By: Margaret Hardy Youssef Issue: Transformation Section: Community Aren’t all preteen and teenage girls in America swooning over Justin Bieber, texting their bestie, watching MTV and dreaming of their prom? No!
It is astounding to know that thousands of children in the United States, mostly girls, are caught up in the devastating and demoralizing business of commercial sexual exploitation (CSEC)—a term that most accurately describes those being sold for sex. No longer can we think that it is exclusively “over there” in places such as Thailand, India, Russia, Cambodia or elsewhere; girls are being exploited, abused and trafficked daily here in the United States.
On April 12, 2012, The Washington Post reported that teenage school girls in Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia had been solicited by gang members of a prostitution ring. These girls were approached at school, on street corners, at the subway and on Facebook. A shocking aspect of this story is that the girls were not runaways or homeless—they were living at home. Gang members told the girls they were pretty and could earn money by sleeping with men. Once a girl was lured in, leaving became problematic. If she tried to quit, then torture or rape would ensue. This particular sex trafficking ring had been successfully operating for the last five years just outside the Capitol of the United States.
In the powerful memoir Girls Like Us, author Rachel Lloyd speaks frankly and candidly about her experience as a teen in the sex industry. As a young teen, Lloyd leaves her home in England to live on her own in Germany. Her world gets darker when she encounters a former U.S. soldier who leads her deeper into the world of sexual exploitation. Death threats; drugs; alcohol; and emotional, physical and sexual abuse are commonplace in this dubious and dangerous lifestyle. Lloyd walks us through a very personal, suspenseful narrative reading much like a Hollywood thriller. The book educates the reader on the lingo and players within the life of sex trafficking and commercial exploitation. Three categories of people stand out—the girls, the pimps, and the johns.
The girls range in age from 11 to 21 years old, although the average age for entering the world of sexual exploitation is 12 to 14 years old. Many of these girls have suffered abuse, abandonment, neglect and homelessness, including a high incidence of early sexual abuse. Each of these situations makes them susceptible to commercial sexual exploitation. In other words, these girls are prime victims for a pimp’s sales pitch. It is not uncommon for these girls to experience the Stockholm syndrome, which is the psychological condition when a victim bonds with his or her abuser. This type of bonding explains in part why girls do not run away and remain loyal to their pimp. They are not able to see their environment as hostile and deadly. For example, in Girls Like Us, Rachel recounts a list she made of the good things and the bad things experienced by her pimp/boyfriend. She writes he put “cocoa butter on my welts from the belt” as proof of his love for her. This is typical thinking even in instances of torture, death threats and kidnapping.
“Daddy” is what the girls call their pimp. This manipulative terminology reinforces the false notion that they are loved and valued. Within this “family” exists a hierarchy among the pimp’s girls. There is a “head girl” who may have children with the pimp; who makes the most money; who may get more privileges; and who, when she misbehaves, receives less abusive punishment. This hierarchy inhibits the girls of any ideas to collectively rebel or escape. “Wives-in-law” are the girls within the group who work for the same pimp. One big happy family? Hardly. This leads us to the next group of participants in the commercial sexual exploitation of children, which is the pimp.
Pimps vary in who they are and how they run their business. Pimps are male, female, different races, cultures and backgrounds. Pimps can be the stereotypical black man with the heavy gold chain and jacked-up car who struts about with a bevy of beauties. But they also are the white American man running child sex tourism agencies, or the Korean “massage parlor” owner, or the eastern European man trafficking Ukraine girls. All pimps are modern-day slave owners of lives, souls and bodies. Pimps are renting out their prized possessions—the girls—in this billion dollar business. Their business survives by “owning” these young girls. Chillingly, pimps are masters of child psychology, and they use this insight to prey on vulnerable children. Lloyd describes how girls are treated to a McDonald’s meal followed by a lesson on seduction. Aptly described in the book, “Pimps have the charisma of a cult leader and mind control of a dictator.” It is difficult to make sense of the mind-set.
Pimps sexually exploit children to make money—a lot of money. According to testimony in January 2012 by Ernie Allen, president and CEO of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, a husband and wife in Dallas were arrested for selling online child pornography. The couple had 70,000 customers paying $29.95 per month to access graphic images of young children being raped and sexually assaulted. It is inconceivable that 70,000 people paid to see children being victimized.
The pimps are not the only perpetrators. The next group of people is the johns—the paying customers. Johns include all ethnicities, socioeconomic levels and age groups and represent all career fields from judges, dentists, doctors, cops, truck drivers, and electricians. These customers are not just “in that part of town.” Johns may be your neighbor, boss, or the beloved high school coach.
The Internet has enabled the pimps to market children virtually anywhere and at any time to anyone and perpetuates the feeding frenzy. In fact, Allen says that the unlimited access to child pornography made possible by the Internet “inflames the interest in children.” In another cyber case cited by Allen, a child pornography website in Belarus was processing credit card payments in Florida and depositing the money in Latvia. Once tracked down, it was learned that the majority of the 300,000 credit card transactions were from Americans.
