Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Sex Work and Teenagers

An October 26, 2009 article in the NYT explores the relationship between teenage runaways and prostitution as a means of survival. The article chronicles factors leading teens (particularly girls) to run away, and interesting, police tactics for getting teenage girls to “flip” on their pimps, as well as interviews with pimps themselves.

The article relates a story about a 16 year old girl from Queens who was interviewed by an F.B.I. agent in hopes of getting her to flip, and ultimately, to provide her protection from this pimp and take her away from prostitution. The agent had only two hours to gain her trust, convince her to tell him about her pimp, and then provide her with a safe place to stay other than a shelter (where girls are likely to run away from as soon as they are placed there, particularly if they have not flipped on their pimps yet). The agent was unable to get her to admit that she worked for anyone, and she was released into police custody. Several hours later she disappeared, and was found dead seventeen days later.

This teen’s story had the common factors of childhood sexual and physical abuse as well as parental drug use found in so many girls’ stories. As one pimp interviewed explained it, “you promise them heaven and they’ll follow you to hell.” Several of the pimps also explained the process of alluring girls to join them; they would start out as boyfriends, treating the girls well, buying them things, and slowly start asking them to turn tricks to pay for bills. Historically, these girls have been treated as prostitutes, and therefore as criminals; they are more easily visible and easier to arrest than pimps and laws are structured in such a way that prostitution carries more legal consequence than being a john (or a pimp).

However, the law is in need of major reform in this area. The Dallas police department has employed a program for several years that focuses on runaways and preventative care for girls at the highest risk of using prostitution as a means of survival for shelter, food or money. In addition, the girls who are repeat offenders receive counseling and intensive treatment instead of jail time.

Yet many areas of the country do not yet understand that prostitution is often driven by a need to survive and gain economic means, and affects girls who often feel they have no other choice than to hit the streets. Until then, law enforcement will continue a losing battle against a class of people committing crime who have no real choice other than to continue to engage in sex work. This is an area of law where we need to look at the individual holistically and create alternatives for women and girls who feel they have no other means of survival. Although the story of Aileen Wournos is an extreme example, it highlights the psychological effects of prostitution and gender relations and probes us to really think about victimization on many levels.

Wournos, as portrayed by Charlize Theron in the film “Monster”, gives a performance almost unbearable to watch in her portrayal of a lifetime of physical abuse suffered by Wournos. Theron gives depth and humanity to a woman no longer alive, and renders so many questions of what it means to be a victim, what it means to victim, what justice truly is and where the shortcomings of the law and society are so evident. Abuse, rape, and the criminal prosecution of women and girls engaged in prostitution are areas where the masculinity so inherent in law falls far short, and an area I hope we begin to address from a dynamic, changed and nuanced feminist perspective.

1 comment:

Eve said...

I would like to probe you more about this “changed and nuanced feminist perspective” you wish to see. The Dallas police department’s program focuses on preventative care, but still seems to be largely focused on teenagers who have already engaged in sex work or will in the near future absent some assistance. If police departments are already aware of how to reach these teenagers, isn’t there something that can be done earlier on?

I think many feminists would agree with you that preventative care and counseling are necessary, and that this care and counseling should be feminist, but how is this change to be brought about? We all realize that teenage sex work is a problem, but this realization does little to serve this population without some concrete solutions.

For example, we could legalize sex work and regulate it to prevent minors and those with STIs from engaging in prostitution. However, this will just push these young women further into an underground market. So perhaps something needs to start earlier, but how early and with whom? I agree that we need a new feminist perspective, but what that perspective is remains unclear.