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Girls Like Us: Choice – Young Women in the Sex Industry

For most young women entering the sex industry, their choice is rarely voluntary.

*[Note: The following is an excerpt from Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls Are Not for Sale, a memoir about Rachel Lloyd’s experiences as a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation and her work over the last 15 years running Girls Educational And Mentoring Services (GEMS).]

The question of choice impacts the way that domestically trafficked girls are viewed and treated by our society. Many people believe that girls “choose” this life, and while it is true that most girls are not kidnapped into the sex industry, to frame their actions as choice is at best misleading. It is clear from the experiences of girls, that while they may have acted in response to individual, environmental and societal factors, this may not necessarily be defined as a choice.

Webster’s Dictionary describes the act of choosing as “to select from a number of possible alternatives; decide on and pick out.” Therefore, in order for a choice to be a legitimate construct, you’ve got to believe that: a) you actually have possible alternatives; and b) you’ve also got to have the capacity to weigh these alternatives against one another and decide on the best avenue. Commercially sexually exploited and trafficked girls have neither – their choices are limited by their age, their family, their circumstances and their inability to weigh up one bad situation against another, given their developmental and emotional immaturity. Therefore, the issue of choice has to be framed in three ways: age and age-appropriate responsibility, the type of choice and the context of the choice.

Age Factor

The age factor is perhaps the most obvious reason that discussions around true “choice” are erroneous and unhelpful to the debate. There’s a reason that we have age limits and standards governing the “choices” that children and youth can make, from drinking, to marrying, to driving, to leaving school, and that is because we, as a society, recognize that there’s a difference in child/adolescent and adult development.

There’s also a fairly obvious reason that the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 and its reauthorizations in 2003, 2005, and 2008 have all supported a definition of child sex trafficking where children under the age of 18 found in the commercial sex trade are considered to be victims of trafficking without requiring that they experienced “force, fraud, or coercion” to keep them there. For victims of sex trafficking aged 18 and over, the law requires the “force, fraud, or coercion” standard. In defining the crime of sex trafficking, Congress created certain protections for children. It’s taken as a given that children and youth are operating from a different context, especially in light of age of consent laws. 

Not only are choices shaped by external limitations decided by age, they’re also dictated by the psychological and emotional limitations that is adolescent development. In hindsight, as adults looking back on our teenage selves, we can recognize our own impulsivity, risk-taking, our need for peer approval, rebellion against our parents, our limited understanding of consequences – in short, all the characteristics that define being a teenager. Very few adults would honestly want to revisit the naïveté, vulnerability, and often flat out ignorance of adolescence. Many parents don’t trust their own 16-year-old to drive their car, pick their own “good enough” friends, or stay home alone for the weekend without hosting a party. Yet, interestingly, I’ve met lots and lots of adults who feel that a 16-year-old is completely mature enough to be considered fully capable and competent of making the choice to be in the sex industry. 

Given their age and psychological development, children and youth often make decisions that are not in their best interests, or that perhaps are unsafe. It’s an unwise choice to meet a stranger in person whom you’ve only met on MySpace, not brilliant decision-making to get in someone’s car when you barely know them, nor is it a great idea to run away from home with $6 in your pocket and nowhere to go. Yet none of these “choices” are the same thing as “choosing” to be in the commercial sex industry – even if they end up leading down that path. It can also be an unwise decision to go home with someone you’ve just met, particularly if you’ve been drinking, and yet making that decision in no way means that you “chose” to get raped. 

Rock And a Hard Place

The discussion about lack of choice based on age is not to suggest that teenage girls and young women are mindless, helpless or totally without agency. One of the greatest joys of my work is getting to spend time every day with girls and young women who are smart, insightful, thoughtful, capable of real leadership and have much to offer the world around them. Girls are capable of making choices – within a safe and healthy context, and with the safety-nets of responsible, caring adults ensuring that those choices are age appropriate. Yet for most sexually exploited and trafficked girls, the safety-nets aren’t there and they are left choosing the lesser of two evils. Children who are abused or neglected at home cannot simply “choose” to go get a job, earn some money and move out into a safer or more pleasant environment. In the mind of a child or teenager, running away from a bad situation may seem like the most logical option, yet it’s the context of the choice that’s most important.

