When actress Anne Hathaway accepted her Oscar statuette last month for her supporting role in Les Miserables, she ended her speech by saying, “Here’s hoping that someday in the not too distant future, the misfortunes of Fantine will only be found in stories and never more in real life.”
In Victor Hugo’s novel, Fantine is a young French woman who is abandoned after getting pregnant. As a single mother, she resorts to prostitution, and to selling her hair and teeth in order to support her daughter. Unfortunately, in 21st century America, Fantine’s nightmare lives on.
The purchase and sale of American women and girls – the buying and selling of these human beings as property – continues all across the country. The key to making Hathaway’s hope a reality – and it’s a hope that any Americans share – is to dispel two myths related to the issue: first, that this is a victimless crime, and second, that it is a “free will” choice.
Prostitution is often described as a “victimless crime”, or a “consensual crime”, because in theory, no one present at the crime is unwilling. In reality, this is a myth. In reality, prostitution of women is a particularly lethal form of violence against women, and a violation of a woman’s most basic human rights.
It is rarely the media-approved version of prostitution, a sexy and highly-paid adventure where business is conducted at upscale bars and in hotel rooms; though some sex workers do have that experience, most do not. For the vast majority of prostituted women, prostitution is the experience of being hunted, dominated, harassed, assaulted and battered.
Sadly, the majority of girls enter prostitution before they have reached the age of consent. In other words, their first commercial sexual interactions are rape.
Research indicates that most women in prostitution were sexually and physically abused as children. The stories we hear daily at New Friends New Life (NFNL), a social service agency restoring and empowering trafficked teens and sexually exploited women, corroborate those findings.
“In reality, prostitution of women is a particularly lethal form of violence against women, and a violation of a woman’s most basic human rights.”
“We’ve all been molested – over and over – and raped,” says one teen girl who completed the sexual abuse recovery therapy offered by NFNL. “We were sexually abused as children. We ran to get away. They didn’t want us in the house anymore. We were thrown out, thrown away.”
Another myth is that most women and girls choose to enter the sex industry. Again, while this is true for a small number of sex workers, the research indicates that for the vast majority of women and girls, it is a highly constrained choice. Ultimately, viewing prostitution as a genuine “choice” for women, such as secretarial work or waitressing, diminishes the possibility of getting women out and improving their lives.
In fact, more than 90 percent of prostituted women in various surveys want out, but lack viable alternatives. They are unable to leave because of their pimps, their addiction, or the need to feed their children. At New Friends New Life, the survivors we work with have described it as “the choice made by those who have no choice”.
The misconception that this is a choice makes outsiders less likely to help women and girls from getting much needed help, and it also shapes the way those women think about themselves. As one survivor said, “I couldn’t understand that I was victimised because I believed I must have chosen to be a prostitute. I initially refused to testify against my traffickers because I believed they were now the only people who accepted me.”
This is the reason why many girls “choose” to return to their traffickers; they feel shunned by society. If prostitution is a degenerate way of life, the public imagines, and if these women have chosen that life, they don’t deserve our help.
Traffickers will tell young women and children that the police won’t believe them, that their family will no longer want them, and that nobody will treat them nicely. And too often, this is true.
I have the same hope as Anne Hathaway. I believe when our culture and society exchanges judgment for compassion, healing can come to thousands of women and girls in America who are real-life like Fantines, whose misfortunes are anything but over.
Katie Pedigo is Executive Director of New Friends New Life, a non-profit that works to transform the lives of trafficked teens and exploited women.
Follow her on Twitter: @katiepedigo