Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children: America’s Contemporary Form of Slavery

In 1865, under President Abraham Lincoln, the United States of America adopted the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.  The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, freeing all African-American slaves that had been kept in bondage and prohibiting said bondage from ever occurring in our country again.  But, unfortunately, that was not the last America would experience of slavery and involuntary servitude.

Today, all across the United States, our youth are being commercially sexually exploited by pimps.  The parallels between the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) and America’s practice of slavery pre-Thirteenth Amendment are staggering, leading CSEC to be deemed one of America’s contemporary forms of slavery.

The Department of Justice estimates that the most frequent age of entry into the commercial sex industry in the United States is between 12 and 14 years old.  This, plus the fact that the education which most of these young girls have received is substandard at best, means that by the time they are trafficked they have only received approximately a fifth grade education.  Their pimps do not allow them to continue their schooling, making sure that the girls they victimize are completely cut off from everyone in their former lives, devoting all of their time to making a profit for their pimps.

The culmination of these factors means that other than being in “the life,” a term which refers to being bought and sold in exchange for a pimp’s profit, they feel that they have no other means of making a living.  This is similar to slavery of the 1800s, where in many places there were laws prohibiting slaves to learn to read and write.  Not only do these girls have nowhere to go if they try to leave their pimps, their lack of education keeps them from utilizing skills that they can capitalize on.

Emma's Interview with Rachel Lloyd (Photo Credit: Ileana Jiménez used with permission)

In the documentary Very Young Girls we hear firsthand how the mentality and behavior of these pimps is so comparable to that of pre-Thirteenth Amendment slave owners.  One young girl who was interviewed for the film describes her view of her own body when she was under the control of her pimp, saying: “This was his body.”

These pimps actually see these girls and women as their property, brainwashing their victims into believing the same thing, just as pre-Thirteenth Amendment slave owners thought.  Another young girl described herself as her pimp’s “investment.”  This is an especially detrimental concept for these girls.  They view the “investments” that their pimps have put into them (clothes, trips to the nail salon and beauty parlor, food, housing, etc.) as not only things they owe their pimps for, but also signs of love.

In an interview my feminism class was lucky enough to have with Rachel Lloyd, author of memoir Girls Like Us  and founder of GEMS (Girls Education & Mentoring Services) as well as CSEC survivor, Lloyd referred to the phenomenon called Stockholm Syndrome saying “a candy bar he gave you is more dominant in your memory than the times when he beat you.”  For commercially sexually exploited children, this makes exiting “the life” that much more challenging, for they do not view their pimps as the men controlling and dictating their lives then reaping all the profits, they instead see their pimps as their “boyfriend” or “daddy.”

The abuse these commercially sexually exploited children face at the hands of their pimps is reminiscent of the abuse in which slave owners inflicted on those they kept in bondage.  In my feminism class,  two outreach workers from GEMS came to speak with us.  Along with being inspirational, strong women, they were also CSEC survivors.  They described to us “gorilla pimps” who use physical violence to force their victims into submission.

Other pimps use verbal abuse, but the violence these girls and women encounter, as did the enslaved people in America before the Thirteenth Amendment was enacted, all serve the same purposes.  One of the most fundamental of these purposes is instilling fear in their victims with threats including seeing others being beaten and tortured, being beaten and tortured themselves, having threats made against their family and their life, making these commercially sexually exploited children less likely to run away.

One girl interviewed in the film Girls Like Us describes a situation where she tried to pack her suitcase and run away from her pimp, and he responded with physical violence, threatening:  “the next time you try to leave I’m going to put you in the suitcase.” This tactic that pimps use of threatening these girls lives goes back to the principle of Stockholm Syndrome.  In the interview with Lloyd, she describes how “if a person has the power to take your life and they don’t, you have a sense of gratitude.”  This gratitude runs deep for these girls and will not only keep them from leaving “the life,” but also against testifying against their pimps in court.

Just like pre-Thirteenth Amendment America where the enslavement of those of African descent was seen as “just the way things are” and considered an institution that didn’t do any “real” harm, the society we live in has no problem with looking the other way as young girls are being bought and sold, sometimes even endorsing and glamorizing the practice.

