While I was sitting in my living room talking to my mom, somehow the topic of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) came up.
“Do you know that this is going on in our own city? In the Bronx, Queens, Times Square?” I asked.
I tried to educate my mom on this major issue.
“Really? That probably happened a long time ago, but I can’t imagine it happening now.” My mom’s reaction didn’t really surprise me at all as I was once also oblivious to CSEC myself, especially to the fact that it is going on in our own country. However, the truth is that there is an estimated 2,200 children being brought into the commercial sexual exploitation industry annually, solely in New York City, and an estimated 100 to 300 thousand are at risk of being victims of this exploitation each year in the United States.
CSEC is an issue that Rachel Lloyd, the executive director and founder of GEMS (Girls Mentoring & Educational Services), delves into in her powerful memoir, Girls Like Us. Her memoir answers all of the questions I had about CSEC and girls who are sexually trafficked; one of the biggest being: why don’t these girls just leave their abusers? We all hear stories about women who are in violent relationships and many believe that it is easy for girls and women to just get out of these relationships.
Now, in retrospect, I am embarrassed that I was ever so ignorant to have possessed such simplistic views on a much bigger problem. That is one of the main reasons why I am so intrigued by Stockholm Syndrome, which is a psychological condition in which people who have been taken hostage feel a sense of loyalty and a bond towards their captors. This is something that Lloyd expresses in her memoir in the chapter entitled “Staying” when she writes, “The desire to perceive kindness when there is none, or to magnify small, inconsequential acts of basic human decency to proportions worthy of gratitude and love, can also be seen in other victims.” She continues on to give examples of how girls who are being trafficked show signs of Stockholm Syndrome. She says, “the critical factor is not whether the kindness is legitimate or valid. Simply that the victim perceives it to be so…For some girls, the only kindness is the absence of violence, or at least the reduced levels of violence in comparison to what they knew [their abuser] was capable of…The gratitude and the relief are palpable.”
In the interview that I conducted with Lloyd at our school, she elaborated on the topic of Stockholm Syndrome and how girls being trafficked experience a bond towards their pimps so much so that it becomes exceptionally hard for them to run away. She said, “When someone had the power to take your life away but doesn’t, you feel a sense of gratitude.”
This makes sense in psychological terms because developing a bond towards your captors, who are in this case the pimps, is a sort of defense mechanism for the victim of kidnap, or the girls being trafficked. Pimps make these girls believe that their best chance for survival is for them to comply to their demands.
This notion is even encouraged by police because they believe that bonding with one’s captor does in fact improve one’s chances for survival, however, at the same time this is what makes it that much harder for victims to cooperate with the police, as is expressed in the article, “Love and Stockholm Syndrome: The Mystery of Loving an Abuser” written by Joseph M. Carver.
In the film, Very Young Girls, I saw firsthand the hardships these girls have to go through when relapsing and going back to their abusers. It absolutely broke my heart when one of the girls went back to her pimp in Miami after she returned to GEMS for a second time. Again I began to wonder why these girls would go back to their pimps. As I continued to read Lloyd’s memoir, I began to understand this more and more. Lloyd goes on in her memoir to explain,
Pimps make sure to isolate trafficked and exploited girls from perspectives other than their own…Everyone she meets is in some way connected to the life; her entire world becomes pimps, johns, and other victimized girls. Her wives-in-law are traumatized and bonded already, unable to offer a different perspective…[It] takes more than simply isolation from other perspectives to develop the intense relationship with their abusers that clinicians call trauma bonds…[There] comes a point where the pimp will begin to exert force and control in order to develop the strongest levels of loyalty and submission…For commercially sexually exploited and trafficked girls, the perception of threat is almost always based on the reality of violence. Girls believe that their pimps will act on their threats to hurt, to maim, to kill, and with good reason. So many of these girls have experienced rape, had guns held to their head, heard their trafficker talk about other girls he’s killed—enough violence, in other words, to ensure that girls are hesitant about running away.”
After watching the film, Very Young Girls, reading the memoir, Girls Like Us, and interviewing Rachel Lloyd herself, I can honestly say that my life has been changed. I was extremely moved by all three experiences and can now say that I have the knowledge to become an activist against CSEC. This is an issue that I am passionate about and I want to begin to educate the everyone about it, beginning with this blog post.