Let's Change Our Perspective

Among many undertakings, Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services (CONNSACS) periodically trains volunteers to operate a sexual assault crisis hotline that is available 24 hours to victims of sexual assault in Connecticut. Volunteers are trained to understand the historical context of feminism, the intricacies and psychology of sexual assault, and basic counseling skills to assist callers in returning to a “pre-crisis” state. In addition to answering calls made to the hotline, volunteers may be required to meet victims at hospitals or police stations to provide support. The CONNSACS sexual assault crisis volunteers empower victims and provide information regarding short-term and long-term resources. CONNSACS consists of a coalition of various sexual assault crisis agencies located throughout Connecticut, whose mission is to “end sexual violence and ensure high quality, comprehensive, and culturally competent sexual assault victim services”(CONNSACS). Through community education such as primary prevention efforts, workshops and trainings, and victim assistance, and policy advocacy such as research, publications, and lobbying, CONNSACS works to ameliorate and end sexual violence (CONNSACS). CONNSACS’ overarching technique for preventing sexual violence is empowering victims. CONNSACS and its supporting agencies do not make decisions for victims, whose decision making power has been removed by their abusers. CONNSACS agencies validate victims, explore options, create safety plans for victims and their families, and provide counseling, resources, and information to assist in healing.

Photo Credit: GEMS

During my Certified Sexual Assault Crisis Counselor training at Women & Families Center (WFC), a CONNSACS community-based agency located in Meriden, CT, I viewed a documentary entitled, Very Young Girls, that depicts the incredible work of Rachel Lloyd, a survivor of forced prostitution. GEMS (Girls Educational & Mentoring Services), located in New York City and founded by Rachel Lloyd, assists girls and women in removing themselves from forced prostitution. Very Young Girls is an account of sexual exploitation in the United States, the work of GEMS, and the stories of multiple girls who were forced into prostitution in New York City. As an individual who is passionate about creating global gender equity, the documentary stood out because it reminded me that, sadly, sexual exploitation and gender inequity still hold a place in the U.S., when many of us chose to believe that it is a thing of the past. Although all of the material from the CONNSACS training is crucial to the success of working the hotline, the information gained from Very Young Girls could be used by anyone to join in the fight for gender equity.Very Young Girls helped myself and the CONNSACS volunteers understand society’s perspective on sexual assault and prostitution, and how we should look at things differently. The news, TV, Facebook, movies, and literature, too often, depict women as vulnerable, acting out for attention, crying rape, and symbolizing lust. It is usually the women’s fault. She asked for it. She’s lying. According to The National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women, only 2-8% of rape accusations in the U.S. are false. The CDC National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, estimated that 1.3 million women were raped in 2009, and the U.S. Department of Justice National Crime Victimization Survey found that the average annual number of rapes that were not reported to the police from 2006-2010 was 211,200. Additionally, Very Young Girls tells us that, at-risk young girls (average age 13) in the United States become victims of forced prostitution more than we think. According to the FBI, an estimated 293,000 youths in the United States were at-risk of commercial sexual exploitation in 2011. Let’s change our perspective. Let’s change society’s perspective.

Photo Credit: Joel Rogers Photography-Northwest Worldwide

In Very Young Girls, two young pimps videotape the abductions and abuse of girls in New York City, hoping to air their footage as a reality TV show. As a result of their poor decision-making, viewers get a real depiction of the characteristic procedure for exploiting and pimping young girls. Typically, the men begin by locating at-risk girls and treating them as their girlfriends. In some cases the girls are as young as 11 years old, and many have run away from home often fleeing other types of abuse. After a dominant abusive relationship is established, in which the girls completely rely on the men for food, clothing, and shelter, the men successfully force the girls to become prostitutes as a way to display their love and make money for the “couple”. The pimps control the mind, body, and income of the girls. The emotional abuse and psychological damage in the victims is clear through the documentary’s heart-wrenching interviews. (Eventually, the two men were arrested and the tapes were used as evidence against them in their trial.) On a more positive note, GEMS works to eradicate this abuse in New York City. Employing the underlying value of empowerment, similarly to CONSACCS, GEMS provides resources and opportunity for girls to escape imprisonment from their pimps. Please visit the GEMS website for more information.

Photo Credit: GEMS

The documentary highlights two important and coexisting themes from the CONNSACS training: the importance of empowering women without judgment and the very real tragedy of human trafficking and sexual exploitation in the United States. My CONNSACS training and the documentary, Very Young Girls, helped instill within me the following ideas that we should all keep in mind: think twice before judging someone, they might need your help; human trafficking and violence against women is STILL REAL in the United States, not only in far away places; we don’t need to let the status quo of gender inequity remain, not even in our colloquial language and jokes; and resources are readily at our disposal to prevent and curb the effects of sexual violence. CONNSACS and the numerous other sexual assault crisis centers across the United States provide us with signs of hope and social change amidst these tragedies. According to Arte Sana, an internationally recognized sexual assault victim advocacy organization based in Austin Texas, there are active sexual assault crisis centers in all 50 states! Even if we are not CONNSACS employees, hotline volunteers, or Rachel Lloyd, we need to remember that small contributions such as simply changing our perspective and reminding others to do so, too, is a big part of ending gender inequity across the world and in the U.S., where this epidemic still lives.