According to Lloyd during the interview with my feminism class, “society says it’s okay to buy sex.”  With the proliferation of strip clubs and shows like Pimp My Ride and Grammy award-winning artists like 50 Cent spewing lyrics like “B*tch choose with me, I’ll have you stripping in the street/Put my other hoes down, you get you’re a*s beat/Now Nik my bottom b*tch, she always come up with my bread/The last n**** she was with put stitches in her head,” CSEC seems to be a natural continuation of this culture, while at the same time is a practice which is so distinctly reminiscent of the institution of slavery.

As Lloyd puts in her memoir when comparing the two, “today, our equivalent of slaves on the auction block is the ads on Craigslist, Backpage, and numerous other online sites, the street corners in certain neighborhoods, the stages of strip clubs.  Four hundred years after slavery, pimps and traffickers are using the same lines, the same rationale, the same tactics as their predecessors in the antebellum South.”

So are we going to let the commercial sexual exploitation of children continue to be glorified and prosper or, as a society, are we going to take a stand, hold those perpetuating this monstrous institution accountable, and start to see this practice as it really is—a practice comparable to that of the slavery our country went to war to end?

6 thoughts on “Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children: America’s Contemporary Form of Slavery

  1. Even though I studied all of these things in the same class as you, I feel like you still taught me something new. I have never really juxtaposed pimp culture and CSEC with slavery, even though they are so extremely similar. And to think, we live in country that boasts about our freedom and criticizes other countries that treat their citizens with an inhumane manner. When in reality, we live in a country where people are oppressed by either the government or other citizens and these girls in “the life,” unfortunately, suffer because of both.

  2. Really interesting commentary on contemporary slavery in the first paragraph, and I like how you used some independent research in the second paragraph. I found that what you took away from the meeting with the GEMS survivors was very interesting and informative.

  3. You did a great job in comparing CSEC to slavery. I also like how you incorporated Stockholm Syndrome. In Rachel Lloyd’s memoir, she has a great passage in the chapter entitled “Staying” where she connects slavery and Stockholm Syndrome as well. She says, “In the ‘Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano,’ the former slave clearly developed a level of Stockholm Syndrome toward his ‘master’ Pascal and sought to find ‘kindness’ even in the midst of his traumatic experiences as a slave.” This is like what sexually trafficked girls do when talking about their pimps and like you mentioned Lloyd saying, “a candy bar he gave you is more dominant in your memory than the times when he beat you.” I think that all of these things, (CSEC as a contemporary form of slavery, Stockholm Syndrome, etc.) are all closely related and ultimately add to the difficulty these girls have to face when trying to leave their pimps. For example, because of the levels of Stockholm Syndrome sexually trafficked girls experience, they are blinded to the fact that they are actually being exploited, just as slaves were. This, then, is what tricks them into staying with their pimps.

  4. The statement that CSEC is modern-day slavery is so eye-opening. It forces me to take a step back and think of the ways in which people are manipulated.

    Factory workers being underpaid and child laborers are things that are spoken about, but in a way that is disconnected and often made to seem as if it is not an issue anymore.

    I believe this post, along with its title, will open up the eyes of people who have thought that slavery was over.

  5. the comparison of the old slave to the CSEC victims as slaves is wonderful; they are slaves, they work really hard for something they don’t like and they get nothing in return, well only disrespect, hits…. Society needs to be reeducated because they do not understand how bad the situation is for the victims, we have a tendency to try to protect the defendant may he be guilty or not, and I think that it’s because as humans, we recognize what it wrong and we want to improve it personally and clearly that is not by putting them in jail.

  6. The correlation between America’s ugly legacy of African slavery and ugly current status in terms of trafficking is powerful and clear, but awkward. No one wants to bring up one of our nation’s worst-ever practices in relation to something that still exists. Furthermore, the connection draws attention to the issue of continued racism in America, which no one wants to admit but plays an important part in the perpetuation of CSEC. So bravo, Emma, for beautifully utilizing this difficult argument.

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