Let me say from the beginning, I do not believe any little girl wakes up one day and says, "Mommy, when I grow up I want to sell my body. It's the easiest job I can think of that makes the most money. Just think! I'll let men use, abuse, and harm me every night, all night and then I'll be living the dream!"
What happens between "I want to be a Mommy!" or "I want to be an astronaut!" or "I want to be a Doctor who takes a rocket to work in a village without Doctors and then come home on my horse!" and "I am 'choosing' to prostitute myself!" is a million small violations and systemic problems that completely annihilate the meaning of "choice."
Choice: noun an act of selecting or making a decision when faced with two or more possibilities.
Possibilities. Consider these:
Childhood Sexual Abuse
Research shows that over 90% of prostituted youth and women arrested for prostitution were sexually abused (though I have heard field workers say it's 100%). Such a degrading and disempowering assault deeply affects the body, mind, and soul. When older and faced with survival, it's easier to exchange sex for food and shelter since the barriers to sex have already been crossed. Often the decision to sell sex is a reversal of the power paradigm by which they can exert control over their bodies, rather than be powered over by another.
Consider the little girl raised in a chaotic home, with the presence of substance abuse. People in and out, affecting school and perhaps food security. Foster care is often present, social services involved. Absent fathers the norm. An environment of low dreams, where college feels unattainable, if talked about at all. Truancy, teen pregnancy abound. Is it hard to imagine she might not have the constructs for a different kind of life? And what if she thinks she'd be better, safer, if she ran away? Or worse, what if she is thrown away? Research shows that within 48 hours of being on the street, a youth will be solicited for sex. The National Runaway Switchboard estimates that each year between 1.6-2.8 million youth runaway. And those who are on the streets for more than 30 days are most closely associated with commercial sexual exploitation.
Force, Fraud, and Coercion
Three words help define human trafficking. In the U.S., it looks like this: young girl who comes from aforementioned background is preyed upon by a brilliant controller (otherwise known as a pimp). He scopes her out, identifies her vulnerability, and works to exploit it. As one survivor says, "You need a Daddy? He'll be your Daddy." After a period of lavish gift buying, "dating," and consensual sex, he asks for his return on his investment- sex with others. Depending on his style of pimping, this is where force (brutal beatings, food deprivation, and rape), coercion (threats to expose her to friends, harm a family member, etc.) and fraud come into play. A psychological game ensues and the girl is trapped. What are her choices now?
So, when we debate whether prostitution should be legalized, if sex workers should be "left alone" to do with their lives as they please, I ask, from what array of choices have they chosen to sell their bodies? Have we not, as a society, failed the little girls who grow up with a limited number of possibilities? In this greater systemic context, is not choice but an illusion?
What do you think? Share your thoughts below!
If you would like to learn more, check out my recent book, END: Engaging Men to End Sex Trafficking. While written to a male audience (to empower them to engage this issue) it is useful for all. Full of documented facts and explanations, stories, group discussion and a doable game plan for every community, this manual will help you launch a response to sex trafficking in your backyard.