Just about everyone would say they're against sex trafficking, and people are often sympathetic when they hear about girls in foreign countries who are kidnapped and forced into prostitution. So why is it that Americans tend to condemn teenage prostitutes in our own country?
In today's New York Times Nicholas Kristof discusses why we think of trafficked girls in America as criminals, not victims. He writes:
The problem is that these girls aren't locked in cages. Rather, they're often runaways out on the street wearing short skirts or busting out of low-cut tops, and many Americans perceive them not as trafficking victims but as miscreants who have chosen their way of life. So even when they're 14 years old, we often arrest and prosecute them - even as the trafficker goes free.
In fact, human trafficking is more similar in America and Cambodia than we would like to admit. Teenage girls on American streets may appear to be selling sex voluntarily, but they're often utterly controlled by violent pimps who take every penny they earn.
To understand the realities of teenage prostitution, Kristof recommends the new book Girls Like Us by Rachel Lloyd, who is a survivor of sex trafficking. Says Kristof:
Lloyd is British and the product of a troubled home. As a teenager, she dropped out of school and ended up working as a stripper and prostitute, controlled by a pimp whom she loved in a very complicated way - even though he beat her.
One of the most vexing questions people have is why teenage girls don't run away more often from pimps who assault them and extract all the money they earn. Lloyd struggles to answer that question about her own past and about the girls she works with today. The answers have to do with lack of self-esteem and lack of alternatives, as well as terror of the pimp and a misplaced love for him.
Jocular references to pimps in popular songs or movies are baffling. They aren't business partners of teenage girls; they are modern slave drivers. And pimping attracts criminals because it is lucrative and not particularly risky as criminal behavior goes: police arrest the girls, but don't often go after the pimps. (In fairness, pimping is a tough crime to prove, partly because the star witness is often a girl with a string of prostitution arrests who leaves a poor impression on a jury.)
Lloyd eventually escaped her pimp, moved to the U.S. and started Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, or GEMS, an award-winning program that helps trafficked girls. Of course, stories like hers usually have a tragic end, and authorities often do too little to help. Many Americans judge girls for being sexually provocative with little regard for their circumstances, leading to a system in which we're more interested in prosecuting girls than the pimps and johns who victimize them.