Q&A: Teen Prostitution Prevention

In 2002, The Home for Little Wanderers in Boston developed ‘My Life, My Choice,’ a 10-week prostitution prevention program delivered to girls in foster care who are considered to be at risk for involvement in commercial sex. The initiative was an outgrowth of a state working group set up after the murder of a 17-year-old girl in state care in 2001. Though no one was arrested for the crime, the girl was thought to be involved in prostitution. The Home conducts about six groups a year for girls in residential facilities in the Boston area, and conducts many more trainings for providers, state agencies, law enforcement groups and others. The Home says that about 300,000 teenage girls a year are involved in prostitution nationally, though estimates vary widely. Teen prostitution in the Boston area is thought to be on the rise.

Debra Grollman, LICSW, a network director at The Home, talks about the program.

teen-prosQ: What’s the profile of a girl at risk for prostitution?
A: The statistics are that 80 percent have suffered some kind of sexual abuse in their lives, and there are some reports that as many as 70 or 75 percent have experienced incest. They’re vulnerable girls; they’re girls who’ve been wounded. They’re the same girls often who end up in DSS – the characteristics overlap. They’re often runaways, they have low self-esteem, and because of the kind of sexual experiences they’ve had, they think that the only thing they’re good for is having their bodies used, so they equate degradation with love.

Q: Some providers we know say they don’t see actual prostitution, but do see teenage girls trading sex for favors.
A: We call that prostitution – we name it. You’re trading sex for food, or sex for shelter, or sex for favors, and it’s a slippery slope. The other slippery slope is dancing and stripping. A girl will say,’ I love to dance.’ First you’re dancing and stripping, and then you’re in prostitution. Another slippery slope is photography – a man wants to take a picture of you, and it becomes, ‘Let me take a picture of you with your clothes off.’ And if that person is seriously interested in prostituting you, he’ll blackmail you.

Q: And the internet facilitates teen prostitution?
A: I don’t think we have fast statistics, but we do know that many younger girls are getting involved because of the internet; you don’t have to be on the streets the way you used to.

Q: Which makes them feel safer?
A: Maybe initially you feel it’s safer, but in the end, you are forced to be on the street, having sex with men you don’t know. You’re forced to give money to your pimp every night, and if you don’t, you get beaten up. That’s one of the things we talk about in our training – we dispel the myths. One of those myths is that, if you do this kind of work, you’ll make mad cash. The truth is, your pimp makes mad cash, and you’re controlled by your pimp.

Q: Are gangs a part of the picture?
A: In some communities, there are gangs young women get involved in, and they get prostituted through those gangs, or the pimps come out of those gangs. So it’s area-specific.

Q: Do you have a hard time getting girls to invest in the sessions?
A: If a girl is in a group, it’s because a provider recommended that she be there. Our experience in our groups is that 90 percent of the girls have had some kind of encounter with prostitution – they’ve either been approached by somebody and not gotten involved, or been approached and gotten involved once and gotten away from it, or they know a relative who’s involved.

Q: What group activities have you found particularly useful?
A: We do a journal-writing exercise in all of our groups, so girls write and don’t necessarily have to divulge things in front of the group. We also bring in panel members, adult women who have gotten out of prostitution – one of our trainers is a woman who left the life – and that authenticity is really key in doing this kind of work. We’ve had former pimps come in and talk about what they were looking for. Part of the activity is helping girls understand what it looks like to have somebody interested in you – a 35-year-old man who’s suddenly giving you money and clothes and a cell phone, and he knows all about your life and you don’t know anything about his. Well, maybe there’s something wrong here. And we do media literacy. Girls see glamorized images of near-prostitution all the time, and so we educate them as to the glamour of this life. It’s not fun, it’s not enticing – it’s slavery.

Q: Still, this topic sounds like a really difficult one.
A: Before we go into a group home or residence, we train the staff, and we make sure we are connected with them through the 10 weeks. The material is really provocative, and we make it clear that we’re all working on it together. We’re providing a safety net for these girls – things they share in the group will be made known to the staff. Maybe not right away; we may say, ‘We’ll go with you to talk to your counselor about this.’

Q: The program doesn’t assume that all girls who are involved in prostitution actually are ready leave it – so with them, your goal is harm reduction, correct? 
A: We tell our providers that it can take 10 years for a girl to leave the life. This is cult-like stuff; it’s the same kind of thing we were talking about 10 years ago regarding domestic violence. You can’t just go up to a woman and say, ‘Why don’t you get the hell out of there?’ It takes a long time for someone to be able to do that, and some don’t. You just keep supporting her, you keep being non-judgmental. You’re persistent.

Q: Some of the issues girls involved in prostitution have – a lack of education and job skills, a sense that they have no options – are common to many adolescents transitioning into adulthood.
A: Issues regarding life skills and vocational skills are true for all young girls, but there are specific issues around young women who have been in prostitution. For instance, they’re used to being up at night and sleeping during the day, so school is hard for them. They’re used to be autonomous in lots of ways, so it’s tough to go back to a group home.

Q: Should there be a special program just for girls leaving prostitution?
A: That’s one of the missing services right now. We’ve talked to other programs around the country – there’s one in San Francisco, in LA, in Georgia.

Q: And awareness training for girls in general?
A: We talk about that all the time. We’ve done some work at enrichment days for girls in middle schools – we’ve modified out curriculum a little bit and taken it there. We’re on the extreme end of the continuum, but any of these kind of empowerment issues – controlling your life and body – that kind of training for girls is really important.

Q: But people tend to think that “healthy body” and girl empowerment issues are being covered adequately by schools.
A: We recently had a Girl Services Task Force at The Home. We did a literature review and some focus groups, and one of the big things that came up is the girls’ misunderstanding of and misinformation about sex. They’re developing at 8 and they’re getting this information at 14, and most of them have already had sex by then. We talked to 40 girls, and they never cited sex education classes in schools as being very meaningful. They didn’t remember the information. It didn’t seem to have an impact. It seemed to have more impact that somebody once told them you couldn’t get pregnant standing up. That’s the kind of thing they remember.

Since this interview was conducted the ‘My Life, My Choice’ program has now been moved to JRI. Find out more about ‘My Life, My Choice’ at http://www.jri.org/mylife/

Interview by Melanie Wilson, Youth Catalytics Director of Research.

More Resources

GIFT (Roxbury Youthworks)

Roxbury Youthworks (RYI) is a community based nonprofit organization that has developed a unique program specifically geared to provide services for youth ages 12 through 22, who have been identified as victims of or as at “high risk” for Commercial Sexual Exploitation.  The program called GIFT (Gaining Independence for Tomorrow) is designed to develop and implement services which prevent or reduce a youth’s risk for exposure to and exploitation by members of the sex trade industry.

RYI employs Life Coaches who provide prevention, intervention, support, stabilization, advocacy, and therapeutic services for females in the Boston area who have open cases with the Department of Children and Families (DCF) in its Boston Region. Phone: (617) 474-2101. Go to:  http://www.roxburyyouthworks.org/pages/giftprogram.html