By Reid Maki, Child Labor Coalition Coordinator
In the film “Pretty Woman,” Julia Roberts plays a glamorous prostitute whose life doesn’t seem so bad. But the ugly truth about prostitution is that it’s a very dangerous world to inhabit: violence is common and the health risks are grave. The Julia Roberts character seems more or less in control of her life. In reality—I learned at a Capitol Hill briefing October 21—many of the women who enter prostitution are actually young girls forced into the trade by their unscrupulous handlers.
I remember seeing the film “Taxi Driver” when it came out in 1976 and thinking that the 12-year-old prostitute played by Jodie Foster was too young to be realistic. I was wrong. In fact, the average age of girls getting into this profession today is 12 to 14, according to Rachel Lloyd, the founder and executive director of Girls Education and Mentoring Services (GEMS), a New York-based group that is working to end the sexual exploitation and trafficking of young women.
These young prostitutes are often runaways from home who meet adults who coerce and manipulate them into selling their bodies. Rapes, beatings, and drugs are used to force the young people—an estimated 20 to 40 percent are boys—into prostitution. Many are vulnerable because they have been sexual assault victims in their own families. “Incest is boot camp for prostitution,” said Lloyd, quoting a phrase often used by advocates. Many young girls are “thrown away” by their families, struggle to survive on the streets, and turn to the sex trade for the income it provides. They find, however, that much of the money they earn goes to a procurer, or “pimp.”
Shaquana Blount, an outreach worker for GEMS, told the 200 or so audience participants that she fell victim to the industry when she was a teen. She recalled being in a car with a customer and waking up in the hospital with no memory of the terrible beating she survived.
Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) spoke about her efforts to stem sex tours to Asia. She recalled sending one New York City tour operator a letter requesting they desist from advertising sex tours only to have the company post her letter on their Web site and ridicule her efforts.
The police and judicial system often treat child prostitutes as criminals, when they are really victims, said Maloney, who has worked tirelessly to pass laws that fight sex trafficking. New York State recently passed legislation that prevents child sex workers under the age of 16 from being prosecuted and offers them help instead. “This is huge. We’re the first state to pass this legislation,” said Maloney. The bill increases the maximum amount of jail time a customer, or “john,” can get from three months to one year.
Governor Eliot Spitzer signed the bill into law—before he was forced to resign from office after a prostitution scandal.
I started this blog with a film reference. Perhaps I should close it with one. Earlier this year, I saw “Holly,” a drama about the trafficking into prostitution of a 12-year-old Vietnamese girl. I read recently that the inspiration for the film came to its writer and producer Guy Jacobson when he was on a business trip to the Cambodian city of Phnom Penh. “I was walking in the street in the middle of the day and found myself surrounded by a group of about 15 little girls, some as young as 5, who were very aggressively soliciting me for prostitution,” he said.
The film’s star, Ron Livingston, finds the moral dilemma presented by the film pretty clear: “To be cynical, if you want to say America stands for something, and we’re trying to make the world a better place and bring freedom and human rights everywhere, why don’t we start with the 12-year-old girls who are being raped in back alleys? Seems like that would be a good thing to fix.”