Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Dear H.

A while back someone named "H" left a very thoughtful comment on the blog, and I haven't had time until now to respond. I 'm doing so now in a post because I thought that what H had to say was important enough for a longer discussion.

H. took me to task a bit for a reference I made in the "Whatever Happened to the Little Girl" post. I said that 12 seems to be the average age for entry into prostitution. H. asked how I know what the average age is and seemed genuinely interested in any statistics I could give him (I'm assuming H is male). The truth is that even "seems to be" is stronger language than I should have used. I had mentioned in an earlier post that people who work with prostituted women often cite research claiming that 11 to 13 is the average age at which people enter prostitution, but that I didn't know how the studies were performed. I can tell you that at YANA, the counselors have worked with many hundreds of women in Baltimore and have found that almost all of them have been subjected to very severe sexual abuse at a very early age. I've been to symposiums about working with prostituted women and have heard the directors of other agencies say the same thing. As I may have quoted in another post, one woman announced "Incest is the boot camp of prostitution." The rest of the room nodded. A police sergeant, Byron Fasset from Dallas, Texas, has formed a unit specializing in working with underage prostitutes. He's kept statistics on more than a thousand girls and found a near universal pattern of abuse suffered by both the girls and their mothers. I see the faces and hear the words of the women at YANA. Even to a layperson like me, so many of them seem frozen at some very early stage of development, and it's easy, very easy to imagine that a part of them just stopped growing on the day they first learned what horrible things that the grownups would do to them.

But none of that is proof of the average age at which women or girls enter prostitution. For one thing, I seriously doubt that anyone has done the kind of exhaustive study necessary to know the average anything for prostitution. There are precious few provider agencies in this country, and they aren't in the business of keeping statistics or probing the women for information they might not want to give. Academics are starting to take an interest in prostitution, but how many of them do you think are out doing lengthy evaluations of thousands of women all across the country? We had a woman do her Ph.D. research at YANA. She spoke to ten of our clients for a little under an hour each. My understanding is that her committee not only accepted this day and a half of research as being good enough for a doctorate, but they also praised her for her great street creds.

And even if we did know the real averages for childhood sexual abuse, how would we know whether the children were actually prostituted? Remember that prostitution can have a very broad definition. If, for example, mom is turning her five year old over to her drug dealer or landlord once in a while in exchange for a little credit, then that five year old has been prostituted. If mom is letting dad have a go at their three year old in exchange for a little peace in the home, then that three year old has been prostituted. If dad is turning a blind eye to what his buddies or maybe his own father does to his eight year old in exchange for their approval, then that eight year old has been prostituted. I know that happens, but how would I or anyone ever know how often it happens? Usually, the child will only know that the landlord, or the dad, or the strange men in the neighborhood hurt her. She won't know who benefited from it.

And much of the time, she doesn't want to know. Within the safety of YANA, most of our clients will talk openly about being raped as children, but they do not think of themselves as having been prostituted as children. Prostitution was their own decision, and it most certainly had nothing to do with their mothers. Recently Sid spoke about the 5 year old in North Carolina who was prostituted by her mother. The child was found dead. Our women were appalled. "Anyone under the age of 18 who is prostituted is a victim of human trafficking," Sid explained. "Have you ever heard of anyone under the age of 18 who was prostituted?"

"People from the Philippines!" one woman said. "I've heard about that!" Nobody else seemed to have ever heard of such a thing anywhere, and the subject swiftly died in an embarrassed silence. So, to answer H., no I don't know the average age at which a woman or girl enters prostitution. And I don't think anyone does, even for one country. If you're thinking about walking-the-street prostitution, then your estimate of somewhere between 16 and 24 sounds as good as any other to me. As for your "defensiveness" about people who try to "demonize" prostitution with claims of child sexual abuse, well, human behavior is complicated, and all we have are anecdotes. If your girl friend is the basis for your "defensiveness" around the idea that being raped repeatedly as a child leads women to prostitution later, it's always possible that she really is that co-ed paying for college tuition that we hear about so much on the t.v. shows. Maybe she went into prostitution for any variety of her own reasons. But if she's been prostituting, and she's promoting defensiveness around the idea that anything her parents did was the cause. . . well, like I said, she might be the exception to all our anecdotes. Then again, H., she might not be.

1 comment:

  1. One could probably say that in CERTAIN surroundings, the entry age SEEMS to be about 12 years. The people who come in contact with social welfare, police and yana are the ones who are less fortunate, and that again seems to correlate with a very early entry into prostitution. It's true that no serious studies have ever been made about that (at least none i could find), and the problem would also be how to do it. The (estimated) biggest part of prostitution is not in the open like street prostitution and brothels, and thus not available for researchers.
    Greetings from Switzerland, Sina