There are an estimated 2,200 victims of commercial sexual exploitation every year in New York City[1]. Many of these girls are as young as 12 years old. This was the topic of Very Young Girls, a documentary by David Schisgall which discusses and brings to the light the commercial sexual exploitation of young girls in New York and features interviews with women who struggle to get out of the streets and reclaim their lives. The screening, sponsored by GEMS (Girls Educational & Mentoring Services) and United Nile was shown at the Malcolm X/Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial Center and is part of their Women’s History Month celebration. The evening opened up with poetry read by Ms. Autum Ashante, a 13-year-old high school graduate, student at the University of Connecticut and UN Youth Ambassador. After the screening, there was a panel discussion about the film and the sexual exploitation of young girls. The panel included Jenny Park, coordinator of the “Girls Are Not For Sale” campaign, blogger and writer Tasha Mitchell, Activist Beatrice N., Autum Ashante and Freedom Writers Actress April Lee Hernandez. Members of GEMS also spoke. Tashina, Sheila (both GEMS members) and Ms. Park gave insight into how the GEMS program works as well as the difficulties and struggles young girls face trying to leave the lifestyle. The remaining panel members gave suggestions on ways to help these young girls and the community.

The sexual exploitation of young girls has been a problem in the US for sometime. Many times, when we hear “child prostitution” we think of Third World countries, but we fail to realize that this is happening in our own backyard. As of 2009, 100,000 to 300,000 children are subjected to sexual exploitation in America[2]. The median age for these children is 12-14 years old. That’s someone’s 7th or 8th grade student, classmate, child.

While watching the film, I had so many thoughts going through my mind. What circumstances were these girls in that made them fall into this lifestyle? How can these men participate in such a heinous, degrading lifestyles? Where are these young girls families?

As simple as these question may seem, the answers are very difficult and complex. One of the things that struck me from the film was that all the young girls referred to their pimp as “daddy” and are emotionally attached to these men. Most of these men are in their late 20s or maybe early 30s. Some even in their 40s. A lot of these young girls don’t have father figures in their lives or are having issues at home. These men come along and give them a false sense of security. They start by taking them out, treating them like daughters, even girlfriends. They build an emotional bond with these girls, knowing that it’s something they are missing in their lives. According to one of the participants in last night’s panel, relationships like this can go on for a year before the man finally lets the girl know his true intentions. By that time, the young girl is emotionally attached to this man, and instead of letting him go, she subjects herself to his demands. These girls then get trapped in a lifestyle of sex, drugs and violence. All while being emotionally bound to a man who his killing them emotionally, spiritually, and many times physically. Many of these girls are arrested as minors, yet tried as adults, and they aren’t even 16 years old yet. Since then, legislation was passed making it illegal for police to arrest and charge minors for prostitution. There are instead, sent to programs such as GEMS. Many girls go to these programs, and many turn their lives around. However, many young girls also go back to their lifestyle.

How can we as a community bring a stop to the exploitation of young girls? One way you can help is by supporting groups like GEMS. GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services) is “the only organization in New York State specifically designed to serve girls and young women who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking.” The organization was started in 1998 by Rachel Llyod, who was sexually exploited as a teenager herself. Visit their website to donate and volunteer.

Second, don’t just turn your head away. Speak up against it. Especially men. We live in a society were pimps and hoes are glorified by the likes of Snoop Dogg and Magic Don Juan. We are told that they all walk around bright green suits, shiny jewelry and such. But that is far from the truth. These so-called men masquerading as pimps look like regular men walking down the street. Many of these men probably have issues in their past themselves that led them to that point in their lives. But just as GEMS is helping young girls, we need organizations to help the men. One of the panelist mentioned that young school age boys are beginning to prostitute their classmates. We as a community have to stand up and put a stop to this. We have to protect our young girls.

[1] OCFS 2007 Prevalance Study