the smell of my desperation has become a stench

Some initial thoughts from a travel-addled brain


I took this photo the last night I spent in SE Asia on the walk back to a quick debriefing after going undercover again with investigators into brothels to talk with girls in the commercial sex trade (Kristen has written a must-read piece on the difference between sex trafficking and sex tourism and what the Exodus Road focuses on when doing its work, points I will touch on in upcoming posts). I had not taken my camera out on previous nights as doing so can be tricky and compromise the work, but was given the thumbs up to do so that night given that, with certain precautions, it might be beneficial to gather some photos.

It was that night when speaking with one particular worker that the whole substance of the trip circled around and hit me right in the gut. I sort of grasped it while I was sitting there, but it would be another 38 hours before the emotion of it finally hit me with the fullness of its force.

After a 14-hour flight from Hong Kong to Dallas, I showed up to my gate to depart for Salt Lake City only to find out that my flight had been delayed by three hours. Apparently this was happening to several flights scheduled to depart to other cities around the same time, and normally I would have been as upset as the crowd of other passengers sprawling out from the gates into the terminal, all scrambling to find alternate flights or call and reschedule appointments. People were jostling and pushing and turning red in the face from screaming at gate agents whose hands were tied by realities outside of their control.

I slipped off to make several phone calls to my kids and my mother and to respond to a few urgent business-related emails. I hadn’t slept but a few hours on the previous flight and was feeling delirious from the jet lag, physically unable to muster frustration over an extra few hours added to what was already such a long period of travel. When I finally boarded my flight and took my seat, everyone around me was complaining about events they’d missed or had to rearrange because of the hassle of the delay. And I understand that hassle, have experienced it myself and believe they were all entitled to that frustration. Pain is relative, and I nodded at a few of them in recognition.

But when the doors closed and the plane began pushing back from the gate, I looked out the window at the right wing, this miracle of modern technology that would lift me into the sky and take me home to my two little girls and dogs. And I started to cry uncontrollably. I began sobbing, so I grabbed my neck pillow and shoved my face into it so that no one would hear me.

“Ask her what she would be doing if she could be working her dream job,” I had said to the undercover investigator who could speak the language of the 19-yr-old sex worker we had just bought a drink in that dark brothel.

He looked at the ceiling for a second as if gathering the words to ask her the question when in fact he was trying to look for the words to explain something to me.

“See…” he began. “She just won’t understand that. The notion of a dream job is not something that these girls have the luxury of doting on or even considering,” he said. “In fact, if I used the word ‘dream’ she would ask me if I was talking about sleep.”

She had told us a few minutes before that she had traveled here to support her mother and father back home. Working in the commercial sex trade is for most uneducated and poor girls in this part of the world the most lucrative job they will ever know. In many cases there are no other options. They sell their bodies to feed themselves and their families.

“Can you ask her what she would love to do with her life if she didn’t have to work here? Would that make sense?”

He didn’t answer me and instead turned to her with a look of curiosity and began speaking in her native tongue. When he was done, she sat there for a very long time in complete silence. I didn’t know if it was because she had never been asked that question, never been given the chance to consider something else. Then she bit her lip in what I think is a universally spoken way of trying to dam up an emotion you might not want someone else to see.

Her answer was spoken much more softly than anything else in our conversation up to that point, and I could hear her voice trembling. The investigator translated:

“She says she would like to have children of her own and wishes she could have enough money to be there and watch them as they grow. But she knows that won’t happen. That’s why she stays here.”

Earlier in the week I asked one of the investigators if he ever got into these situations and was tempted to take a girl home either to set her free or even temporarily relieve her from one night of barbarity. Did he ever let his professional guard down and experience that kind of response? He shook his head but not to say no.

“Every single time, Heather,” he answered. “Every single case. It’s not about being professional. We’re always professional. But you don’t ever get used to this. It’s about being human. What kind of human would I be if I didn’t feel that way every single time?”

I know it serves no purpose to ask myself this question or cry uncontrollably at the fact that I had to get up and walk away from that young girl who was gracious and trusting enough to share that little part of her soul with me through a bitten lip, but why was I lucky enough to be born where I could want to have children and afford to be able to watch them grow?

  • Maria D

    2014/06/24 at 3:01 pm

    Powerful post, Heather. xoxo

  • Darcie

    2014/06/24 at 3:01 pm

    Yup, made me cry too and I’m at work!

