportunity for the underground child abuse industry in the 1970s and 80s.
One of the primary reasons child sex trafficking proliferates is due to the amount of disturbed parents/’caregivers’ who function as pimps. Kaliana recalls that from a tender age, she was taught to normalize their despicable actions. “It’s the same way that someone who has a problem with alcohol will rationalize their behavior – ‘It’s only this many drinks. It’s before noon but, oh well, just today’. “I remember my mother saying things like, ‘Oh, they’ll never remember it,’ like people do when they get their babies’ ears pierced. I told myself that my parents meant well, that what I was going through was what was necessary to help my family. It was paying our mortgage.” Today Raven has a deeper understanding of her parents damaging outlook, having been victims of sexual abuse themselves.
From the outside, her family projected an image of normalcy – at least nothing that indicated they were active participants in the child sexual exploitation circuit. “I got good marks [in school], so teachers tended to think everything was fine. Most survivors I’ve known who experienced extreme abuse did very well at school because that was their sanctuary, a place they could be safe,” she said. Eventually, a teacher noticed that Raven was losing weight. Her mother, by now separated from her father but still facilitating the abuse, had stopped buying food for her, The Guardian reports. “The teacher asked me to stay behind after school and said to me, ‘Tell me the truth, are you anorexic? Bulimic?’ And I started laughing.” Fortunately, Raven opened up somewhat to the concerned teacher while pleading for absolute confidentiality. In kind, the teacher did not report the situation, but helped her find a way to move out on her own, get a job and save money for college.
The violence of Kaliana’s sexual victimization increased with age, and as one would suspect, years of exploitation took its toll. Raven describes the psychological effects of her as extreme.
“From an early age she began to experience dissociative amnesia – a psychological phenomenon common in victims of inescapable trauma, in which painful experiences are blocked out, leading to gaps in memory. ‘I started putting things into little rooms in my mind, and it was like: “OK, we don’t look in that room,”’ she says. ‘When there’s no one stepping in to save you and it’s clear you’re going to have to endure something, your mind just does that. As a child, dissociation is a survival advantage, but in adulthood it can become a disability.’”
It’s been years since Raven’s emancipation from a life of of sexual abuse and parental neglect, but the healing process is an integral part of her life’s work. Through therapy, “[she] realized that it is possible to get your life back. I started to gain an appreciation for life.” Eventually, Raven channeled her creative energy to found Outspiral, an organization designed to raise awareness of sex trafficking and familial abuse. Through firsthand stories from survivors, she aims to educate the public about the prevalence of childhood sexual exploitation, the accompanying warning signs and much more.
After moving to the UK, Raven Kaliana created Hooray for Hollywood, an autobiographical play in which the children are represented by puppets, while their parents are shown up to waist height, from a child’s-eye view, the Guardian states. After gaining international acclaim, the play was made into a film.
According to the report, Hooray for Hollywood examines the unfathomable cruelty of childhood sex trafficking and “the banality of the adults’ talk, as they rationalize the choice they have made to sell their children from the cozy confines of a café. They appear to be ordinary people, struggling a little to make ends meet; not monsters, but people who might be your neighbors.”