When I say child sex trafficking, what pops into your mind? Street children in the Philippines, maybe? Illegal brothels in Cambodia and Ukraine? I can tell you what you’re definitely not thinking about: young girls in the United States. I can also tell you that hundreds of thousands of girls are being sold in this country right now.
I was like you until fairly recently, however. I suppose I knew that one could domestically buy a child for sex, but it was a problem I just didn’t really know anything about. Well, I have received an education, courtesy of activist Rachel Lloyd, her organization GEMS, Girls Like Us, and Very Young Girls.
Some background: Ms. Lloyd was born and raised in the U.K., was trafficked in Germany as a teenager, and then moved to New York thereafter. In 1998, she founded GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services), which provides various services and support to domestically sexually exploited girls and young women. It also works to spread awareness of the issue of CSEC (commercial sexual exploitation of children).
Girls Like Us is Ms. Lloyd’s memoir, out this year from HarperCollins, and Very Young Girls is a Showtime documentary about child sex trafficking and GEMS (it’s on Netflix Instant, go watch).
From this exposure, I learned about adolescent girls who were sold, raped, and beaten by men old enough to be their fathers. I learned about girls as young as 13 who are the only ones punished for their own trafficking. I learned that girls from low-income, broken families aren’t most at risk for being trafficked because they’re easiest to abduct or most desperate for cash; it’s because they’re so love-starved that a man who makes them believe he’s their boyfriend can easily exploit them.
In short, I learned that CSEC (commercial sexual exploitation of children) in this country is clearly a problem, a problem that is current, pressing, and deeply in need of solutions. So what allows this heinous practice to persist in America, a country that a lot of people like to think of as a bastion of lawfulness and liberty in a problematic world?
Well, first off, there’s a demand. All sorts of men buy sex, and they generally don’t care whether the girl they bought is actually of age; as long as she says she is, it’s okay. As Ms. Lloyd points out in her book and in her visit to my school, they would never have sex with the girl next door, or with a friend of their teenaged daughter, but it’s different with a girl they found on the street or on Craigslist.
The next reason is, of course, the supply. There are a lot of men who seem to be okay with making a living selling young girls, and a lot of desperate young girls they can exploit. Another issue is how little regard the law has for victims of CSEC, and how easy it is on pimps and johns.
Now, here’s the gist of my blog post: my experiences learning about CSEC have taught me that there is another party at fault. They’re not directly responsible, and they aren’t as guilty as pimps and johns, but they’re still contributing to the problem: the American public and media.
Ms. Lloyd likes to talk about the difference between how abducted children and victims of CSEC are treated in the media. You know who Elizabeth Smart is, right? Shawn Hornbeck? These are children who were abducted, held for years, and abused sexually. They stayed with their captors despite the opportunity to leave, a common psychological phenomenon for people in such situations. Switch the word “abducted” for “tricked,” add the phrase “sold for sex” and physical and verbal abuse, and you have a description of the average American trafficking victim.
So why do we not hear about those girls? Basically, it’s because the American public and therefore the media have minimal interest in the plight of a girl of color from the projects. They just aren’t “perfect victims.” In Girls Like Us, Ms. Lloyd points out that the media coverage of the “Green River Killer,” Gary Ridgway, always described him as having killed at least 48 women in the sex industry. 27 of those known victims were under 18, but no one ever called him a child killer.
This bias extends to the personal. You may notice that throughout this post I use words like “trafficked,” “victim,” “exploit” and the acronym CSEC, but not the word “prostitute.” Previous to my experience with GEMS, et. al., I would have used the term “teen prostitute” to describe a victim of CSEC. One must understand, however, that a teenaged girl does not make a conscious, informed choice to have sex for money, and the word prostitute implies choice.
Passive verbs like “exploited” and “trafficked” clarify that these girls are being manipulated by others. The word prostitute is also a noun: it implies that that’s what these young victims are to the rest of the world, end of story. But it does not give the full story of their exploitation. Trafficked and exploited are adjectives; they describe victims of CSEC, but there are a lot of other words that do too. There is a noun for them, however: it’s girl, just like that’s the noun for me and for many of you.
Another problem is how accepted sexual exploitation is in today’s society. Between Halloween costumes for children that look like stripper outfits and the proliferation of hook-up culture amongst teens, the idea of an adolescent having sex for money is increasingly less shocking. People forget that the sex industry isn’t all high-class call girls and the Bunny Ranch. Even more ridiculous is mainstream pimp culture. Calling someone a pimp is a compliment. “Pimped out” is better than normal. If you look “pimping,” good for you. In today’s slang, pimp is always positive.
But I repeat: pimps seduce, beat, rape, and abuse young girls. Does that sound positive to you? And beyond that, there are songs like 50 Cent (Curtis Jackson)’s P.I.M.P. that celebrate all the misogyny and violence against women that pimping entails. The song, released in 2003, went platinum, and Mr. Jackson received multimillion dollar endorsement deals from Reebok and Vitaminwater shortly thereafter. Rapper Snoop Dogg (Calvin Broadus) has publicly bragged about spending time as a pimp. The public idolizes men like this, gives them money and power, and excuses their actions. This is unacceptable.
When my classmates and I asked Ms. Lloyd and GEMS outreach workers what we could do to help with their cause, their response was simple: spread awareness. While GEMS obviously needs donations and such, I think it’s incredibly telling that they also really need people to know about the problem of CSEC in America in the first place.
I mentioned, at the beginning of this post, that international trafficking gets much more publicity than the trafficking that occurs in our country. We also all have, at some point, made snap judgments about fellow Americans based on their background or the choices they seem to have made in life. Few people are easier to automatically look down on then a low-income, uneducated girl of color who walks the streets nightly and is addicted to drugs.
But we don’t know the whole story, and we have absolutely no right to judge. We just happen to live surrounded by a media that discounts such a girl’s worth as a person, and tells us that because of her unfortunate circumstances, she’s forfeited her status as a child who deserves our compassion and help.
But she hasn’t. Average Americans need to let the government and the media know that we do care about these girls. We need to be more careful with our language and stop using terms that demean them. We need to end the glamorization of the pimps who abuse them and stop rewarding those who perpetuate that positive image. In closing, I’d like to give you a story that highlights what everyday people can do in the fight against CSEC.
In the early 1880s, social reformers in Great Britain were having trouble convincing Parliament to pass a law raising the age of consent to 16, a measure designed to curb prostitution. They went to a newspaper editor named W.T. Stead, who decided he was going to buy a young girl, just to show that he could, and write about it. A girl named Eliza Armstrong, aged 13, was purchased from her alcoholic mother for the sum of £5 (Stead then gave her to the Salvation Army to take care of). Stead’s article, sensationally entitled “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon” exposed the salacious world of London child sex trafficking, and attacked those politicians who did not fight it.
The article was a sensation, with crowds gathering outside the newspaper building and reselling the issue for up to twelve times the normal price. Prominent figures called for the bill to be passed. Meetings and marches supporting it popped up all over London and the surrounding areas. Various people involved in Eliza Armstrong’s sale were arrested. A month after the article was published, the bill passed.
When normal people care and normal people act, those in power listen. You have a voice, and trafficked girls all over this country need you to use it.