  • natalie shahmiri

    2014/06/24 at 3:04 pm

    I’ve done a lot of humanitarian work and I think that is perhaps the most common and profound response – why was I born lucky and they weren’t? How did I win the universal lottery?

    While there is no answer and nothing we can do to change it, your sharing of these experiences and giving these people a voice is more than they could even fathom having asked for. You’re doing a wonderful thing and helping them in ways you’d never understand – even if it’s just being there to ask them what they want in life and listening. It’s amazing what compassion can do to help people when there’s nothing else to offer.

  • Samantha

    2014/06/24 at 3:14 pm

    Not that it makes much difference in your emotional response, but it’s not as though you and she were standing in line up in heaven awaiting your birth assignments. And you just happened to be the next in line when it was time for an American baby to be born and she when it was time for a baby in SE Asia to be born. It’s not luck of the draw. Your parents had a baby and so did hers. It might not have been by choice, but it is genetics — not destiny. For me, the situation angers me so much more when I take “fate” out of the equation. It’s not right that there is such a disparity in lives from place to place. And blaming it on “luck of the draw” doesn’t do anyone any favors.

    I am looking forward to reading more about your experiences there and what Exodus Road is doing.

  • KristenfromMA

    2014/06/24 at 3:28 pm

    Oof. That hits hard.

  • Sara Haugen

    2014/06/24 at 3:50 pm

    Powerful, important stuff.

  • kimc

    2014/06/24 at 3:57 pm

    Couldn’t agree more. Saying this is fate or chance means that nobody and/or nothing is responsible for the situation when that simply isn’t the case. Politics, economics, religious extremism, geography, cultural tradition are all at work on a macro level shaping the lives of people from region to region. That any one person’s life is the way it is, may not be by their own doing, but it certainly affected by influences much more immediate than fate or chance.

  • Tracie

    2014/06/24 at 4:03 pm

    Thank you Heather, for doing what I do not have the guts to do. I am humbled

  • Anu

    2014/06/24 at 4:13 pm

    I volunteer with an organization where we raise funds to run a day and night shelter to house young girls and children born into brothels. The mothers (all sex workers) willingly send away their babies and visit them whenever they can. We house them, clothe and feed them, fight with the local schools and get them accepted into school (sometimes keeping their story anonymous) and after 6 years, we are having our first batch of girls and boys graduate high school. Two of our girls were accepted into nursing college with guaranteed job placement after graduation. There is hope, educate one girl at a time, one by one and we can make a difference.

  • Heather Armstrong

    2014/06/24 at 4:30 pm

    I preface that statement with “it serves no purpose” and I do not personally believe in fate nor do I assign this simply to luck of the draw. It was a visceral reaction to witnessing all of us on the that plane who demonstrated and emphasized the disparity to me. It could have been any one of us. Any of us, but it was *her* specifically. I will get into this in a later post, but no one organization or even network of organizations can change the world. But they do change the world of individuals. In that moment I was thinking of her as one of those individuals.

  • Heather Armstrong

    2014/06/24 at 4:34 pm

    One by one. So slow and so steady. That is what I witnessed and what I plan to expound on further. Thank you for doing what you do. You are changing people’s worlds and I admire that more you could possibly know.

  • kmpinkel

    2014/06/24 at 5:05 pm

    No one knows the why’s of it all, but what we can recognize is that if we are lucky enough to catch the “right side of the coin” and recognize it, then we have a responsibility to, with whatever we are endowed, to do our part to facilitate change and be hope and love. We have every opportunity of each day to change someones life for the better even if for one afternoon. We are in a drought of selflessness on so many levels, but with the efforts of Exodus Road and many, many more organizations for so many of the world’s needs there is hope. Thank you for being an example and a catalyst for many who may have never known and for those that knew, but did not know if they could make a difference. Every single life matters.

  • cici

    2014/06/24 at 5:20 pm

    My belief system includes the concept that we are all the same because we are all connected. We are all one energy so that girl is you and you are that girl. Hard to verbalize coherently but I believe within our souls we are one. So we are in the pain she is in and we are advantaged enough to try to heal that part of “us”. Tempted to delete because I can’t really articulate. I so respect you putting a voice and your energy into helping to heal this tremendous wound

  • MazMonroe

    2014/06/24 at 5:21 pm

    For me, it’s overwhelming to even try to begin to think about all that’s wrong in this world. There is just so much suffering. That you are willing to get up and leave your lovely family and comfortable life to go and attempt to help these people speaks volumes, Heather. I admire you so much.

