One of the girls was 18, the other 14. When police saw the girls approach adult men with the intent to trade sex for fast food, they promptly arrested the 18-year-old for their prostitution attempt because she helped the 14-year-old girl solicit sex from strangers and planned to take a cut of the 14-year-old’s profits.
I know. It’s depressing as hell–but here’s where it gets even more sad. The 18-year-old told police that she’d been prostituting since she was 15 years old. Isn’t that just horrific? Where were her parents? How did this all start? And here’s where it’s the most upsetting–and a bit sexist: The men who planned to trade sex from the girls for burgers went about their day normally after the incident. No jail time. No fine. Nothing. I know you’re thinking, “WTF?!,” but the thing is that this is pretty typical: girls–even girls as young as ten, we’re talking children here–who trade sex for money or food are often punished with jail time and a criminal record while their pimps and customers go off free. That’s right. When adult men are caught trying to buy sex from little girls, it’s often the little girls who receive the most severe punishment. It’s enough to make me throw up.
I do want to make something clear though: I’m not trying to be all high and mighty, saying sex work is terrible and everyone who does sex work is a victim. Listen, when you’re 18, it’s your body. Even though prostitution is illegal in most states, we’re not going to judge what you do with your own lady bits–and if you want to trade sex for McNuggets (or frequent flyer miles), it’s up to you–and by then you’ll be more likely to fully understand and deal with the risks associated with it. But when you’re still growing up, even if you think you’re going into it because you really want to, it’s not okay. Most girls under 18 are coerced into sex work by pimps–and sometimes even family members–who just want to exploit them and make extra cash. Girls who grow up in rough family situations often feel like they don’t have any other choice–and when pimps promise them love, a “safe” place to live, jewelry, and other things they’ve never had before, it’s hard to resist.
Sure, some people might laugh about the girls trying to trade sex for a McDonald’s meal, but when you think about it, it’s not funny at all. Teen prostitutes are actually victims of sex trafficking, which in turn makes them victims of other really scary things: sexual and physical violence, as well as a ton of psychological and mental abuse. That’s not funny. That’s slavery, and that’s horrifying–especially because anywhere between 100,000 and 300,000 girls suffer from it in the United States alone.
Pimps often pick out runaways or girls from low-income or broken homes, since these girls tend to be more vulnerable and desperate to find security, love, and a source of money. These girls lack the education and tools necessary to escape once they’re sucked in to “the life.” They don’t have the money to get away nor the skills necessary to get a job to make that possible–and often if they try, they’re brutally beaten by their pimps. This is why they call it “the life.” Because without help, it’s both vicious and cyclical–and permanent. It stops being a choice and becomes a life sentence.
But “the life” isn’t a life at all. It’s more of a death–of your spirit, your self-esteem, and your childhood. That’s not worth all the Happy Meals in the world. I only hope these girls are connected with a solid program that helps them get away from the streets and toward a better life. One where they can rediscover the dreams they had as little kids, one where they can explore their own sexuality on their own terms, and one where they’ve got a hot meal waiting for them every night that they don’t have to pay for with sex.
If you know someone who’s been lured into teen prostitution, click here for resources and help.
Have you or a friend ever been a victim of sex trafficking? Would you ever trade sex for money or other goods? Do you think girls who trade sex for money should be punished or helped? Let’s talk about it in the comments.