The problems of human trafficking and the sex trade come up in the news all the time, often connected with businesses pretending to operate within the massage therapy industry. Current statistics are grim: According to the U.S. Department of State, an estimated 24.9 million people are victims of human trafficking worldwide at any given time, including many children.
Chanda Santana of Athens, Georgia, founder of the DIVAS Who Win Freedom Center, started this recovery community organization to help survivors of these illegal industries, as well as those suffering from substance abuse problems—and has found that massage therapy can be a powerful rehabilitative modality for these people. She will be able to further her work with a recent community service grant from the Massage Therapy Foundation (MTF) for her group’s project, “SHE Retreats: Trauma Informed Massage and Self-Care.”
Santana knows firsthand what it feels like to be traumatized as these women are; she herself came out of the sex trade 25 years ago, and went into treatment for substance abuse 16 years ago. Just a few years ago, her daughter was rescued from traffickers.
“There is just so much shame and stigma around all of those traumas,” Santana told MASSAGE Magazine.
Help from the MTF
The Massage Therapy Foundation grant came along when a client of DIVAS Who Win became certified as a massage therapist and built a successful massage business. Wanting to give back, she helped create the massage therapy program the organization now has.
“Because of the work she does in the massage space, she was able to discover the [MTF] grant,” said Santana. The grant is one of four that is awarded each year by the MTF to projects that introduce massage therapy to underserved populations.
Santana’s project focused on women who have been traumatized by being involved in either sex trafficking or substance abuse, or often both, since women coming out of the sex trade often develop problems with alcohol and drugs.
Therapists who practice trauma-informed massage take special care to be present and responsive to clients’ needs and reactions to every part of the massage, and to encourage clients to express their needs during the session. They also maintain an awareness of how to handle a traumatized client’s emotional release, which may happen during a session.
Meet the Clients
Most of the program’s participants—about 75%, according to Santana¾are living in recovery residences, sometimes called halfway houses. These women will have been mandated by the court to participate in drug and alcohol rehab as an alternative to prison time; some also have sex trafficking in their past and may be suffering from the trauma of that experience, as well.
“The other 25% are just [from] community connections, inner agencies, like our homeless shelters, the medical and clinical intense treatment programs,” she said. Others may find out about the program on Facebook or on the center’s website.
“We reach out to women who are in long-term recovery or identify within our mission in some way—trauma survivors. And we do offer it to men as well, if they’re in the service area,” she added.
Once identified for and connected with the program, clients visit the DIVAS Who Win Freedom Center, where they have free access to work-readiness assistance, addiction recovery programs (12-step and faith-based), an art center, food and self-care, and the Retreat Center, where they can relax with a free massage.
“We believe in multiple pathways of healing,” Santana remarked in an MTF video about the project.
How Massage Therapy Helps Trauma Survivors
DIVAS Who Win has a partnership with the nearby Oconee County School of Therapeutic Massage; their students often provide massage for Santana’s clients to complete clinical hours. Other therapists provide massage through hours donated by the organization’s supporters.
After a staff member checks in with clients to see how they’re feeling in their recovery, as well as assess their mental health, they may choose to get massage therapy.
“The massage room has the essential oils that we feel are healing; it has color therapy and light therapy. The massages are about 40 minutes,” she said. Upon leaving, staff repeats the intake assessment to see how the client is feeling post-massage.
The effects of massage therapy on these traumatized individuals, Santana said, can be profound.
“Trauma is stored in the body,” she said. “When you think about folks who have abused their own bodies through substance use through years of being on the street as a sex worker or being exploited by someone else, they’re not accustomed to healthy touch. They suffer from so much shame and stigma themselves and this self-punishing trajectory.” She believes massage helps move that trauma out of the body.
Another modality Santana has found helps the organization’s clients is Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), also known as tapping. While they don’t teach clients the technique in their sessions, they often suggest clients learn it as another tool for dealing with trauma and distress.
“Tapping, thinking about hitting those nine meridian points, that’s healing, that’s moving the trauma out of the body,” she said. “[With massage,] you need another person to do it, whereas tapping you can self-facilitate.”
Looking to the Future
What’s on the horizon for DIVAS Who Win? One future project is Freedom House, currently in its planning stages.
“Our vision is to provide a safe house where women can live as they recover from addictions, escape trafficking, or transition out of the sex trade,” notes its website.
If you have information about anyone involved in human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at (888) 373-7888.
For more information on the Massage Therapy Foundation’s Community Service Grants and other contests and scholarships, visit its website.
About the Author
Allison M. Payne is an independent freelance writer and editor based in Florida. Her recent articles for MASSAGE Magazine include “Online Education: How to Get the Best CE Learning Experience, Virtually” (May) and “MDs Explain Exactly How to Get Massage Referrals.”