A New Dawn For the Worlds Oldest Profession–And Some Words on Sex Trafficking in America

Most people are unaware the average age of entry into prostitution is 13. I was shocked to learn.

I recently attended a movie screening of Very Young Girls, hosted by the Philadelphia Anti Trafficking Coalition. It was an eye-opening glimpse into a very overlooked problem of sex trafficking of minors in the United States.

The documentary centered around a prostitution recovery house, GEMS (Girls Education & Mentoring Services) in NYC, the first of its kind, and the struggles of about a half-dozen girls to get out of the Life.  In one heartbreaking scene, Rachel Lloyd, the founder, is counseling a group of girls; one points out that her pimp will always be there for her. “But be there to do what?” It doesn’t matter. The simple security of having someone never leave them is enough to withstand all the abuse.

One of the most compelling aspects of the film is just how hard it is for these girls to escape the profession once they are in. Pimps become their father, boyfriend, drug dealer, and captor all at once. Many fall in love with their pimp, and not knowing another kind of love, fervently hold on to this relationship regardless of all the abuse. As Rachel Lloyd points out in the film, these are extremely difficult bonds to break. Here’s what one victim has to say:

“Most people don’t understand why we stay with a pimp. Many of us have been exploited by our peers, society, and often by the people that we trust. When we’re the most vulnerable, pimps attack, promising us stability, a family life, a future. They reel us in. He becomes our father, and our boyfriend, until we see what he really wants. Then he intimidates us and reminds us constantly about the consequences if we leave. Most tell us that they’ll find and kill us, no matter where we go. We’re afraid of being afraid. Resources are limited and many of us do not see a way out.”

Getting away from the pimp is just the beginning of their journey. These women then have to deal with recreating their identity, both literally and figuratively. One of the techniques used by pimps to keep their girls under control is to confiscate identifying documents–license, birth certificate, green card, etc. Another is getting them hooked on drugs they supply. Further, the girls are homeless debt slaves. Regardless of how much money they earn they don’t own any of it. Basic needs like housing, clothing, and food are arranged as long as they stay with their pimp, which could be more than they were getting at home. And if they are to escape, how can they start over with no money, no ID, and no place to go?

Prostitution is no stranger to the courts. For centuries, those who perform an act sought by paupers and kings alike have been vilified, regardless of their motivation, and despite lenient laws and societal views against those seeking sex.  Shockingly the prostitute is punished far worse and more frequently than the “John” who may get a slap on the wrist if anything. For those that are forced into prostitution as slaves, this is an especially bitter pill to swallow. As pointed out in the documentary  in any other circumstance an underage girl wouldn’t be recognized as able to consent to sex, however, they’re being charged with the adult crime of prostitution. It is unlikely that a John would be charged with statutory rape, if charged at all. With respect to trafficking, there are some legal protections in place for illegal immigrants, but our own most vulnerable end up behind bars and back on the streets. New York recently passed safe harbor legislation for those charged with prostitution that are underaged, but other state and federal law has been slow to follow suit.

But a new dawn is breaking for those who want to get out of “the Life.” The pendulum of Justice is swinging from retribution to rehabilitation in Philadelphia for some sex workers. Instead of fines, jail, or drug rehab, some women have the chance to recover from a dangerous lifestyle, and reenter society.

Philadelphia started the “Project Dawn Initiative” in 2010, the first court of its kind. It consists of a specialized court with a designated judge that places individuals charged with repeat prostitution offenses in a recovery program, with the chance to expunge their records. The aim is recovery and a decrease in recidivism. The program is voluntary and must be applied for. It consists of four phases, two in a recovery house and two at home, intense therapy both for substances and trauma, and monthly updates with the judge. If completed without any relapses the program takes a year to complete. If the woman relapses or otherwise doesn’t comply with the program’s requirements she may be required to complete a task like write an essay or sit in a jury box to watch prostitution cases, and she must start her phase over. At the judge’s discretion a woman can “fail” the program and be sent to jail. If she is successful, their last case is dismissed with prejudice and she “graduates” into society. Read more about the program in a very excellent article here.

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Hear from a participant of Project Dawn

In 2010 Project Dawn accepted 28 women, and claims a 70% success rate. It recently received a $250,000 federal grant. In Philadelphia alone, it’s reported that about 800 women per year (and 200 Johns) are arrested.

The Philadelphia Anti Trafficking Coalition is working to improve legislation for victims. I urge you to contact your representatives to educate them about the extent of the problem of trafficking, and tell them to support this legislation. You can find out who your congress people are here, and contact PATC for more info.

If you or someone you know is struggling as a victim of sex trafficking, or if you have any information about a victim, there is a hotline to call. 1-888-3737-888.

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16 thoughts on “A New Dawn For the Worlds Oldest Profession–And Some Words on Sex Trafficking in America

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