Most exploited girls have two options, a rock and a hard place. It’s a concept that seems clearer when applied to trafficking victims from other countries who are rarely presumed to have made “bad choices.” Some of these women are cognizant of the fact that they will be working in a brothel when they reach the US, but they are in no way prepared for the brutalities that they will face, the slavery which they’ll endure or the reality that they can’t just leave once they’ve earned enough money – no matter what they were originally told. Others may enter into a green card “marriage” only to find out that they will be a sex slave. These victims, many of whom are adults, have made choices. Others are tricked into believing that what awaits them is legal employment, a chance at a real future. Their vulnerability makes them the ideal recruits, their need makes them believe.

But these choices are clearly in the context of having little to no other legitimate options. Desperation and lack of options make for poor decision-making, but provide ripe pickings for the traffickers. Their choices do not mean that they deserve to be trafficked, nor does it mean they wanted to be enslaved. In the same way, neither do the decisions that girls in the US may make with the hopes of securing a better future, someone to love them, food and clothing, a sense of family, or a chance to escape their current abuse, mean that they deserve, want or have chosen the life that awaits them.

This Life

Nicole and I are working together on a writing exercise I’ve assigned about what she likes about herself. Not only is the entire concept tough for her to wrap her mind around, but she’s struggling with the writing. I know that she feels limited by her literacy skills and talks about herself as stupid and worthless, and so the exercise feels like a good way to figure out where exactly she’s at skill-wise and try to encourage her self-worth at the same time. It’s not going well. She can only come up with two things she likes about herself, her hair and her feet, so I give her ideas: “You’re kind,”  “You’re funny,” “You’re a good friend.”  She screws up her nose in disbelief at them all but with much prodding tries to write them down anyway. She writes slowly and carefully, putting a lot of thought into each word and it quickly becomes clear that she has very little basic knowledge even of phonics and how letters combine to make different sounds.  

At 19, Nicole’s literacy skills are equivalent to that of a first grader. It’s obvious that she has a pronounced learning disability and I’m angry that she was able to make it through to the 6th grade in the New York public school system without anyone taking the time to help her build the most basic skills. I try to imagine how difficult it is for her to navigate a world surrounded by words that might as well be in Greek. I understand why she feels that being in this life is the only thing that she’s capable of doing. It’s hard to imagine a life of possibilities when she can’t even read a book, fill out a job application or decipher a street sign.

A Hundred Years Ago?

Many girls, even in this country, are growing up in a society that does not provide real and viable opportunities for the future. At the same time, they’re living in a culture that increasingly teaches them that their worth and value is defined by their sexuality. Parallels can be found between girls in poverty in this country and girls in poverty internationally, as well as with girls growing up over 100 years ago.

In an article on the commercial sexual exploitation of girls and the abolitionist movement in Victorian England, author Deborah Gorham writes of a young woman who “allowed herself to be entrapped in a French brothel because life had given her little reason to believe that any genuinely satisfactory possibility existed for her. In a society that told a girl who had no possessions that her chastity, at least, was a “precious possession,” some young girls might well have been led to believe that they might as well sell that possession to the highest bidder.” If the word “chastity” was substituted for “ sexuality” or “ body,” then this paragraph could easily have been written about commercially sexually exploited and trafficked girls today in the US.   

With this is mind, the issue of choice must be carefully framed and understood in the context of the individual and cultural factors facing girls at risk. The sex industry may initially appear to provide a life of economic freedom, independence and a secure future with someone who loves them in contrast to the bleak futures that they may believe are their only alternatives. Selling sex may seem like a small price to pay, particularly for girls who have been abused and raped. Combine the power of media images of young women as sexual objects with the girls’ familial and environmental situations, and the trap is set. It is often not until the reality of the situation begins to sink in, when the situation becomes too toxic or she finally accepts the reality that her boyfriend is actually a pimp, that a girl may choose to go. At that point, it is no longer a matter of  choice, but rather  a matter of escape.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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