Girls Like Us: Risk – Children and the Sex Industry
Vulnerable children face higher risks of being seduced into sex work.
*[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).]
Summer 1989, England
The van leaves at 5am to get us to the Estée Lauder factory for our 7am shift. It’s still dark outside and it’s too early for me to engage in the chatter of the other girls in the van. I sit smoking and staring out the window thinking how much I hate this job. Still, it’s something, and it’s helping pay the bills at home, stave off the foreclosure, keep me stocked in cigarettes and weed and those are the critical things right now. The social workers have stopped coming to visit, the school has stopped calling. No one seems to notice or care that I’m not in school or that I’m working full-time at 13. I’m working through the temp agency as a 17-year-old named Rose Johnson, after my great-aunt; the job before that was Bailey Johnson, after the singer Pearl Bailey; the next place I think I’ll be Cyd Johnson after Cyd Charisse. I can only work for a few months at each place before they start catching on that the National Insurance Number I gave them doesn’t match with my name, which is also made-up, and begin to ask too many questions for which I don’t have any answers. I’m a few years off from being able to work legally so I’ve been bouncing from temp agency to temp agency, having figured out that they’ll pay you through their own books for the first two months while they’re waiting for your National Insurance Card, which in my case will never arrive. One temp agency won’t pay me for a month so I spend all month walking five miles one way, doing a 12hr shift and walking five miles back.
Most of the girls that I hang out with are “Estée Lauder girls.” It’s a badge of honor to work at Estée Lauder as it’s considered one of the posh-er factories. It’s also a lifer factory, with mostly women and a few men who have been there for 15, 20, years. In an industrial city like Portsmouth, with unemployment rates, school drop-out rates, teenage pregnancy rates and crime rates that are all higher than the national average, getting a secured job is a victory. Lifers look down on those of us who are temps, treating us with disdain. Girls who show real respect for the work fare better. I, on the other hand, make no secret of the fact that I believe I can do more than this. The women there make me sad. They all look so much older than they are, and whatever dreams they might have had have been drained out of them by the monotony of sitting next to a conveyor belt for years. The older women look at me with a mixture of scorn and regret.
I’m under no illusions though, that I’ll ever get hired on permanently. I’m forever in trouble. Talking too much. Getting up and leaving the line. Not being quick enough. I loathe the sit-down jobs that require real dexterity. I am, as my grandmother says, cack-handed and therefore screwing the cap on hundreds of bottles of Red Rose nail polish in 20 minutes is beyond me. I prefer the end of the line, boxing and packing, loading up the palettes, working up a sweat. There I can move around and talk freely. The line manager calls me “Darky,” as in “Darky, get this box,” or “Tell the darky that she has lunch-break now.” I know I’d have a case for racial discrimination if I wasn’t already working illegally. So I save my indignation and spend my shifts day-dreaming about ways to get out.
Other than the “free” samples that somehow wind up in my pocket at the end of the day and the factory discount store where I stock up on so much “Beautiful” and “Youth Dew” that I gift everyone I know with it for three Christmases in a row, I really hate Estée Lauder. I hate the potpourri factory next, although there I’m able to pick up some Christmas shop-lifting orders, and then hate the aircraft parts factory, the IBM factory where we have to wear cover-ups that look like bio-hazard suits, the Tampax factory where no one ever wants to admit they work, and the Johnson & Johnson factory where I can never shake the smell of baby shampoo off my skin. As the months pass, I see myself becoming one of the women that I pity. Getting up, going to an awful, mind-numbing job, coming home, voluntarily numbing my mind with weed and alcohol, going to sleep, doing it all over again the next day.
The Most Obtainable Goal
I cannot share my friends’ enthusiasm for this life, no matter how hard I try. I feel destined for something more; although having dropped out of school, I’m aware that my options are limited. The pressure to have a baby, at 13, already feels intense. The desire to create a family, to have someone who will love me is overwhelming at times. All of my friends are older than me, although still mostly teenagers, and I’m one of the few that hasn’t already had at least one child. Having a baby, getting a council flat, working and living and dying here, feels like the most obtainable goal.
