Child sexual exploitation in the USA: Not just a problem for developing nations
NEW YORK, USA – Child sexual exploitation has long been a known evil in developing countries where the combination of tourism and poverty make for a lucrative business. But at least 300,000 children and adolescents are prostituted every year in the United States, according to a University of Pennsylvania study. An estimated 2,200 of them are in New York City.
Girls Education and Mentoring Services (GEMS) is the only non-profit organization in New York State serving domestically trafficked and commercially exploited girls.
The Harlem-based centre is a safe haven; a place where young women exiting abusive relationships of sexual exploitation can find shelter, comfort and empowerment.
Taking ‘the long view’
Some 250 young women have passed through the centre’s doors since its founding in 1998. All of them have been welcomed and encouraged to leave ‘the life’ of the sex industry. Most manage to do just that. Some return to the street, unable to break the bonds of dependency that made them ripe for exploitation in the first place.
“You have to take the long view. Kids have to go through the cycle a few times,” says GEMS Director Rachel Lloyd, a survivor of ‘the life’.
“Sometimes you have to practice leaving. On average, girls are going to go through anywhere from five to seven attempts to leave – just like in a relationship of domestic violence,” she adds.
Nearly three-quarters of the young women who have gone through the GEMS programme have successfully terminated their abusive relationships.
Cycle of abuse
Lloyd was just 13 when she dropped out of school to support an alcoholic mother. She slipped into a life of drugs and sexual abuse. She tried three times to kill herself. But even in the United Kingdom, with its network of social workers, lawyers and psychiatrists, Lloyd “continued to slip through the cracks of a system that would eventually give up.” Prostitution in Germany was what awaited her at age 17.
Preventing that slide is what GEMS is all about.
Unlike in countries where sex tourism is endemic, child prostitution in the United States is often the product of family dysfunction. “Over 70 per cent [of victims of commercial sexual exploitation] have been in child welfare system at some point. Which indicates that something is going on in the home, whether its abuse or neglect or alcoholism,” says Ms. Lloyd. “Somewhere along the line the family got fractured and the child is the one to suffer.”
From victim to advocate
Another survivor of abuse, Dominique, says about her family: “We fought a lot in my house. Domestic violence like you wouldn’t believe.” When she ran away, she recalls, she hadn’t gone more than a block before a pimp pulled up next to her.
“[He said] ‘I can really help you. I can really be like your father and a person you can love all in one. Like family.’” Dominique’s response? “Family? OK! Family? Alright – I’m getting in the car!”
Dominique completed the GEMS programme and is now an advocate herself, with a staff position at GEMS, an apartment of her own, a loving husband and a healthy daughter.
‘Very Young Girls’
Dominique’s story is told in the film ‘Very Young Girls’. The documentary features young women who find GEMS at a crucial point on their journey from prostitution to empowerment. About half of GEMS participants are mandated by the courts or probation officers to attend; the other 50 per cent come willingly through outreach or word-of-mouth.
The film emphasizes the importance of righting the criminal justice code so that the youngest victims of sex trafficking are not trapped in the system.
In one of the film’s most shocking scenes, an attorney argues that a 14-year old girl rescued from an abusive pimp who had kidnapped her for five days and subjected her to rape, be denied parole and charged with prostitution. Happily, the judge, citing the need for “a chance to prove they can do what they need to do,” releases the girl to her mother and refers her to GEMS.
The 90-minute documentary, co-produced by Ms. Lloyd, the GEMS founder, is currently making its way around the film festival circuit in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Ms. Lloyd says she hopes it will raise awareness of the serious problem of commercial sexual exploitation “in our own backyard.”
By Elizabeth Kiem
The World Congress III against the Sexual Exploitation of Children, set for 25-28 November 2008 in Brazil, aims to promote international cooperation for more effective action on sexual exploitation. Here is one in a series of related stories.
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