How sex trafficking turns young victims into criminals
By Lillie Fleshler
When most people hear the word “sex slave,” they envision a person in a far away country like Thailand, Indonesia or Colombia. Never do they think of our own country. They also probably envision a young woman, maybe in her late teens or early twenties. It is more than surprising to find out that the average age American girls are trafficked into the sex trade in the United States is 13, and that 300,000 American children enter the sex industry every year. All of this is happening in our own country, right under our noses.
A recruiting pimp targets young girls, mostly of low-income backgrounds. They are seen as vulnerable, coming from torn-up family environments filled with domestic violence and abuse. A recent study showed that 90 percent of victims are sexually abused prior to their exploitation; warped power dynamics with adults have already been normalized in their lives. The pimp offers them love and attention in what is known as the “honeymoon period,” sometimes acting as a suave romantic other, and other times taking the role of a father figure. This is how the pimp gains his victim’s trust.
Pimps manipulate girls into thinking this life is what is best for them. They have sex with hundreds of men, are mentally and physically abused, and must give every single cent of what they make back to him. If for one moment they realize what is happening to them isn’t right and try to escape, their pimp will catch and beat them, and convince them that it was justified. This is how pimps own young girls. They own their bodies, their money, their actions, their emotions, their decisions, and their entire lives.
This is an unfathomable injustice, but it is only the tip of the iceberg. Once a child, who has been sexually exploited, is discovered by the authorities, the problem is far from over. The criminalization of children who have been sexually exploited is almost as big of a problem as the sexual exploitation itself.
Around 2,200 children are sexually exploited every year in New York City alone, although this number is estimated to be even higher. In the documentary Very Young Girls, which explores sexual exploitation in New York City, we hear the story of Nicole. When she was 14 years old, she was taken and held against her will by a pimp. She was forced to have sex with 30 men, over a period of four to five days, until she was arrested and put in jail.
Nicole’s lawyer said, “In any other situation she would be too young to consent to sex. To be charged with prostitution is a little absurd.” It does seem quite peculiar that a 14-year-old girl was arrested for having sex, while the 30 men guilty of statutory rape roam free.
Well, let’s be fair. These men aren’t completely free. In New York, they are sentenced to attend classes at the District Attorney’s office that attempt to teach them the error of their ways. After completion of the class, if they stay out of trouble for six months, their case will be dismissed and their record will be wiped completely clean. But scenes in the film of a class at the “Brooklyn John School” held at the District Attorney’s office in Brooklyn, depict students smirking and laughing during lectures, and only raising a hand to participate in the discussion to ask, “when’s the break?”
“It’s different for a girl, being on the street,” said Mary Bentley, professor of women’s studies with a focus on health and healing at Ithaca College. “The staff and facilities of the jails they’re sent to aren’t really equipped to handle what they’ve been through. Most detention centers are sorely lacking in mental health services.”
In the documentary Nicole’s mother recalled, “She’s treated like a criminal, after all the stuff that happened to her. Instead of taking her to the hospital, they took her to the jailhouse. To be in jail, and can’t even be with her mother. That would be the most horrible thing in the world.”
Luckily, Nicole’s case had a judge who was understanding of her situation. She released Nicole on parole to her mother, and sentenced her to weekly visits to the non-profit organization Girls Education & Mentoring Services (GEMS).
GEMS is the only non-profit in New York State that provides alternatives to incarceration for victims of sexual exploitation. “We provide a holistic type of care, which incorporates health needs, mental needs, leadership training, and a whole range of services,” said Jenny Park, a GEMS program director.
GEMS created the Educational Initiatives Program, which helps girls re-enter the education system and puts them back on the right track. They perform prevention and outreach. They advocate their cause in areas where trafficking commonly takes place, visit detention facilities where victims of sexual exploitation are being held, help incarcerated girls alter their sentences, and work to educate judges and lawyers about the facts of commercial sexual exploitation.
During the Feb. 24, 2010 hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law, GEMS founder Rachel Lloyd said, “Incarceration doesn’t work. Services work. Support works. Love works.”
And sometimes all it takes is one stable role model to provide this support. Professor Bentley said, “If they’re connected to one responsible adult, it’s so much better. They don’t need a mom and a dad and a picket fence.”
Unfortunately, organizations that provide love and support the way GEMS does are scarce. Currently, there are only about a dozen specialized service providers in the nation for young victims of sex slavery. Does this number seem proportional to the 300,000 sexually exploited children recruited every single year? Hardly.
“Many states have no specialized services at all,” Lloyd said at the hearing. “And those that do service victims do so with a scarcity of resources and support.” Money is in fact allocated to victims of sex trafficking by the United States Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Affairs, but as the bureau’s name implies, it’s only for international victims. No attention is being paid to the domestic trafficking that takes place in our own backyard with our own girls, every single day.
“In terms of incarceration, there aren’t many options for girls in detention centers,” Park said. “We [GEMS] don’t look at girls as criminals. We see what happened to them as a situation of exploitation and we treat them that way. The right place for them is not jail. These girls are being abused and exploited, and there’s no reason for them to be in jail. They are children, they are underage, and that’s the reason why we advocate for them to be mandated to our services.”
In 2008, New York became the first state in the nation to pass legislation that addressed the criminalization of children who have been sexually exploited. This victory, made possible by Rachel Lloyd and the girls of GEMS, is known as the Safe Harbor Act. The Safe Harbor Act prohibits sexually exploited children under the age of 16 from being prosecuted as criminals, and provides services such as safe houses, crisis intervention programs, and community-based programs to victims of sexual exploitation under the age of 18. The passage of this act is a landmark in our country’s history, and became active on April 1, 2010.
It is not clear what it will take for the rest of the country to follow New York’s example, whether it’s on a state or federal level. There is a federal bill by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) currently circulating that would, among other things, provide sizable grants to rehabilitation services like GEMS in areas where sexual exploitation rates are high.
“Success stories are normal for us,” Park said. “If you treat girls with respect and longevity, success stories become not so unique. But without public knowledge or support, were going against the grain. There’s an ocean of need out there and we’re this little pebble.”
GEMS and organizations like it are constantly looking for more support and funds. To learn more about the Wyden bill and take action to support it, visit www.ecpatusa.org. For more information on commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking, visit www.gems-girls.org, and join their “Girls Are Not For Sale” campaign if you’d like to support their cause on a national level.
Lillie Fleshler is a freshman cinema and photography major and a serious advocate for girls’ rights. E-mail her at [email protected].