Exited women on the Impact of Prostitution Normalization on Youth

“Media coverage of those within the sex industry seems to be quite polarising. At one extreme there is the sad, human face of the street walker, who is using it to pay the rent, feed a child or possibly save up for their next drug hit. Then the other extreme, the ‘high end’ escort. The reader is opened up to a world of high fashion, travel, huge amounts of money and copious amounts of sex. A world in which you can make thousands of dollars in a handful of hours, and all you need to do is look good and have a bit of sex on the side. Girls as young as 12 have been emailing me about how to become an ‘elite’ escort, contemplating prostitution as soon as they reach legal age.” – Gwyneth Montenegro

The Committee reviewing the PRA in New Zealand concluded that they don’t believe the legislation has incentivized minors to enter the sex trade, as most are still primarily motivated by economic desperation, rather than apparent glamour (p. 104). Survivors of the sex trade however have long pointed out that narratives in the media, wider society as well as attitudes expressed in law do influence the thinking of sexually exploited children (and adults) and those at risk of being pulled into sexual exploitation – even if the fact remains that facing poverty and discrimination usually predate entry into the industry. In 2018 during a panel on the representation of prostitution in the media, prostitution survivors from various countries describe the power of media and law to normalize the sex trade in the minds of children and young adults:

“Stripping is legal. Whenever something is made legal – it doesn’t matter what happens inside – it’s legal and so it’s okay. It can’t harm you. […] When I was talking at a school just about the dynamics of prostitution […] as soon as we started talking about stripping, the little girls got all giddy and smiling. […] What had happened was about 25 girls in this particular class – all of them but one aspire to be a stripper. They can’t wait until they turn 18-years-old.”- Vednita Carter, American prostitution survivor

“What you see and what you hear has a profound impact on how we view the world. It influences how we make policy, what money goes into where […]. What’s happening with young people in this country is really disturbing to me […] [because the media presents it] as if trafficking was such a distinct issue from prostitution. […] We are not just trying to end a harmful practice here […]. We have to overcome […] the media […]. Where is the buyer in all of this? […] Never will you see the media or Hollywood depict it in an [honest] way.” – Cherie Jimenez, American prostitution survivor

It matters whether girls (and boys) think prostitution equates to a glamorous well-paying party life.

“When we are young girls growing up, we don’t even know that it’s toxic messaging that we’re listening to. […] [On my first day in prostitution when I was still a teen] this image popped into my head of Madonna […]. My mind was all fish-nets and shiny black leather and fire engine red lipstick. And what I had absorbed was the message of what a sexually empowered young woman looked like. My mind made that link between what I had been fed and what I was about to do.  […]

I was really saddened […] by the amount of young women who contacted me to tell me the reasons for getting involved in prostitution […] [for example because of the TV Show ‘Diary of a London Call Girl’ and the luxury lifestyle portrayed in it]. […] [One woman] told me she fell into prostitution directly absolutely because of this TV show.” – Rachel Moran, Irish prostitution survivor, first exploited at the age of 15

“I’m 21 […]. Right now some of the more popular TV shows that are among my population in school – you have HBO showing ‘The Deuce’, you have Stars showing ‘The Girlfriend Experience’, you had Lifetime showing ‘The Client List’. […] It infuriates me when I see these things […]. Particularly my age group […] we have all these uprising feminist movements and all these things that are advocating for ‘pro sex work’. [But the image young people have is] nothing like our realities on this panel […]. I hear a lot of [girls] say: ‘You know what? If life get’s too hard I’m just gonna strip.’ Nobody understands the harsh realities. – Melanie Thompson, American prostitution survivor, first exploited at the age of 12

Sabrinna Valisce from New Zealand describes the normalization of prostitution in everyday life of legalized/decriminalized Oceania:

“We have roll-on effects into society that a lot of people don’t know about. […] In [Australia] there’s a restaurant called ‘Tits ‘n’ Schnitz’ – bit like Hooters. […] The advertising has a naked woman bending over and a man’s face in her genitals. […] I’ve seen it on the side of school busses, larger than life size and we’ve tried to get it taken down. […] The advertising authority said; ‘We can’t actually take it down, because it’s legal.’

[…] Two years after decriminalization was passed, I went into an ordinary night club. What I saw was huge screens with [gonzo] porn playing […]. It was quite violent acts for anybody who was of age to be able to see it. But the front [was] all clear windows, so if kids are walking past and they happen to [turn their head] they would have seen it. That’s become fairly normal – in fact, it’s become a little bit passé. […]

So, it’s not just about inside the trade, it’s the roll-on effects into society that normalize this to a point that you don’t have control over what you see or what your kids see, what they’re exposed to.” – Sabrinna Valisce, New Zealand prostitution survivor, first exploited at age 14

Kids in the Frankfurt Bahnhofsviertel, an infamous German red-light district. Once again conditions in Australia & New Zealand sound eerily similar to Germany…

Similarly, Sandra Norak, a German prostitution survivor, now law student, first introduced to the trade as an 18-year-old, but groomed towards it as a minor, explains:

“When this loverboy took me to the brothel for the first time, I just wanted to run away. I was young, unstable and didn’t know what to do. And I didn’t know what kind of dangerous situation I was in. He said: This is all completely normal. That’s the key word: Normal. Prostitution – supposedly – is normal and a job like any other. From the perspective of my government, prostitution in our country is just a job. Pimps and brothel owners appear on TV and are treated like business men instead of criminals. The red-light district is described as a place ‘not so bad’. And so – like many other women I could not see that I was about to enter into a criminal milieu and a violent one. Back then had society told me: ‘Prostitution is dangerous, violent and a violation of human dignity,’ these traffickers would have had it much harder to entice me to enter prostitution. I would have been warned.”- Sandra Norak, German prostitution survivor

The situation is Sweden is not perfect, but one thing the law accomplishes is letting victims of sexual exploitation understand themselves as not being at fault for their situation and putting the blame where it belongs:

“It took a total of two years until I was able to comprehend that [my pimp] had done me wrong. I remember the exact day when it ‘clicked’ in my head and I understood, that he had done something illegal. I remember the first day I wasn’t sad or anxious anymore and stopped having panic attacks.” – Iza, Swedish prostitution survivor

Read the next part here.

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