Please visit the CONNSACS, GEMS, Arte Sana, and Women & Families Center websites for further information and ways to show your support! A schedule of television airings for the documentary Very Young Girls can be found via the GEMS website.

Part 2: The link between trafficking and prostitution in Sweden

The national organization for women’s and girls’ aid in Sweden (ROKS) criticizes today’s politicians for not seeing the connection between trafficking and prostitution. Some Swedish politicians claim the following: that women in trafficking are victims, whilst women who are commercial sex workers do so voluntarily.

I believe that it is impossible to ignore the reality, that there is a connection between trafficking and prostitution. After the Schengen Agreement was put in place, allowing free movement of persons within a specific European territory, a change on the street has been noticeable according to a woman who works to empower women at Malmskillnadsgatan (the area of street prostitution in Stockholm). Most of the women and girls in commercial sex work today are foreigners. The amount of Swedish girls in commercial sex work have gradually decreased. The majority of women at Rosenlund (the area of street prostitution in Gothenburg) and at Malmskillnadsgatan are from Nigeria and Romania, not Swedish and the majority cannot speak the Swedish language.

How is it possible not to see the connection between prostitution and trafficking?

Women are trafficked by large criminal organizations.  Sex trafficking is a sex phenomenon, where women and young girls are sold to men. In Germany alone, the prostitution industry contains 1.2 million male purchasers of sex daily from approximately 400 000 women. We are talking about an industry with an estimated annual value of six billion Euro! 

Based on my studies and interviews with organizations working with vulnerable women in Sweden, this is a simplified version of the recurring story that is told:

Panders fool vulnerable families who struggle financially, and suggest a job for their daughters. Through manipulation the family sees a rescue in the offer. Once arrived to Sweden the girl or woman gets stripped of all identification and any money that she has. Since the pimp paid for the ticket and accommodation some woman ends up with a dept of around 500 000 SEK (according to a staff at Rosenlundstödet, a team which go out at Rosenlund in Gothenburg to support, help and deliver condoms to women in prostitution every Friday night). Every night after leaving the street the pimps empty the girl’s pockets. She keeps less than 10 % of what she earned.

Many girls in commercial sex work become exposed to various health hazards.

With any attempt to opposition, refusal or disobedience, the pimp responds with threats of harming herself or her family. Violence and beatings becomes a strategy to ensure that she follows orders. To cope with the maltreatment, threat, violence and trauma, many women resort to the use of painkillers and drugs to endure, and it is not unusual that this results in an addiction, which places the woman in a more vulnerable position.

Condoms are something the majority of women cannot afford due to the fact that the pimp collects and keeps the money. Condoms are not as prioritized in such a situation. If a woman owns condoms herself, she has a greater influence over the man to actually use it. In general, women in prostitution are offered more money to conduct sexual services without condom. In a conversation with Rosenlundstödet (a team that delivers condoms on Friday night at Rosenlund, Gothenburg) they stated that 70-80 percent of buyers do not want to use a condom, and in case a sex worker does not own a condom she is usually forced to have sex without one. Thus, she becomes exposed to contracting sexually transmitted diseases. Important to add is that a majority of these women avoid HIV or other STD’s tests at midwifery clinics due to the fear of being stigmatized.

The picture of a “happy whore” is no longer an image that prevails. What remains, in a wider extent, is a woman or girl who has been cheated and forced into prostitution by someone else, someone who claims to have the right and the power to own and decide over her, in order to enable personal material wealth and power.

It is time for us all to understand that women who are exploited through prostitution have had their rights violated. There needs to be an end to this dehumanization of women. We must stand up for their rights, because women’s rights are human rights.

Featured Image courtesy of Activate CFPL.

Prostitution in Sweden – Part 1 Modern Slavery

Prostitution has been defined as the world’s oldest profession for women.

Prostitution is something that occurs in every country, and it is not just a problem for big cities. It takes place everywhere. Not only on Friday and Saturday nights either. Prostitution is an operation, which is conducted also during weekdays and some buy sex during their lunch break. Some claim that prostitution is necessary and a reduction of prostitution may have direct negative consequences for society and is described as a safety valve. Furthermore, some people state that without prostitution we would experience an increased number of rapes and other sexual assaults.

A question might be whether this statement only is a lame excuse to let prostitution remain in societies?

Countries take different actions to oppose prostitution. The majority of the states in the United States of America have criminalized both parts; selling and purchasing sexual services. In Sweden and Norway it is illegal to buy sex but legal to sell, while some countries such as Germany and Netherlands have legalized prostitution completely.  Legal measures seem to be imperfect in order to help and empower the woman in prostitution. More so, since we live in a globalized world where borders between nations fade out e.g. the European Union, which inter alia facilitates for people to move for employment, union with family members etc. However, movement of people also means that the illegal trafficking increases, a more developed cooperation between nations is needed.

