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What I Have Been Through Is Not Who I Am won Best Short Documentary in the 2012 Filmanthropy Awards. The award was accepted by Max Walker on behalf of ECPAT-USA and WITNESS, with special thanks to Carol Smolenski, ECPAT-USA Executive Director, Ana Morse, ECPAT-USA Chairman of the Board, Christine Fantacone, Kelly Matheson, WITNESS Program Manager for the Americas, the Editors of WITNESS who made finishing the film possible, and most importantly of all Katrina Owens, the survivor-advocate who was willing to tell her story and share it with the world. It’s difficult to imagine the kind of courage it takes to be a victim of commercial sexual exploitation as a child and tell your life story on camera, to put yourself out there into the world. So many of the victims just want to move on with their lives, blend into the background and be thought of a normal person. Ms. Owens knew that her contribution would help those still trapped and in danger, and knew that doing so she would risk untoward public scrutiny, contempt, and even scorn.
Most people in America believe that the prostitution of children is something that goes on overseas, in poor countries and the developing world, but an estimated two hundred thousand to three hundred thousand children are at risk right here in America for being commercially sexually exploited. Those who are aware of it think that being trafficked requires someone hold a gun to your head or chain you to a bed. This is almost never the case in America, and instead these victims are made to be prisoners of their own minds. The shame they fear if people find out what happened to them, the embarrassment it would mean for their families, and the judgmental looks from neighbors all keep them from telling others what happened to them. Many of the victims first dropped out of school and ran away from home, and after years of being trafficked fear how to make a living without an education. They fear what would happen if, years after being rescued and they’ve been dating someone for a while, how would they tell that someone about what happened to them. Would they be rejected or accepted?
Those fears are what keep them trapped, but how do they get trafficked in the first place? If a child’s parents suffer from alcohol abuse or drug abuse, engage in physical abuse or emotional abuse, that can increase the chances that the child will be trafficked. If a high school girl is feeling self conscious or has low self esteem, and a man with a nice car and expensive jewelry tells her she’s funny, smart and beautiful, she just might believe him. She wants to believe him, to be validated, to be accepted, to be loved for who she is on the inside. After some time of buying her gifts, taking her out on dates, and making her feel loved, he may introduce her to his friends, all of whom are pimps or their prostituted victims, show her how fun their life is, how much money they have, and convince her that it’s a normal way to live. ‘Everybody does it, why give it away for free when you can charge for it?’ He may convince her to try it, just see how it makes her feel, and once she does, she can never go back home. Shame will only keep a victim in place for so long, however, so that’s when the beatings and verbal abuse may begin, to weaken her self esteem and make her internalize the violence. Just like a victim of domestic violence, the victim will blame herself, ‘I shouldn’t have been talking on the phone when he was watching TV, I shouldn’t have talked back to him, I shouldn’t have tried to hide money from him’. He’ll take her money, tell her he’s protecting it for her, to make sure she doesn’t waste it. He’ll pay for her apartment and cellphone, buy her gifts, and take her out to dinner, all of it with her own money so that she’s grateful to him.
This scenario knows no race or socioeconomic class, it could happen to anyone. However, poverty does increase the risk of being trafficked because such people can be so desperate to escape that they’ll trust a stranger who tells them they don’t have to be trapped in the ghetto. And if you’re wondering what’s the police’s role in all this, I’ll tell you. Run-ins with police usually end with the victims in jail because the pimps give them fake IDs and tell them to say they’re older then they actually are, and it’ll be worse for them if the police find out they’re under 18. We can’t blame the victims for believing this, because the media rarely reports about the 999 good cops out of a 1000, just the 1 bad cop, and movies don’t help either. As for the police and why they don’t do more, human trafficking cases require a lot of time, financial resources, and have a fairly low conviction rate. They can take months or even years to investigate, and the trials can last just as long if not longer. Not to mention the fact that the victims of human sex trafficking rarely make for witnesses that juries approve of. A prostitution case, however, is fairly straight forward and usually involve plea bargains for reduced sentences, fines, and a few days, weeks or maybe a couple of months of jail time without a lengthy investigation, trial, or non-credible witnesses.
A lot of police say that they would rather put the kid into a rehabilitation facility, but most municipalities don’t have the resources for them, so the cops just hope that eventually the girl will get tired of being harassed by them and agree to testify against her pimp. They’re using the only resources available to them. Besides, much of the public considers prostitution a victimless crime, and any teenagers involved must just be ‘bad kids.’ They want cops arresting drug dealers and with limited budgets the police must ultimately answer to the demands of their communities by pursuing what they’re told to pursue.
A lot of people consider fighting the prostitution of children a women’s issue, because most of the victims are girls, and that most of the exploiters are men, but that doesn’t mean there’s no reason for men to be involved in solving this problem. When injustice is done upon a fellow human being, it doesn’t matter what the gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or social class may be, we don’t need to stand by and say, ‘well, it could never happen to me, because I’m not one of them.’ However, that’s not to say that males aren’t victims of sex trafficking. Young boys are trafficked too, and while many male teenagers don’t have pimps they are engaging in survival sex with adult men, which is considered a form of trafficking. The shame that they feel, the pain and emotional trauma they suffer, just to find a place indoors when it’s raining out, get a warm meal in their bellies, or bus fare to get where they’re going. What’s worse, many of these boys are straight but are having sex with gay men. Imagine what that does to their self-identity. Imagine how that will affect them for the rest of their lives. The shame about being trafficked, for both male and female victims, is part of what keeps them in danger, because that shame turns into fear, fear of facing their family and friends. Fear of it being broadcasted on the internet or news programs. Fear of never being able to live down what happened to them.
And just to clarify, we’re not talking about pedophilia here. The vast majority of child victims of sex trafficking in America are post-pubescent, but under the age 18. And most of the exploiters don’t realize how rough the victims have it, some even believe they’re helping the victims because they’re giving them money. Just think about it, very few ‘johns’ would solicit a crying kid on the street. The trafficking victims act like they want it, they act like the ‘john’ is attractive, smells nice, is witty, charming, and interesting because they’re told it’s their job to appease the customer and get him to come back for more. For most ‘johns’, if they knew the truth, they would never solicit a prostitute because of the tremendous amount of guilt they would feel about exploiting the victim.
That’s why we need Safe Harbor Legislation, so that the victims are treated like victims and not like criminals. The sad fact is that in this country, if a thirty year old has sex with a fifteen year old, the thirty year old goes to jail. If a thirty year old has sex with a fifteen year old and gives her money, the fifteen year old goes to jail. That has to change. You can find out more about the issue on our website, ecpatusa.org, and help us in ending this terrible injustice. Thank you again for this award.