I am speaking this week at the International Christian Alliance on Prostitution conference in Green Lake, Wisconsin. This is a really important group of folks who do critical responding to one of the great evils of our age: sex trafficking. As I prepare to go, I think this is a good time to revisit a previous post on the subject.
Some time ago, I told you Ileana’s story. Prostituted by her mother in a shed in their backyard in a slum in Brazil, stories like hers are told far too often not only in Brazil, but in so many places where young girls are seen as commodities rather than as creations in the image of God. In many countries, what happened to Ileana is not called prostitution. Because Ileana was sold in her own home by her own mother, the law identifies this as abuse, but not prostitution; a ridiculous distinction that does not recognize the extent of the devastation Ileana suffered.
Not only is what happened to her prostitution, it’s sex trafficking. As defined in The United States’ Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, sex trafficking occurs any time “a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age.”
What happened to Ileana is horrifying. But I have been appalled by a more subtle, far more pervasive, and ultimately more pernicious form of prostitution.
A few years ago, I met Lucia, a sweet and very spirited nine-year-old who lived in a favela with her mother, two younger sisters, and younger brother. Her mother obviously loves her children greatly, but she is unemployable due to mental instability, and can provide very little for them.
Two years ago, I found that Lucia was being prostituted. I couldn’t believe it. Surely her mother would not force her into this. Could her mother’s occasional boyfriend be responsible? Had one of the brothel owners in the favela kidnapped her?
In fact, it was none of these. What happened to Lucia is deplorably common. Lucia is desperately poor. Like any little girl, she wants better things in life: nicer clothes, better food, perhaps some special attention and to be told that she is pretty. Lucia is growing up in a cultural setting that places no stigma on prostitution, so she chose to trade the only thing she has: herself. In exchange for a new blouse or a good meal, she entered a lifestyle that will be ultimately and devastatingly destructive.
But even in her new independence, Lucia will find pain. She has committed an act of self-betrayal. She will discover that the readily-available drugs of the slum assuage the pain, and soon she’ll sink deeper into a cycle of despair. Without intervention, we know this will happen because we’ve seen it happen too many times.
Millions of little girls begin a lifestyle of prostitution without even knowing what they are doing. How do you stop a child from prostituting herself when her community tells her this is a perfectly acceptable means of providing for herself and her family? When she enjoys more approval and appreciation from her abusers than she has ever received at home? When selling herself is just a part of growing up?
This is difficult, very difficult. We can do something about Lucia—and we have, and will continue to do so for her and her siblings—but what do we do about the hundreds of thousands of little girls like her around our world?