The Internet supplies and increases the demand for commercial sexual exploitation through pornography. The Center for Missing and Exploited Children observed one million child pornography images during just one week in February 2012—a record for one week. A horrifying statistic quoted by Allen is that 10 percent of child pornography online contains images of infants and toddlers being sexually abused. Why? Because this age group is preverbal and cannot talk about what happened to them. This is happening in America.
In April 2012, MSNBC also reported cases of young teenage girls being sexually exploited in Detroit, Nashville, Minnesota, Milwaukee and Chicago where 12 to 15 years old were being bussed between cities to meet johns whose appointments were set up through the Internet. Girls Educational & Mentoring Services.
In her work, Lloyd encounters sexually exploited girls on a daily basis. She came to America at 22 years old to work with women exiting prostitution in New York City. That was 15 years ago. A short time after arriving in the United States, Rachel started the New York—based nonprofit organization Girls Educational & Mentoring Services (GEMS). In fact, GEMS has become one of the largest providers of basic services to sexually exploited girls from ages 12 to 21. During 2011, GEMS helped 348 survivors of commercial sexual exploitation in New York alone, while 1200 at-risk girls were affected by the GEMS outreach program for education. Lloyd reports that GEMS has an impressive 72 percent recovery rate. Allen says, “Programs like Rachel’s are rare.” Girls find the GEMS program through a variety of community outreach vehicles—social workers, emergency rooms, the justice system or public awareness campaigns. What’s more, four million people have viewed the powerful Showtime documentary “Very Young Girls” which centers around Lloyd’s advocacy. GEMS’s unique approach takes girls from survivor to leader—empowering her for life. Lloyd herself has followed this path. She dropped out of school at age 13. After coming to New York, she went on to obtain a college degree and a graduate degree on a scholarship. Today she passionately leads the GEMS organization.
Rehabilitation, however, does not come cheaply. According to Pam Harvey, National Director of Advocacy and Education for Transitions Global, “Few people have been able to raise enough money to sustain a program. We are desperate for effective aftercare worldwide.” Harvey’s organization works with girls in Cambodia and finds the average length of time for their successful, holistic treatment lasts between 18 months to two and a half years. The Transitions Global program includes medical and dental care, psychological treatment, and career training. Many of the girls enter commercial sexual exploitation, “Desperate for love so much they will get it any way they can.”
We are America, the land of the free. However, America is not a land so free for the girls who are “owned” by pimps and leased out like rental cars. Historically, the girls have been arrested and treated as criminals. However, a paradigm shift has begun. Through Lloyd’s passion, persistence and determination, the Safe Harbor for Exploited Youth Act was passed in New York in 2008—the first state out nine that has such a law. The law varies slightly from state to state; however, its intent is to treat sexually exploited children under 18 years old as a victim, not a criminal.
The federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 made human trafficking a federal crime, which also shifts the child from criminal to victim. This federal law provides a three-pronged approach of prevention, protection and prosecution. The TVPA is reauthorized every few years to stay current and relevant. The definition of sex human trafficking is “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act, in which the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age.” And, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) hotline has received calls from all 50 states and every U.S. territory reporting that sex trafficking of children is occurring across the nation. In fact, The Polaris Project, who runs the NHTRC hotline, has 3,000-plus service providers to support the victims of these crimes. And, since its inception in 2007, the hotline has received some 5,648 calls for cases of potential human trafficking.
The total number of sex trafficking victims is a difficult number to determine. Some 100,000-plus children are at risk, meaning they are susceptible to being enticed and victimized. Additionally, the figure is difficult to ascertain given the fear, threats and victim’s inability to ask for help due to emotional and physical abuse. Commercial sexual exploitation is an underground, secretive business that is often on the move.
What does this mean for the average U.S. citizen? We can no longer hide our heads in the sand about the commercial sexual exploitation of children and women. It is disturbing to realize the number of johns and pimps in America who think it is acceptable to own another human being for their own use. Modern America embraces the God-given right of personal freedom. Slavery was abolished in the United States in 1863, and these heinous acts need strict and swift punishment. How far down can we go? We are moving toward a hedonistic society. That is not what America is about. We believe in justice, freedom and human rights.
Rachel Lloyd feels that a solution to the commercial sexual exploitation of children needs to be examined from a “systemic issues perspective” including poverty, homelessness and sexual abuse. Commercial sexual exploitation is a moral and social issue. We must collaboratively and collectively “move this needle forward” by being aware of the realities of CSEC, reporting any signs of sexual exploitation or abuse, and enacting tougher federal and state laws that punish perpetrators whether it is the pimp or john.
In June 2003, the FBI in conjunction with the Department of Justice Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children started the Innocence Lost National Initiative. Their aim was to address the problem of domestic sex trafficking of children in the United States. Since it began, the initiative has resulted in the development of 44 dedicated task forces and working groups throughout the U.S. involving federal, state and local law enforcement agencies working alongside the U.S. Attorney’s Offices. Investigations have led to the conviction of more than 800 pimps, madams and their associates who exploit children through prostitution.
Human trafficking has infiltrated the United States and is continuing to spread. Through a united effort the trend can be reversed. The youngest citizens and leaders of tomorrow need to be protected here in the land of the free.