  • Anna Cabrera

    2014/06/24 at 5:34 pm

    The best part of your birth right is that you choose to do for others. You choose … thanks for that and to all the others who choose to look horror in the face. Many shrink away — whether they call it fate, or feel to small to help, or misunderstand the privilege of living in a world with choice.

  • michelle

    2014/06/24 at 6:36 pm

    Your last question so resonates with me. I have 16 year old twin boys and I spend a lot of time talking to them about how lucky they were to have been born to me and my husband and it has nothing to do with their efforts. Therefore, they need to look upon everyone less fortunate then them with compassion instead of arrogance and work to improve everyone’s life.

  • Joanne z Filmlady

    2014/06/24 at 7:14 pm

    I’m speechless and so sad for these girls. Thank you so much for the work you’re doing. You’re educating all of us.

  • Carla

    2014/06/24 at 7:19 pm

    This is my most favorite blog post of yours ever, and I’ve been with you almost since the beginning.

  • Teal

    2014/06/24 at 7:58 pm

    There but for the grace of God go I. I am unbelievably privileged to be an American woman in the 21st century. I am starkly aware of that and am thankful for it every day.

  • michael from dadcation

    2014/06/24 at 8:08 pm

    When I was painting the inside of an old, refurbished house that would be used as a shelter and a schoolhouse for girls rescued from a life of slavery here in Atlanta, every time I’d let myself think about what this building I was helping to beautify would one day be used for, I’d start to cry and would be unable to push the paint roller up and down the drywall. I can’t imagine sitting face to face with one of them and asking such a question.

  • Jen Wilson

    2014/06/24 at 10:53 pm

    It’s NOT fair. None of it is. I worked in a safe house for girls who were trying to get off the streets. Prostitution was all they knew. They’d been sold at a young age by their parents/relatives to pay for drugs. The few who had children talked of one day getting their kids back. That was their one wish. One girl didn’t want to have any more babies because she didn’t want any more babies taken away from her. I quickly learned what the term “bad date” meant. We made dinner with them, trying to teach them simple life skills as much as we could. They didn’t even know that leftover food could be put in the fridge to be heated up at a later point. Their self-worth is so low that they can not even imagine they’d be able to do anything else. A friend of mine is a youth worker who is on-call 24/7. Among other things he picks up girls from johns, tries to find them a safe place even just for the night. Lets them sit in his car as long as they want, just to get out of the rain or the cold. To keep them safe for just a few hours. I can’t get out of my head the 14-year-old mom he mentioned who needed money for formula for her baby, and when welfare turned her down, and my friend was out of options for her, she showed up the next day “with a fist full of twenties and a dead look on her face.” It hurts to even think of what they’re going through, and hurts even more that we can’t just rescue them all, tell them they’re loved, and keep them safe.

  • Jenny

    2014/06/24 at 11:23 pm

    Thank you. Yes. Nothing coherent or intelligent to say comes to mind. But thank you for going and writing and being that kind of human being. I want to hear more and hear it often.

  • tami

    2014/06/24 at 11:44 pm

    While I am willing to admit that there may be some sex workers somewhere who have agency and free will, it would be difficult to argue that the girls the Exodus Project aims to help are there because it’s their “dream job.” The question I always ask myself is, “what are we as a society doing that keeps creating people, mostly men, who need to buy these “services?” Also, do any of them really believe that the girls/children are happy “working?” What makes the men able to do this and want to do this? What should we be doing to as people, as a society, to change that?


  • mrscamacho

    2014/06/25 at 7:04 am

    I’ve been reading your blog off and on since it sustained me through a particularly bad job situation in early 2002.

    I really love to see what you are doing with your life, privilege, and success. Brava, Heather.

  • Lauren3

    2014/06/25 at 7:47 am

    Heather, you are doing an exquisite job of chronicling this. Looking forward to all the rest. xoxo

  • Rebekah

    2014/06/25 at 7:57 am

    I haven’t been this excited about reading something in a long time. This is beautiful and heartbreaking and I can’t wait to hear more. Thank you for taking us along on this journey with you.

  • Manisha

    2014/06/25 at 8:22 am

    A little different take on all this but relevant to the question of “why her and not me?”. I immigrated with my family from India. My parents come from very little farming communities where still today they only get water twice a week. I moved out of their home at 17 and eloped at the age of 22. I have been married for 20 years now to a wonderful man. When I came to my parents to tell them I was married, they were shocked and did a little bit of shouting and a little bit of quiet worry. On the other side of the world, my cousin eloped years after I did. When she returned to her parents home they started to beat her right in the middle of the street. Their Muslim neighbor is the one to come out and grab her and pull her into his home for safety. Eventually they forced her into a divorce and she lived a shunned life for many years.

