By Olivia Hull
The average age of a first-time female prostitute in the United States is 13 years old.
Over 3 million viewers have seen the award-winning documentary film Very Young Girls since its premiere in 2007. The film is shown in middle schools, high schools, police stations and counseling centers across the country. The footage is primarily from 2006 and begins with a series of interviews of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS) members, women who fell into “the life” of sex trafficking from a very young age. “I was always an A-student in elementary school and in middle school,” one victim recounts. “But there was this 30-year-old dude interested in me. I just never did nothing like that before.” Each woman’s story echoes the previous one. They were young, impressionable, often growing up in broken homes or foster homes. “I didn’t have any options,” says another victim. “At one point, I said, ‘this is my life, this is all I can do.’ They [the pimps] isolate you from everyday life”
Before Rachel Lloyd founded GEMS in 1998, and advocated for recent Safe Harbor laws finally implemented in New York in 2009, young girls who were trafficked were arrested and jailed because of their behavior. One girl, Nichole, was forced into prostitution for five days during which period she was forced to have sex with thirty men. “Instead of taking her to the hospital,” her mother says, outraged, “They took her to the jailhouse!” In fact, the judge in Nichole’s case agreed to send her to GEMS instead of jail, a residential rehabilitation program for teenage survivors of sex trafficking in New York City. The program served 320 members last year, ages 12 to 24, and has a “membership for life” policy, which encourages alumnae to come back and share their experiences with younger survivors. One survivor in the film described GEMS as “the only family I have.”
Lloyd recently published a memoir chronicling her personal experience with sexual exploitation called Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls Are Not for Sale, an Activist Finds Her Calling and Heals Herself. The “johns”, men who purchase sex from prostitutes, are hardly penalized for their actions. In New York State, if they agree to attend a four-hour program and refrain from sexual intercourse with prostitutes within a six-month period, their records are wiped clean. Among other political measures to be taken to prevent the sustenance of this market, GEMS suggests decriminalization of female prostitution as well as tougher penalties for johns. The New York Police department is looking into a special unit to deal with teenage victims of sex trafficking (GEMS prefers this term to “prostitution” which they feel implies she knows what she’s doing). According to panelist Janice Holzman, Communications and Development Director of GEMS, “we’re all accountable to some extent…[as] a society we’re responsible.”
One easy thing to do to help further the GEMS cause is watch the documentary with your friends or family. It can be found its entirety on Netflix instant or on youtube. Also check out the GEMS website for volunteer and internship opportunities.
Olivia is a sophomore at Barnard and a staff writer for The Nine Ways of Knowing.