Very Young Girls is a documentary about teen prostitutes. Much of the movie is about the organization Girls Education and Mentoring Services (GEMS) and its founder and head Rachel Lloyd. GEMS provides services to young female prostitutes and ex-prostitutes, including counseling and assistance in obtaining education and jobs. At least some of the girls it serves live on-site temporarily.
From what I understand, Lloyd helped to produce the movie, so it’s kind of an “authorized biography” of her and the organization. Not surprisingly, she comes across very favorably. I think, though, that she would have anyway, even if this were a completely objective examination, as she seems like a highly impressive human being. (She’s also quite good looking, which I’m pretty sure I’m not allowed to notice, or certainly mention, in a movie that’s all about underage prostitutes and sexual abuse and such.)
GEMS is in New York, but Lloyd is from England, having immigrated to the United States as a young adult. Her inspiration to devote her life to bettering the lives of girls caught up in sex trafficking comes from the fact that she herself was a sex worker starting in her teens, in England and then briefly in Germany. She experienced life on the streets, sexual exploitation, violence at the hands of pimps and abusive boyfriends, etc., so when she discusses the life with the girls at GEMS she speaks from a position of experience and knowledge.
She interacts with the girls in a respectful way I really like. It’s very non-judgmental, yet not in a goofy relativistic or New Age way, nor even so much in a condescending, manipulative way (where you refrain from letting on you know someone is wrong or stupid for the purely strategic reason that if you do they’ll be more resistant to what you’re trying to get them to do). It’s more a style of providing compassion and support, and providing facts, but also genuinely listening, and treating the girls as autonomous beings who ultimately must make their own choices about their lives.
She exudes empathy and love for the girls, and seeks to help them without paternalistically controlling them. She’s a very unthreatening yet strong figure.
Very Young Girls is quite an interesting movie. Lloyd’s impressiveness is one of the main things that stood out to me about it, but there were several others.
What is maybe the hardest for me to get my mind around are the extreme differences in how underage sexuality is handled in different contexts.
I’m used to it being dogma that’s never to be questioned that having sex with someone underage is the most horrific of crimes that only the worst sort of irredeemable monster would even contemplate. From feminists, to law enforcement, to the media, to the mental health profession, to the culture within prisons, and on and on, no one is more despised, no one is considered more deserving of death (preferably preceded by torture) than the evil pedophile. More so than murderers, Muslims, traitors, Communists, atheists, or violators of any other taboo, we’re allowed to, and expected to, unleash our hatred and violence on them without restriction.
But in the world depicted in this documentary, having sex with minors is treated like no big deal at all. And not just minors in the sense of someone a few days short of their eighteenth birthday, but mostly girls in their early teens if not pre-teens. According to a statistic cited in the film, the average age that a prostitute turns her first trick is between 13 and 14. I don’t know that that’s accurate—it sounds like one of those sensationalist things like “1 out of every whatever girls is sexually assaulted by age such-and-such” where maybe they found one dubious study that could be interpreted to mean that, so it gets repeated over and over by anyone wanting to generate outrage—but I’m sure it’s at least close, so clearly an enormous number of prostitutes are underage, and many are way underage.
Furthermore, the sex is often not consensual. Not just in the legal fiction sense that consent has been deemed legally void when you’re underage, but in the literal sense that some of the girls are held against their will and coerced into having sex.
Yet there’s an amazing indifference to all this sexual abuse. There are several examples of this in the film.
One such example is footage of a meeting where a policewoman or law enforcement official of some kind is explaining to a group of johns that if they complete some lame sensitivity training class or something, not only will they not have to do any time, but their record will be expunged. She goes on with some introductory remarks about how young most of these girls that they pay to have sex with are and such, only to be interrupted by one of the johns showing contempt for her lecturing them by asking when their first break will be, which brings laughter from the other johns in the room.
Wait a minute. Where’s that creepy Chris Hansen guy? Isn’t this supposed to be the most unforgivable of crimes? Doesn’t this ruin the life of the girl, and hence justify ruining the life of the “predator”? Not here apparently. Both the law and the perpetrators treat it as something calling for a slap on the wrist, or less. Typically the prostitute, even when she’s a child, and even when she’s been coerced to some degree, is treated much more harshly by the law.
