Girls Don’t Choose to be Trafficked

Chapter 4 in Girls Like Us is one that I feel everyone should read. It addresses the biggest cultural roadblock that every anti-human trafficking advocate has to face: The assumption that girls and women choose the life.

Before I dive into this, there is one cultural aspect that Rachel Lloyd does not address in this chapter that I think is essential to point out. The ultimate foundation of the United States of America is freedom. In today’s America, freedom means “the ability to choose one’s own_____” fill in the blank. We have an underlying assumption that our basic human rights–which include choice–are upheld in this nation. Everyone has a choice as to how they live their lives. And because we are a land of opportunity, everyone has the opportunity to achieve success–the American dream. Thus these two values creates an environment where everyone has the opportunity to make a “better” choice–a choice that will lead them to ultimate freedom and happiness.

I know you are probably thinking, “I know this isn’t totally true.” But stop and think for a moment on how you are judging someone’s life. I hear these stories constantly, and I still catch my default assumption, “They must have had a chance to make a better choice somewhere. Why didn’t they just choose the good path?”

Unfortunately, tons and tons of studies show that this is a fantasy. Just like in third world countries where women literally cannot make money–there are no jobs for women–there are circumstances that put people in our own nation in situations where there is no “right choice” or “good path.” For example, if you’re seventeen and cannot read because your parents neglected you, and no one helped you in school, there are very very very few jobs that you can hold. If you leave your home due to abuse or neglect–or because you also believe that “This is America, the land of opportunity,” you’ll quickly find out that there is nowhere to turn. Friends eventually get sick of you sleeping on their couch. The youth shelters are booked solid. You can’t secure a job. You could go home, but do you really want to be beaten to a pulp?

On top of this, Rachel Lloyd states, “they’re living in a culture that increasingly teaches them that their worth and value are defined by their sexuality.” It doesn’t take much for vulnerable young people to get to a place where they feel like their “best option” is to use that “worth” to at least get some food.

Lloyd focuses in her chapter on the context we need when evaluating the “choice” women and girls have in the sex industry. She states, “In order for a choice to be a legitimate construct, you’ve got to believe that (a) you actually have possible alternatives, and (b) you have the capacity to weigh those alternatives against one another and decide on the best value….Therefore the issue of choice has to be framed in three ways: age and age-appropriate responsibility, the type of choice, and the context of the choice” (page 78).

Lloyd goes on to make the obvious connections for us. Most of the girls in the sex industry started as minors (the average age is 12), thus we must ask if these girls were at an age where they were mature enough to “weigh those alternatives against one another and decide on the best value.” Can a 12, 14 or even 16-year-old truly understand and weigh between agreeing to have sex with her boyfriend so she can stay at his house instead of with her abusive father–even if she knows that boyfriend’s brother takes pictures of naked girls and puts them on the internet? Will the 15-year-old on the street, unable to secure a job or a shelter beds, who is approached by another teenage girl with a deal to just dance in a bikini for a few nights really foresee that she’ll be put in a back room where a man clearly expects something more? Should she stay on the street and risk getting raped or beaten?

Lloyd states, “Most of them have little or no other legitimate options. Desperation and lack of options make for poor decision making, but provide ripe pickings for the traffickers. Their choices do not mean they deserve to be trafficked, or want to be enslaved…[N]either do the decisions girls in the United Sates may make with the hope of securing a better future, someone to love them, food and clothing, a sense of family, or a chance to escape their current abuse mean that they deserve, want, or choose the life that awaits them”(page 81).

If you actually stop and listen to the stories, you start to hear the depth of how vulnerable these girls were, how easy it was to believe that the boys and men who stepped in–who seemed to be their Prince Charming–would love and protect them. Unfortunately, they don’t, and the girls become trapped, enslaved–with no freedom or choice.