He told her he loved her. He told her he’d give her a job at his recording studio. She was 16, jobless, and living with a friend, so she believed him. She never expected what would happen next: He took her to his house in New Jersey, where she was forced to prostitute herself along with ten other young women.
“Whatever he wanted me to do, I did because he provided me a place to stay,” Andrea (not her real name) told the National Clearinghouse on Families & Youth in a podcast interview in April. “He gave me food. And he gave me the affection and the attention that I was looking for.”
Andrea battled isolation and feelings of worthlessness, faced physical and mental abuse, and bounced in and out of jail, unable to lessen the hold that her exploiter had on her. Finally, she escaped commercial sexual exploitation with the help of GEMS, or Girls Education and Mentoring Services, an organization in New York that enables girls like Andrea to exit “the life.”
According to one study, 70 percent of runaway and homeless youth on the street eventually become victims of some form of commercial sexual exploitation. Like Andrea, many young victims live in an emotional prison. Their worldviews become so constrained that they can’t see a way out until someone outside their world steps in and supports them.
To that end, GEMS provides health care, counseling, housing, and career guidance. Just as important, the program attempts to give victims hope for the future, a sense of self-worth, and adult role models worthy of trust and free of judgment.
“I could come here with nothing on, and they would still be here with hands open,” says Andrea, who now works at GEMS and is getting a bachelor’s degree in psychology. “You want to go to someone that you feel is not going to judge you and somewhere where you can feel you're wanted and you're loved and you're respected regardless of what situation you're in or regardless of how you feel, they're still going to be there by your side.”
GEMS receives funding from the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Office for Victims of Crime, and Office on Violence Against Women. For more information about the organization, watch the documentary “Very Young Girls” available on DVD.
The National Clearinghouse on Families & Youth is a free information service of the Family and Youth Services Bureau. For more information about the commercial sexual exploitation of young people, listen to Andrea’s podcast interview, or read the booklet Bought and Sold.
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