Girls Like Us
Just today, I finished reading Girls Like Us by Rachel Lloyd. No matter what you think you might know about the commercial sexual exploitation of children, this book will likely shock you, break your heart, make you angry, and will inform you on things you may wish you didn’t know. Good books do that. Good books open your eyes and make you think. Good books never leave you the quite the same person you were before you read them.
The thing about the book that I found most unsettling, or perhaps equally as unsettling as the accounts of the horrors the girls in the life endured, is the fact that there remains a pervasive attitude which says that a young girl who is being sexually exploited by her pimp is doing so by choice, therefore is not worthy of the same considerations and help as other victims of rape and exploitation. As a general rule, a victim of rape is perhaps the only victim of heinous, violent crime who must prove they had nothing to do with the crimes perpetrated against them. A woman who is raped is expected to prove that she did not entice her rapist by the clothing she wore, the looks she gave him, the conversations they may have had, any casual touches between them… all of these things are examined under a microscope, and the victim of rape is violated again and again through a justice system that does not protect her as well is it protects her rapist. There is due process for the accused rapist. The one who is raped, however, is made to prove her innocence over and over and over again. Crimes of sexual assault seem to somehow make the victim fair game, in the court, in the media, in the eyes of the general public. The rapist should be the one living in shame, yet so often it is the victim of rape who spends her life trying to piece herself back together after the violent assault.
How much more for young girls who fall prey to sex trafficking. If a girl who is commercially sexually exploited (i.e., a teenage girl who may be referred to as a “teenage prostitute” by the unenlightened) says she was raped, the general attitude remains that she was asking for it, she chose to live a life that invited the assault, she is in the life because she likes it, she is probably hopelessly addicted to drugs and she has to prostitute herself in order to feed her habit, and so on. All of these things are used to justify the horrific act of raping a child who, through a series of victimizations that started out as something that looked a lot like love to her, has become violently trapped in a life NO ONE would choose for themselves if they knew a better way to live. As though the rape of a child is not enough, the girl is then conditioned to believe that it is all she deserves, that being sexually exploited is the only thing she is capable of doing in her life, she will never be more than what she in that moment, and getting out of the life is impossible. She learns to accept rape, beatings, death threats, mutilation, and feelings of worthlessness as part of her existence. She learns not to ask for help. She learns that there is no safe place for her, and turning to law enforcement is the least safe choice of all.
This should not be. Please, please contact your state legislators and ask if your state has a Safe Harbor law, which would protect commercially sexually exploited children from being prosecuted for their own victimization. As well, such laws provide victims with the means and resources to help them heal and move forward in their lives.
That such legislation is even necessary is heart wrenching.
Where does this start? It’s easy to look at those who are being exploited and say that they chose it for themselves, or they stay because their pimp will hurt or kill them if they leave, or these girls and women do this because they know no better way to live, and so on. And all of that may be true. But what of those who are consumers of these services? What of the men who look for women to buy on Craigslist? Or cruise the streets looking for the youngest looking prostitute they can find so they can buy her for an hour and brutalize her? What of the men who keep secret accounts on their computers so they can look at porn without their wife or girlfriend knowing about it? What of the men who do this and so much worse? Where do these men fit into the equation?
We teach our daughters to dress modestly; to be demure; to avoid potentially dangerous situations by never going out alone at night, not accepting drinks from strangers at bars, clubs, and parties; to have 911 on autodial on their cell phones, and, for the hyper vigilant, to have their cell phone ready to make that emergency call if they happen to be walking home alone at night and see suspicious activity. We teach our daughters to lock the doors and hide the goods, giving them all manner of instruction on how to avoid being raped.
But we teach our boys that “boys will be boys.” Men make lewd comments and gestures about an attractive woman, and it is excused because “he’s a man, he can’t help it.” Women are consistently portrayed in the media as being little better than sex toys with a pulse, and we collectively laugh and shake our heads about it because we know that these images are feeding the ever-horny and out of control male population, which holds most of the cash and therefore does most of the spending. Strip clubs are nearly considered sacred ground for bachelor parties or just a night out with the guys, and the women waiting at home for these men learn not to ask too many questions. The sexual appetite of the healthy male is used to excuse all manner of lascivious behavior, up to and including sexual assault. We teach our girls not to get raped. Yet, we do not teach our boys not to rape.
It is this component that is missing from the conversation about what is to be done regarding the rampant commercial sexual exploitation of children. Boys are brought up in a world which often passively, and sometimes very aggressively, tells them that their libido is king, and they should take what they can get even if it’s by force. Certainly, there are other voices being heard in the lives of individual boys, and these boys are raised to think of women with respect. However, as a whole, the message remains: Girls are taught not to get raped, boys are taught that their sex drive is the primary force in their lives. These two messages do not mix well.
Even within well meaning religious/conservative circles, the messages given to girls regarding their sexuality is along the lines of “Don’t get raped.” Growing up, I was taught that I alone could undo a man’s walk with God simply by the way I dressed, the way I looked at him, the way I might touch him even if it was merely a casual, friendly gesture. If I said or did something that aroused him and he stumbled in his faith, it was my fault for causing a brother to stumble. Where does personal responsibility come into play here? When does it become the responsibility of men to be mindful of what they are looking at, thinking about, allowing themselves to become consumed by, rather than the fault of women for being…too attractive???
I realize this can be a sensitive subject, so I am going to tread carefully.
Just kidding. I really make myself laugh sometimes.
If we are going to have an honest discussion about the problem of commercial sexual exploitation of children, we have to speak honestly about the messages we are giving our daughters and those we are giving our sons. Respect is taught. We cannot raise boys to believe they are superior to women, that women must submit to their authority, that women are lesser vessels than they are, that women are their to serve them, that women are there for the taking and if she won’t give it up, take it by force…and not expect that some of these boys will become perpetrators of heinous crimes against women.
We cannot raise our daughters to believe that their sexuality is something to be shrouded in shame, that they are victims waiting to happen, that they are subject to the authority of a man, that they are of less value than a man in any way, that they should be fearful of the world outside the safety of their home because the world is going to harm them…and not expect that some of these girls will become victims of the very men these learned fears were supposed to protect them from.
Changing the tide of culture begins with changing the messages we give our children in our homes and in the small world in which each of us live. The world is going to perpetuate the message that makes the most money, and right now, that message is in no way kind to women. What voices are counterbalancing the onslaught of damaging words and images coming at us from all sides?
Women are not weak victims waiting to happen. Men are not hapless victims of their libido. Girls are not for sale. Boys should not be taught to shop for them. “Boys will be boys” is bullshit in this regard. “He’s a man, he can’t help it” is a lame excuse. Men can help it, and I fully expect them to. No more excuses. No more blame. No more.
In her heart she is a mourner for those who have not survived. In her soul she is a warrior for those who are now as she was then. In her life she is both celebrant and proof of women’s capacity and will to survive, to become, to act, to change self and society. And each year she is stronger and there are more of her.
-Andrew Dworkin, “A Battered Wife Survives” (quoted in “Girls Like Us”)