PIMPS AND ‘HO’s. “Johns” and “tricks.” Not the expected topic for an after-school workshop for middle schoolers. But as a social work intern with FAIR Girls, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit dedicated to preventing human trafficking, I am teaching these barely adolescent girls and boys about the type of trafficking that most endangers U.S. citizens and permanent residents. (FAIR stands for “free, aware, inspired, and restored.”)
Human trafficking is often portrayed as an international problem, not something that happens in the United States. But the heart-wrenching fact is that the average age of entry into prostitution and pornography for U.S. citizens and permanent residents is between 12 and 14 years old. A minor working in prostitution, pornography, stripping, or any other commercial sex work is by definition a victim of human trafficking, according to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. (If one is over the age of 18, he or she must prove “force, fraud, or coercion” to be considered a victim.) Some minors are sold by family members into the “life,” as it’s called. Many trafficking victims were sexually abused when they were younger. Other victims are recruited by pimps who spot them as they run to the corner store, leave school, or hang out with friends.
Runaways and homeless youth may be most vulnerable. Studies show that the majority of prostituted youth had been runaways prior to sex work, and some experts cite anecdotal evidence that youth will be approached to participate in sex work within 48 hours of running away from home. Seventy-five percent of teens involved in prostitution, stripping, or pornography have a pimp, who might initially present himself as a parent, friend, guide, or watchdog for those new to the streets, soon followed by physical and mental coercion and abuse.
Our team of educators goes into Washington, D.C., public high schools and middle schools to bring this information to young people. We teach them the basic definitions of human trafficking (both commercial sex and labor trafficking). We listen to the song “P.I.M.P.” by rapper 50 Cent, a raunchy yet accurate retelling of the typical way girls are recruited into prostitution: “She like my style, she like my smile, she like the way I talk / She from the country, think she like me cause I’m from New York / I ain’t that n---- trying to holla cause I want some head / I’m that n---- trying to holla cause I want some bread / I could care less how she perform when she in the bed / B---- hit that track, catch a date, and come and pay the kid.”
Many of the kids know the lyrics by heart, but we challenge them to think about what they mean and consider how the media might shape their understandings of pimp culture. We ask the kids to draw pictures of pimps and prostitutes to examine stereotypes. The pimps are always well-dressed, slick, with lots of money. The prostitutes are scantily dressed, bruised, with sad faces.
At the end of every lesson, we offer small cards on which the students can write a question or give us feedback. While most of the questions are general, some are more pointed. One girl wrote, “What if a friend wants to strip for money and doesn’t think there is anything wrong with that?” Another asked, “I am dating an older man just because he buys me stuff and gives me money. Does that mean I am a prostitute?” Once, a student walked out as soon as the workshop started. She disclosed that she had been sold from age 11 to 18.
FAIR Girls also provides case management to human trafficking victims and those at risk and invites teen women to participate in a twice-weekly art therapy program called JewelGirls. The jewelry they make is sold at parties where they get to practice skills in preparation for employment. Their earnings are an alternative to making money on the streets. Some of the girls say the group helps them to “stay out of trouble.”
The adults who facilitate the group provide mentorship and support. We help them organize resumes, edit essays for school, and applaud every accomplishment. Although the problem of domestic sex trafficking of minors is overwhelming, we’re committed to confronting it by providing education, economic empowerment, and a welcoming, supportive community.
Abayea Pelt, a University of the District of Columbia student and soon-to-be social worker, is the office manager at Sojourners.