It’s three a.m., and I am blogging. This is not how I planned out my evening.
Dr. Mom attended The New York Women’s Foundation “Celebrating Women Breakfast” this past weekend. She gave me a book that she got there: “Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls Are Not for Sale, an Activist Finds Her Calling and Heals Herself.” It was written by Rachel Lloyd, a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation, who founded Girls Education and Mentoring Services (GEMS.)
It would seem that this book affected me emotionally. By that I mean it ripped my heart out, stomped all over it, and showed it to me while I was still alive. Did I mention it left me wanting more?
So I decided to watch a movie, Very Young Girls (available on Netflix Instant Watch), which is a documentary about the girls GEMS works with, and the work that they do. Guess what? Sleep continues to evade me.
But I still highly recommend both, especially to my fellow social workers. Unless you work for an organization like GEMS, where the mission is specifically geared towards working with this population, you might forget what a serious problem it is. And the fact that it likely affects people we work with.
It’s so easy to make light of this situation. I’ve been guilty of it myself.
What’s that, you say? No one would mock exploited children. What the hell is wrong with you, SocialJerk? The thing is, we do it all the time.
People like victims. Nice, neat, wrapped up in a bow, no blame could conceivably be placed on their shoulders victims. If a suburban girl is kidnapped, beaten, raped, forced to do drugs, and sold against her will, then clearly, she is a victim. If a woman living under an opppressive, totalitarian government is promised a better life in America, and then sold into slavery, we can agree that she’s been victimized. We can all feel like good guys by writing letters to the editor, saying that the thugs that did this (they were black, right?) should be creatively killed in public (I’m the only one with the guts to say it!) and we should take up a collection to help this girl (hey, it’s the thought that counts.)
Actual scenarios are usually much messier. Was she taken and held against her will? Yes. Physically? Not always. Does she do drugs? Does she swear a lot? Does she seem like she doesn’t even want help? Does she keep running back to her pimp?
It’s harder to feel sympathy for girls who, though they’re only 13, don’t look 13. They certainly don’t act like it, y’knowwhatimsayin’? They’re prostitutes. OK, their lives were tough, but things were tough for a lot of people, and they don’t sell themselves on a street corner. Plus pimps wear those hilarious clothes! And I like rap music!
I worked with one girl, back when I was an intern, who broke my heart on a regular basis. Her mother was a drug addict and had a pimp. That man owned her mother. So when my girl was born, the pimp wound up on the birth certificate, though no one seemed to think he was really the father.
The mother drifted in and out of this girl’s life, until she was eventually murdered. My girl spent the majority of her life being raised by her grandmother.
But her mother’s pimp? His name on the birth certificate gave him legal rights. So he took this girl to visit him from the age of five, which is when he started selling her for sex. It was a long time before her grandmother could prove to the courts that seeing this piece of shit (I’m going to let that one ride) was not in this child’s best interests.
This girl wanted nothing more than to please others. She would bring ice cream for the other girls in group. She accompanied one girl to a doctor’s appointment when the father wasn’t willing to go. Once she came in with a good report card, smiling from ear to ear. Her grandmother certainly loved her, but she had a very difficult time showing it. When she brought that report card home, grandma had patted this 15 year old on the arm, and told her she was proud.
When this girl was 12, she began to realize that she had developed into a rather beautiful young girl, with a body that made her look about 16. Guys who had known her mother showed an interest in her. She had never experienced healthy love from a man, never had any kind of father figure. So when guys wanted to spend time with her, which turned into them wanting sex, she went along with it.
When one man, who had always looked out for her, told her that he would bring her to a party, she was thrilled. Then he asked if she would dance, make some money for them both, so she did it. She wanted the money, but she really wanted to please this guy. There were more parties, more dancing, and the line of what she wouldn’t do kept getting blurred, until she ended up having sex for money.
What would you have done, if you were her? How would you have avoided it?
She wasn’t the only one. Two of the eight girls in that group had been sexually exploited at some point. Angelica, who I wrote about a while back, saw prostitution as her only viable source of income, and planned to enter the life when she got out of the hospital. Other girls in group considered it. They all talked about “zoning out,” playing a song in their heads–dissociating, to those of us in the know.
It’s a bleak picture. But Girls Like Us and Very Young Girls gives us exactly what we need as social workers, or at least, what I need. Ebony, who is hilarious and talented, but can’t seem to stay out of the life. She knows what she wants, and what she needs to do to get it, but she’s just not ready. Girls like Carolina and Kim, who are on the road to improving their lives.
And then there is Dominique, who is adorable and wears her heart on her sleeve. You hear her story, which is more than any child should have to deal with, and get to see what she’s up to now–marrying a guy she describes as “beautiful inside and out,” realizing she deserves to be loved, working at GEMS and raising her daughter, conscious that she wants a different life for her child.
She’s only 20, but she seems to be one of those rare success stories that keeps us all going.
You start to feel bad for people who don’t get to see how lovable these girls are. Gossiping about mutual acquaintances, hamming it up and dancing for the camera, talking about their little sisters, doing each other’s hair. To look at them and see broken, used children, teen prostitutes, too far gone to be helped…it really is the loss of everyone who doesn’t give these girls a chance.