The Scary Statistics of Teenage Prostitution

BlogHer Original Post

A story about the abusive background suffered by many teenage prostitutes and what Georgia is doing to help them appeared on my Facebook feed from Women's eNews on Monday. (It seems to not be working at this writing, but I linked to it in case it comes back up.) Yesterday, Diane Loupe wrote another story about Georgia's innovative plan. The new program is called "A Future. Not A Past," and instead of throwing teen prostitutes in jail, it offers them safe housing, education, and therapy. Brilliant!

The way our nation treats teenage prostitutes is a moral failure. Over two years ago, Elizabeth Anne Wood at wrote about two bills moving through New York State's legislature at Sex in the Public Square:

If it were to pass it would mean, as the New York Times pointed out in an editorial this morning, that we would treat American born teen prostitutes much the way we treat internationally trafficked teens caught working as prostitutes: that is, we would treat them as people in need of protection and services rather than as criminals. Here’s the lead paragraph from this morning’s New York Times editorial:

Sexually exploited children can be helped by the law or victimized by it, depending on where they are from. An Eastern European child smuggled into this country as a sex slave is offered protection under the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act. An American child who flees abusive parents and ends up selling her body on the streets is labeled a criminal and sent to the juvenile equivalent of prison.

That statement is important because it points out one reality of young prostitutes: they are sometimes engaged in prostitution because, as runaways, there are few options open to them that will allow them to remain free of the homes they are trying to escape. The National Runaway Switchboard sites a 1998 study published in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect, indicating that 34% of runaway youth (girls and boys) reported sexual abuse before leaving home and forty-three percent of runaway youth (girls and boys) reported physical abuse before leaving home.

One of my favorite New York Times opinion columnists, Bob Herbert, has written many articles about the sex slave trade and how teen prostitutes feed it. After his column criticizing Las Vegas appeared, The Arizona Republic reported that the city's mayor said that "he'd like to take a baseball bat to Herbert." But the paper stood up for Herbert's thoughtful reporting, noting:

Las Vegas Family Court Judge William Voy told the Las Vegas Sun that 70 percent of the juvenile prostitution cases he deals with involve children who came from out of state. What's more, most of them worked as prostitutes in their home states.

Teen girls do not "choose" a whore's lifestyle because it is so glamorous. They are coerced, raped, beaten and controlled by pimps who take advantage of their youth and play off a popular culture that glorifies sex as something women are supposed to deliver on cue.

The interstate nature of teenage prostitution has Georgia's new program director concerned. Women's eNews reported that:

[Kaffie] McCullough, director of "A Future. Not A Past," hopes Georgia's program spreads beyond the state's borders. "Pimps and traffickers don't recognize boundaries of states, so if Georgia gets tough they may take the girls to South Carolina, Florida, Alabama or Tennessee," she said.

McCullough is right to be worried. Melissa Snow at the End Human Trafficking blog explained how pimps lure young girls into prostitution:

Here in America, the average age a child is targeted and recruited into sex trafficking is 13 years old. Pimps prey on the innocence of youth because it provides them with a target that can be romanced, tricked and then brutally forced into the sex trafficking market. Pimps use a variety of techniques to target and recruit a child into prostitution, from immediate force and violence as demonstrated in the case of two underage girls from Toledo, to the more common "loverboy" or boyfriend approach.

With either approach, pimps prey on and target girls who project a low self-esteem, or who have run away from home due to familial physical or sexual abuse. This provides the pimps with the opportunity to fill the gap of the lover or caretaker role as both "daddy and boyfriend". The pimp will invest as much time as necessary into securing the trust and loyalty of his victim. He will fulfill all his promises, buy her nice things and say all the caring words that she has been longing for - biding time to turn the seemingly caring relationship into one of sexual exploitation and torture.

Finally, here's a mind-blowing graphic that I pulled off Mormon Feminist Housewives:

Given the extremely troubled background of many prostitutes, especially teenage ones, it just seems extra vile to treat prostitutes as criminals.

Personally, I think prostitution should be legalized, and we would avoid a lot of these problems as a result. (Tracy Clark-Flory at Salon has the same view: there serious are problems with prostitution, but railing against it doesn't help the women who wind up working in it.) As the law stands now, women and girls who work as prostitutes bear the full burden of the law, which as discussed above makes no moral sense, and anyone trained in cost-benefit analysis (cough*me*cough) can attest to what an enormous waste of money it is to throw women in jail. However, the laws against sex trafficking and pimps should be ramped up so that the real "bad guys" face serious penalties for coercing and abusing women. The penalties for recruiting teenagers to work in the sex trade should be even higher. Given the serial predatory nature of pimp work, I'm talking like maybe life in jail or something like that. Let's give some real meaning to the stupid (but infuriatingly catchy), Oscar-winning song "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp."

Suzanne also blogs at Campaign for Unshaved Snatch (CUSS) & Other Rants. She is the author of Off the Beaten (Subway) Track, a book about unusual (but legal and fun) things to see and do in New York City.

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