In 1998, the International Labour Organization (ILO) recommended countries to legalize prostitution in order to benefit from the revenues. Countries such as the Netherlands, Germany, New Zeeland and some parts of Australia implemented this. In comparison to Sweden and Norway that tried to oppose prostitution by criminalizing the purchaser of sexual services. The Swedish law on prostitution, enacted 1999, makes it illegal to buy sexual services but not sell them in Sweden. The aim with the law was initially meant to protect women who were involved in prostitution. In spite of the good aims of the law, does it truly help and contribute to better protection and support for women in prostitution in Sweden? The empirics, collected from organizations that work to support people with experiences of prostitution, demonstrate that the situation women in prostitution are facing today is more brutal than before this law was established.

Gothenburg city

According to a survey completed by Dagens Nyheter (one of Sweden’s biggest daily newspapers) there are approximately 300 women circulating around Malmskillnadsgatan, Stockholm (the area where street prostitution is located in Stockholm) offering their sexual services. Prostitutionsgruppen, Gothenburg, reported that every tenth man in Sweden has bought sexual services some time during his lifetime. These numbers are an indicator of the extent of prostitution and the problem Sweden faces today.

In SOU, the Swedish Government Official Reports Förbud mot sexuell tjänst. En utvärdering 1999-2008, it is reported that the ambition with Sweden’s legislation that criminalizes the purchase of sexual services, was due to the focus on women’s vulnerability. The main concern raised in regards to the implementation of the Swedish law on prostitution was that street prostitution would be driven underground. Consequently, the hidden operation would make it even more difficult to reach women in prostitution with support and necessary protection.

Although a decline of the purchase of sexual services, street prostitution has been more brutal and harsh since the customers have decreased and the competition increased.

Also, the woman is more likely to be required to accept certain things and obey the customer to do miscellaneous things they earlier did not have to. Women who have experienced street prostitution report violence as something always present and a part of their reality. Women inform that according to the customers themselves they also “buy the right” to use violence against women in prostitution.

Why is not prostitution or trafficking discussed more in society? It is a huge operation since 400-600 women are transported to Sweden to be abused/ exploited in prostitution every year, and politicians in Sweden do not see a connection between trafficking and prostitution…why is it so?

The featured image for this post is from Salon's article: When prostitution wasn't a crime.

GEMS: Fighting Domestic Trafficking One Girl at a Time

When most of us think about trafficking, we think about it on an international scale, right? What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear (or read) the word “trafficking?” How about stories of girls being transported across Southeast Asian borders to work in brothels or young Chinese children whose parents think they are sending their child off to a better life, ending up enslaved in America paying off a never-ending ‘debt’ in restaurants and nail salons? Or what about the major feature films like ‘Taken’ and ‘Trade’ (both awesome movies, by the way) that you’ve seen trailers for on TV or watched on Netflix? These grotesque, global escapades catch people’s attention. The thought of a person being transported across borders, oceans, continents to an unknown land where they ‘disappear’ underground is a chilling thought to anyone.

But, what we don’t hear and think about as much is that trafficking isn’t just an international issue, it’s domestic, too. That’s a really scary thought. How about the fact that it could happen to people you know or that you’ve likely seen someone who has been trafficked within their own country? Because, you probably have.

The true statistics on human trafficking overall are difficult to come up with given the clandestine nature of the business. It’s hard to guess whether international trafficking numbers are over or underestimated; but, when you break this down to the domestic-level it is even harder to get an accurate picture. Countries may only report cases of known trafficking and forgo estimating the actual number of cases in their country, so who knows how many cases go unknown. Keep this in mind when you consider these statistics from the UN Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking:

  • 2.5 million people are estimated to be trafficked for forced labor (including sexual exploitation) at any given time
  • Almost half, or 1.2 million, of people trafficked each year are children
  • 43% of victims are trafficked for sexual exploitation, 98% of which are women and girls
  • 95% of victims experience physical or sexual abuse during the trafficking process

Girls Educational and Mentoring Service (GEMS) is a rockstar in the world of fighting domestic trafficking and the commercial sexual exploitation of teenage girls. Founded by a woman who herself was sexually exploited as a child, GEMS empowers girls and young women who survived trafficking and sexual exploitation and helps them to reach their full potential. GEMS started with one woman, but now works all over the United States providing training to law enforcement and legal professionals as well as promoting policy change to support girls and young women who experienced and survived domestic trafficking.

Check out this trailer for the documentary ‘Very Young Girls’ which features the work of GEMS in the context of sexual exploitation of girls in the US:

Learn more about the amazing work GEMS is doing by visiting their website http://www.gems-girls.org/ or support them on Twitter @GEMSGIRLS #Girlsarenotforsale and Facebook http://www.facebook.com/girlsarenotforsale (Girls are not for sale).

The first featured image is from the Associated Press.

The second featured image is from GEMS.