This weekend, as fans gather for the Super Bowl to enjoy the game, others will be present–not to enjoy, but to be enjoyed. These are the unseen girls and women in the commercial sex trade.
Last year we began to see the veil being lifted from a range of sexually exploitive behaviors, mostly by powerful men against women, often professional women who, once they muster extraordinary courage, know how to step forward and make certain their story is told.
At the other end of the continuum that starts with sexual harassment is the illegal sex trade where men violate the law by buying access to the bodies of those who, in the vast majority of cases, are among the “least of these,” powerless, mostly girls and women of color, and often underage.
I know this story because I have lived it. Like those who will be prostituted this weekend, I never grew up with the ambition to perform sex acts for men who paid for them. I dreamed of a life of advancement and freedom.
In 1972 I graduated from high school and was excited about entering college in the fall. A friend and I wanted to make some money with summer jobs, and we found an advertisement that sounded promising. Girls were being hired to dance at a men’s club in downtown Minneapolis. We showed up for an interview and were told that we’d be wearing lingerie. We didn’t think much of it because we were less covered up sitting next to the swimming pool. ‘Modeling as well as dancing, and making the $1,000 per week,’ the ad promised. What could be better?
After a few weeks into our new jobs we were told we would need to learn different moves, and that we would be dancing topless. Young and naïve, we were told our bodies were works of art and that we should be proud to show them off. We were becoming strippers, not dancers. In time I was being sent around the state of Minnesota, and well beyond, to disrobe before leering men who were constantly propositioning me. I felt mired in something that was nothing like what I was promised but, rather, a classic bait-and-switch. To keep going, I started abusing drugs. It started with alcohol and led to cocaine, as I fell into what those in prostitution call “the life.” I, a good student with ambition for my future, had quickly become someone I didn’t recognize.
How could I get out? Raised by my devout grandmother, I couldn’t imagine calling her in my state of degradation. Finally I called a friend, who drove to rural Minnesota to rescue me. I stayed with her for six months to get myself straightened out. Eventually I was able to get back on track and attend the University of Minnesota where I took classes in psychology and women’s studies. It was during that time that I realized I could use what I learned to help others.
Breaking Free, the organization I now lead, works with more than 500 girls and women annually to help them escape the world of prostitution. Three-quarters of our clients were sexually abused as children. Many grow up in circumstances far worse than mine, often with exploitive or absent parents, often with poor education and nothing resembling the solid upbringing and education I was blessed with.
We help our clients rebuild their lives, just as my friend helped me rebuild mine so many years ago. Fortunately, our organization is now being recognized by law enforcement officials, so when the police pick up those victimized by prostitution, they divert them away from the justice system toward groups like mine, who work to lift these girls up and into a new life.
But my work shouldn’t be necessary. The commercial sex industry, a multi-billion-dollar enterprise, is fueled by the demand of men like those in Minneapolis who will be paying for sex this weekend. We there need people, policy makers and law enforcement to join together and push for, pass and enforce stronger laws making it clear that it’s no longer okay to buy sex. Time’s up. Every girl must be free, and must be safe. We can make it happen.
Vednita Carter is Founder and Executive Director of Breaking Free, a U.S. based organization created to end all forms of prostitution and sex-trafficking.