A second example, both outrageous and strangely funny in a way, involves where the film gets some of its footage. A couple of pimps—brothers I think—shot a significant amount of footage of themselves practicing their trade, their intent being to shop it around in the hopes of someone agreeing to make them the stars of a new reality TV show about pimps.
Now, granted, it doesn’t work; they end up convicted felons due in part to the evidence contained in the footage they shot, hence the humor of their idiocy. So the only TV show they’ll be starring in is America’s Dumbest Criminals. But the very fact that they could even imagine their pimping could turn them into reality TV stars indicates that they come from a world where having sex with underage girls, threatening and committing acts of violence against them, and selling them to other men to have sex with, are nominal crimes at most that are winked at and to some extent celebrated, which is a world vastly different from any I’ve ever experienced.
A final example was, for me, the single most shocking thing in the film. A mother has been desperately seeking her missing underage daughter. She gets a phone call alerting her that her daughter has been kidnapped and is being held against her will by a pimp and is being forced to prostitute herself. The caller tells the mother the address where her daughter is being held. The mother rushes to the police station and explains the situation to the officer at the desk.
His response: “So what do you want us to do about it?” He follows up with some dismissive remarks about how they can’t be expected to just go break down somebody’s door.
Think about that. Let that sink in. The police are informed of the commission of a crime—supposedly one of the most serious of crimes, the kidnapping and (continuing) rape of a minor—and they aren’t the slightest bit interested in pursuing the matter, and indeed are vaguely offended that someone would actually imply that they should do something about it.
This will perhaps be a bit easier to understand if I tell you that all the underage prostitutes in the movie, including this woman’s daughter, are black. (One or two might be Puerto Rican or some other minority, but all are “ghetto” types.)
Imagine instead that a panicky, well-to-do white woman rushes into a suburban precinct and breathlessly reports that her minor daughter is being held against her will and repeatedly raped for money. What is the likelihood that she would be told “So what do you want us to do about it?”
If you said zero percent, you win.
The attitude seems to be, “Well, that’s just the kind of thing that goes on in those communities. Let them sort it out themselves.”
Anyway, speaking of the pimps, sometimes they use blatant violence to obtain and keep their prostitutes, literally kidnapping them off the streets. (The cliché admonition “Never get into a stranger’s car” comes to mind.) Evidently, though, they more often just sweet talk the girls. (A combination approach may be most common of all. Verbal persuasion and manipulation most of the time, with violence as a fallback when necessary.)
From what we see in the movie, their powers of persuasion are extraordinary. If you recall the episodes of Cheers with Carla’s ex-husband Nick, and the way all he has to do is whisper into a woman’s ear and she becomes completely defenseless against him, then you’ll have some idea of the interaction of the pimps and prostitutes in this movie.
It really is extreme enough to belong in a situation comedy. The pimps compliment them, profess their love for them, make all kinds of outlandish promises about how great their life will be when they get married down the road, etc., etc., and the girls willingly have sex with countless strangers and give all the money to the pimps.
The pimps routinely treat them horribly, and tell them things that anyone with an I.Q. above that of a sea anemone would recognize as lies, and in response they fall madly in love with the pimps and become convinced their love is reciprocated.
How can anyone let this happen to herself (leaving aside the more blatantly coercive cases)? Well, clearly these people are nearly always badly fucked up before they ever meet the pimps.
Remember, they’re typically 12, 13, 14, 15, whatever when they start. So they don’t have the intellectual development, emotional development, or life experience of an adult. Furthermore, given their socioeconomic status and such, you can probably knock off another two or three years in estimating their stage of development and maturity level. And most of them may well be in the bottom quarter or whatever of even that subgroup of the population in terms of emotional stability and basic common sense.
Most of them have bad to very bad situations at home. They might be abused, one or both parents might be absent from their life—certainly they aren’t getting anything like the healthy love and support they should be getting at home. (That’s if they even have a home; plenty of them have run away and are living on the streets when they’re recruited by a pimp.)