    Now she is remarried and living in a little hovel of an apartment in a dirty, smoggy urban third-world city with her husband while I live in a cute little bungalow in cold, friendly urban Minneapolis. She is broken yet grateful. It kills me to think about the similarities and differences in our lives. We both have the same head strong personalities and we both had the potential to take power over our lives. Yet she is broken and I am soaring. We were both born in the same little farming village and yet our lives are so very different. I don’t know if it’s fate or luck of the draw or whatever. Many of us who immigrated could tell the same story. This story isn’t just about women in dire situations, but also for women in everyday ordinary contexts.

    I’m curious to see where you are going with all of this, Heather. I hope you have the courage to face these sorts of realities because it can feel harsh and glorious all in one breath.

  • Keri

    2014/06/25 at 9:40 am

    Heather – just a huge THANK YOU for this and your big ole heart! There is nothing to replace awareness of it, and when “we know better, we do better.” And SO MUCH of our life’s blessings (in spite of what a few readers wrote) ARE left to chance. You and I didn’t ask to be born to good families in a wealthy country or give birth to our girls in clean hospitals or homes. Surrounded by protection and a life set up for success. Any more than these young faces in SE Asia asked for their “fate.” These girls and their desperate (not evil, but desperate!) parents might be numbers to some, just as the maternal and infant mortality rate were statistics to me, too. Then I sat in Hinche’s St. Therese hospital as a birth doula and held the hand of crying Phillipe as she delivered a beautiful baby girl she wouldn’t name. She feared she would lose her to the same diarrhea that took her 2 year old and a nameless faces engage the heart just a little less. So, your work this past week might be a drop in a large bucket of faces…but it matters. Oh, does it matter. THANK YOU, thank you. (Also, DAMN YOU! First I go to Haiti, thanks to you and Christy, now I am Asia-bound, someday. 🙂 What can I do in the meantime??? Seriously, I am 45 mins. from NYC and all “yours.”
    Keep it up, Momma Dooce. Keep it up.
    love from the East
    keri bryant

  • Katybeth

    2014/06/25 at 10:35 am

    At my teens high school graduation the speaker told the story, told countless times before, about the man who throws the starfish back in the ocean one by one. He couldn’t make a difference to all the starfish but he did make difference in the life of each starfish he returned to the ocean. Perhaps, just asking your question to the young lady you met will make a difference in her life. Of-course, you’ll never know. What you do know is she made a difference in your life and you connected. Maybe it’s all about connection…being seen and being heard. I don’t know how it works on this level but I do know your heartfelt work is making a difference.

  • greenplanner

    2014/06/25 at 10:41 am

    I remember watching the film ‘Paris, je t’aime’ many years ago, and being most moved by this part: (Quote is from Wikipedia” “A young immigrant woman sings a Spanish lullaby to her baby before leaving it in a daycare. She then takes an extremely long commute to the home of her wealthy employer (whose face is not seen), where she sings the same lullaby to her employer’s baby.” Even in wealthy countries, it’s only the lucky who can afford to actually raise their own children.

  • Amy K

    2014/06/25 at 11:21 am

    you’re doing great things! raising awareness is the first step and by using the forum you have available (your blog) you’re educating so many people. thank you for sharing your experiences. keep up the great work heather, i will look forward to reading more about your journey.

  • Jen Moore

    2014/06/25 at 2:55 pm


  • Suzy Soro

    2014/06/25 at 5:37 pm

    Beautiful, Heather. Sad but so beautifully written.

  • Matilda

    2014/06/27 at 4:06 am

    I volunteer for a project that supports people who have been raped or sexually assaulted and after a talk from an ex prostitute this weekend she told us that she hates the phrase “sex worker”. It implies it is a job, a choice, a career. It is PC because people do not like the word “prostitute”. I found that really interesting.

    You are doing some fantastic work, Heather. It is so difficult to see and hear so I hope you are being kind to yourself.

Heather B. Armstrong

Hi. I’m Heather B. Armstrong, and this used to be called mommy blogging. But then they started calling it Influencer Marketing: hashtag ad, hashtag sponsored, hashtag you know you want me to slap your product on my kid and exploit her for millions and millions of dollars. That’s how this shit works. Now? Well… sit back, buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

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