Reading the social body: children at risk for commercial sex trafficking
Monday morning. Early. The reed-slender adolescent girl in the supermarket walking up the aisle ahead of me as if on helium is talking on her cell phone. She has the usual tats; bicep, ankle, nape of neck and thong line. She is dressed in flip-flops, tank top and low-riding micro-short-shorts that ride up the crease of her buttocks. Across the seat of her shorts in contrasting colors the bold letters read “TALK SHIT-GET SHIT!”
I am transfixed. Instead of looking for the things on my list, as if on demand I try to wrest meaning from this sentence fragment as it disappears into the fold of her body. Is this what the wearer of such a garment really wants, to entice others to enter them in such a way, and then sass back as warned? It feels like a trap, but who set it? Why does one “speak” from their rear as opposed to their mouth and voice? What is her need to draw our focus to “shit” and anal function in “sexy” guise? As a sign that demands our attention and instructs our gaze, her garment screams out the dangerous double bind she may be caught in: Enter here/Keep off.
Garments like this are the stock in trade in brothels around the world where children are sold for sex. They are also the look being merchandised in every store and catalogue where children and tweens shop, as well as stores like Forever 21 that outfit older women with the look. Well over 300,000 domestic juveniles are trafficked into the commercial sex industry each year (Shared Hope International, DEMAND Report, 2007). What would it take for the garment industry to recognize complicity for their part in normalizing both domestic and global sex trafficking?
As a bystander, I begin to see more clearly into her and my dilemma. Although a tween, she is emotionally immature, like a baby in many ways. Developmentally, she may want or need cleaning up after. She wants us to think that she’s a big girl, desirable, who is well beyond diapers, who can talk tough, “talk shit,” take care of herself. Here’s the catch: men who buy sex with juveniles between the ages of nine and 16 want society to see it this way too. Their rationalization sounds like this, “She obviously wants it,” and, “She’s old enough to decide for herself.”
But she’s a baby. Look at how much attention she craves. Look at how ineffective her attempts are to protect herself. And that’s the way traffickers, sex tourists, pornographers and perpetrators want it to stay. Children need our help to read the signs of sex trafficking and commercialization that are everywhere around us. It’s up to us to help them determine healthy identities and boundaries, to enable them to do it for themselves when the crunch is on; and the crunch is always on, without signs of letting up.
For more information on how to recognize the signs and help prevent juvenile domestic sex trafficking, visit Shared Hope International, sharedhope.org.