When someone suggests that I should try modeling, I jump at the chance. I trek up to London to visit agencies and manage to get signed. All the other girls have their pushy stage-mothers with them. I’m always alone and have a hard time being pushy, but still I manage to get a little work for some teen magazines which gives me a level of celebrity status in our town, and also gets me jumped by several groups of jealous girls. I will myself to grow the requisite five additional inches needed to sign with a better agency but I stay short. Still, I see modeling as my only ticket out of a town that can offer me nothing but the hopeless future I see in everyone around me. When photographers ask me to pose more “seductively,” to slip my shirt off, to do some “artistic” nude shots for a calendar that I know will end up on some car mechanic’s garage wall, I comply. Anything that’ll get me out. Anything that will make me feel less invisible.
While there are clear systemic and social issues that leave children vulnerable, the recognition of this reality presents a constant challenge in advocating for exploited girls. In describing the poverty and the abuse that girls experience prior to their commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking, the response too often is that these girls inevitably aren’t really going to have great lives anyway. I remember arguing fiercely with a lawyer one day who was representing a 13-year-old, who’d been charged with a serious crime that her 35-year-old “boyfriend” had committed. I wanted him to fight for her to be charged as a juvenile so that her record would eventually be sealed. Snorting with laughter, he said: “It’s not as if she’s going to be a brain surgeon, so does it really matter?” It appears that if you’re already considered damaged goods, or doomed to a life of poverty, then being further victimized is not quite as bad.
For a time, one of the most widely referenced articles on commercial sexual exploitation in the US was a 2003 Newsweek cover story entitled: “This Could Be Your Kid.” The article’s sensational claims of “suburban teen prostitutes” and otherwise “normal” girls who simply sold sex for designer clothes, dismissed the real issues of commercial sexual exploitation, such as race, poverty, homelessness, abuse, ineffective city systems and a public policy that blames the victims. The public reaction to this article motivated by fear of “inner-city issues” affecting their own children was starkly portrayed by a “counselor,” who was quoted in the article as saying: “People say, ‘We're not from the ghetto.’ The shame the parents feel is incredible.” The unsubstantiated claim that 30 percent of prostituted youth were from middle or upper class backgrounds completely ignored, even if this “fact” were true, the other 70 percent of youth from low-income backgrounds. It was as if this 70 percent didn’t matter as much because their abuse was inevitable anyway.
All of this is not to say that only socio-economically disadvantaged children are at risk. While there aren’t clear national statistics on the socio-economic backgrounds of children who are commercially sexually exploited, we do know that there are children who are recruited into the sex industry who don’t fit the commonly understood profile of an “at-risk” child. These are children from middle-class backgrounds, children who haven’t suffered extreme trauma or abuse, children who have been sheltered and cared for. Commercial sexual exploitation can happen to any young person. Every parent should be able to have a conversation with their child about the sex industry and how children are recruited. The Internet has opened up a whole world of information to children, and yet it has also brought the threat of predatory strangers right into our homes. Global accessibility means that a teenager in Ohio can connect online with a teenager in Liverpool, yet it also means that a 30-year-old man who trolls the chat rooms looking for children can instantly connect with a 13-year-old in his community. Exploiters are utilizing the Internet more and more to search for vulnerable children and adolescents, who can be used for both sexual and commercial purposes.
Children are vulnerable just by virtue of being children. Getting frustrated with your parents, thinking you’re invincible, engaging in risky behavior, being interested in relationships, particularly with older men, and being enamored with money and consumer goods are all part of most American adolescents’ experiences. In the heady mix of hormones, wanting to belong, confusing messages about love and sex, and a desire to be independent, it’s easy to lure an otherwise well-adjusted 14-year-old girl into a meeting, into a car, into a bed. Pimps understand child psychology and adolescent development well enough to know the dynamics at play, and can skillfully manipulate most children, regardless of socio-economic background, prior abuse, or parenting, into a situation where they can be forced or coerced into being sold for sex.
Yet, it may take longer to manipulate the well-adjusted 14-year-old, and in the process she’ll be missed pretty quickly by her parents, who’ll notify the police, who may put out an Amber Alert. There might be a story on the 11 o’clock news about her disappearance, and once she’s found, the perpetrator is likely to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But if you shift some of the variables in the case — make the child a child of color, a runaway, a child in the foster care system, a child no-one’s really going to miss, a child so starved of attention and affection that anything you provide will be welcomed, a child who’ll be seen as a willing participant in her own exploitation — the story changes dramatically. There’s no Amber Alert, no manhunt, no breaking news story, no Nancy Grace coverage, no police investigation, no prosecution. It’s just another “teen prostitute,” another one of the nameless, faceless, ignored, already damaged 70 percent.
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