Their “values,” such as they are, may not go much beyond dreaming of prestigious clothes and jewelry and the like. These are kids whose deliberations go something like: “On the one hand, the last time I didn’t bring home enough money from prostituting myself to satisfy him he anally raped me and punched me in the face repeatedly. On the other hand, last week he gave me a really cool sexy outfit like the grown up girls in the music videos wear,” and think that these things roughly balance out and so it’s a really close call to decide if he loves her and she should stick around.
But in a way I do sympathize with their struggles to understand love, and I’m not as dismissive as some would be when they protest that they really do love and want to be loyal to their pimp. (To her credit, Lloyd also doesn’t disrespect them when they talk that way.)
The highest love is unconditional after all. I think almost everyone pays lip service to that idea, but they don’t really believe it, at least not in an unqualified way. They may believe that love should be unconditional “within reason” or something like that, but almost everyone, when push comes to shove, implicitly endorses conditions for love. They believe that if a person fails to earn love—if he behaves abusively toward you, for instance—then you shouldn’t love him. That’s just—again, to most folks—common sense, and only really delusional or emotionally undeveloped people like those we see in this movie are so unenlightened as not to see that.
But I’m not so sure. I think that “Love your enemies” is as important and true as it is extraordinarily difficult, and, at least on the surface, counterintuitive. If you’re actually capable of loving even the most unlovable of people, such as those who treat you the worst—lie to you, commit acts of violence against you, get you hooked on drugs, exploit you for money, etc.—then in my book you’re well ahead of the bulk of the human population morally.
So I’m not going to tell these girls to stop loving bad people in general, or their pimps in particular. I don’t think they’re wrong to love them.
Does it follow that I think they should stay in their current abusive situations, that they should accept whatever abuse the pimps dish out, and do whatever the pimps want? No.
Here’s the move I make, and maybe it’s just a rationalization or maybe it differs only semantically from the more common assessment, but I don’t think so.
For me, the problem isn’t the love, but how the love is manifested. If you love someone, then you want what’s best for them, and you’re willing to sacrifice, to suffer, in principle even to die, to bring it about.
Now, if you love a pimp, and therefore you want what’s best for him, one of the most important things you should want for him would be his ceasing to live a life of violence and abuse of others. You would want him to be a morally better human being, to know what it’s like to love people the way you love him.
So the question is, would continuing in the life with him—continuing to accept his abuse so as to maximize the money he makes off your body—encourage him toward a morally better path and thus be best for him? The answer seems clearly no, that it would only entrench him more deeply in his present approach to life, since that approach would be “working” in the superficial sense of bringing him what he consciously desires—money, drugs, prestige among his fellow pimps, sadistic pleasure, whatever.
Thus my position is not to tell these girls, “Wake up and stop loving the bum and stop being willing to suffer for him.” Instead it’s, “Love anyone and everyone, including him, as much as you’re capable of doing, and suffer for the betterment of those you love as much as you can bring yourself to do. But recognize that your letting him treat you abominably and prostitute you isn’t good for him in the long run, and thus refusing to cooperate in his continued abuse of you is the more appropriate manifestation of love.”
So, yeah, the upshot is the same in that I agree with the consensus position that these girls should not continue to allow themselves to be victimized by pimps, insofar as they have any choice in the matter, and therefore I’m all for the kinds of things GEMS does to facilitate their leaving their pimps and getting their lives onto a better track. But for me it needn’t come from a position of hatred, desire for revenge, etc.
I mean if someone who is treated the way these girls are comes to hate that way, then I totally understand that. And there’s even a sense in which I agree that changing from blind, immature, delusionally romantic love for their pimp to hating their pimp constitutes an improvement. But I think a further improvement, ironically, is an eyes-open higher love. And if someone can make that higher move—into “love your enemies” territory—they have my respect and indeed awe.
But always remember that there are times that love requires you to oppose the immediate behavior of someone you love. To oppose it nonviolently, respectfully, lovingly, but to oppose it. Because when you stand up in that way to a person’s evil, you’re not truly opposing that person, but on the contrary are at a deeper level supporting them.
Speaking of prostitutes, Sonia in Crime and Punishment is an example of what I have in mind.