Myth: Prostitutes have chosen this life and deserve to go to jail.
Reality: Many “prostitutes” are victims of sex trafficking who need our help.
Imagine you were stripped of your job experience, your degrees, your connections. You’re fifteen years old, and you just ran away from home because your father has been trading sex with you for rent and favors since you were 12.
A couple of weeks ago you found out you were pregnant and, wanting to protect the baby, you decided enough was enough and ran. But now you have nowhere to go, no job experience, no one to help. You go to the library to get access to wifi and look for resources. While you’re there, a man approaches you. He starts telling you that his girl just broke up with him, and he talks about how nice he treated her and describes the void in his life without her now. He offers to take you out to eat and buy you some new slides. You are reluctant at first, but you decide to go out with him and have a good time. For a minute you forget the fact that you’re pregnant and alone without shelter or food.
At the end of the night, he offers for you to come stay with him until you find a place. You go home with him. For a while things are good; he buys you nice clothes and sets you up with an iPhone. You start to trust in him and confide in him about your pregnancy. He says it’s not your fault and that he will take care of you. You let your guard down and start dreaming of a life with him and your new baby.
Until one day, he comes home frustrated that he doesn’t have the money for rent. “I keep providing for you, but you don’t give me anything in return,” he yells as he throws the bottle in his hand across the room. You’re so scared, but you just stay quiet and hope it will pass soon. Finally, he calms down and starts to walk towards the door. As he is leaving he tells you that if you don’t find a job soon, you’re going to have to work for the rent like your dad taught you. You are hurt and terrified. You’ve been searching for a job for months, but no one want to hire a pregnant girl. Even McDonald’s said no.
The next month the same thing happens, but this time you hear a knock at the door. It’s the landlord here to collect rent. With no money in hand, you offer to have sex with him as payment, and he accepts. Your boyfriend comes in afterwards and says, “Good job, see that’s all you have to do. I’d have to actually work a job 9-5 for a week if I wanted to make that kind of money. This is what you’re good at–even your dad knew it.” You’re devastated, you’re angry and blame yourself because you believed him. You want to leave, but you’re torn because you still love your boyfriend and maybe he is right? I mean even your own father did the same thing. Maybe that really is all you’re worth.
This story is one of coercion, which is a common way women and children become victims of sex trafficking. Through a manipulative grooming process, a girl falls in love with her pimp and feels in debt to him. So, when he begins to ask her for favors such as stripping, having sex with one of his friends, or selling herself to a stranger, the girl will often comply out of obligation to help him financially.
Girls don’t wake up one day and decide to be prostitutes. Many have been forced, coerced, or tricked into the sex industry as children or adults. Some women have been forced through physical abuse by family members or violent and controlling men to perform acts they would never consent to. They are forced to sell themselves simply to survive because they have found no other way to make ends meet.
Others are neither forced or manipulated, but tricked into the industry. In these situations, pimps will appeal to a girl’s desires or needs. For instance, a trafficker might offer a fake modeling position to a teenage girl or promise a waitressing job to an immigrant in need. But once the girl commits, she discovers that the modeling position or waitressing job is really a trafficking ring. At this point, it’s too late for her to backout or escape.
But because selling sex for profit in most states is illegal and it’s difficult to prove “force, fraud, or coercion”, these women and children are the ones who are put behind bars. This is why the label of “prostitute” is so detrimental. It’s not only incorrect in most cases, but it perpetuates victims’ abuse and withholds them from getting help and finding healing.
One recent experiment that seeks to end victim-blaming and offers a different approach to ending prostitution is the Swedish Model. In 1999, a new law was introduced in Sweden that criminalized the buyer of sex rather than the seller. As a result, many survivors of sex trafficking were identified and offered help. In 2015, a government agency in Sweden reported that street prostitution had been cut in half since 1995, and the amount of men who said that they purchased sex was down 40 percent.
Join us in speaking out against victim-blaming and advocating for similar policies that will protect victims and prosecute traffickers, buyers, and facilitators of sex trafficking. Click here to learn how you can support current campaign efforts in our state, country, and online!
Shared Hope International, The Baltimore Sun