This is an interview conducted by Kate McGaughey with Leah Lesesne, Clinical Care Coordinator for Serenity’s Steps and Megan Ellerman, That Grace Restored staff member and Anti-Commercial Sexual Exploitation (CSE) advocate.
I spent time recently with both Leah and Megan, who have worked tirelessly in the anti-trafficking and anti-CSE fields, talking to them about the often confusing terms “sex trafficking” and “commercial sexual exploitation.” What are the differences? Where is the overlap? Who should we help? Read the interview below to hear their thoughts:
Leah, as a counselor working with domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST) victims, what is your professional definition of sex trafficking? What qualifies someone as a sex trafficking victim?
Leah: We often mistakenly think that trafficking must require a movement of persons or confinement. However any person under the age of 18 who has been sold for sexual services by another individual, with or without the minor’s “consent” is considered a victim of DMST. The qualifications get more complicated with adults because the simple sale of sexual services is not enough to qualify, there must be evidence of fraud, coercion, deception, fraud, abuse of power etc.
What are the different options for care given to adult versus minor sex trafficking victims who have been “rescued” or managed to escape their situation?
Leah: A lot depends on how they come into contact with options for care. Adults and children that come through the justice system often get jail time because they are misidentified as a perpetrator rather than a victim. Children that are properly identified as DMST victims are often placed in group homes or foster care with outpatient services while adults even when properly identified may face jail time. For adults the current options available usually include rehab services and inpatient homes; which don’t always help depending on the adult’s situation.
Is prostitution considered sex trafficking if the girl providing services is under 18?
Leah: If she is under 18, by Georgia law she is not considered to be working in prostitution, she is considered to be a sex trafficking victim or sexual assault victim. Nationally there is a move towards rejecting the term “child prostitute” and properly identifying those children as DMST victims.
How is underage prostitution handled by the legal system in Georgia?
Leah: They have made a lot of strides in properly identifying children as victims rather than criminals and going after the traffickers and johns and prosecuting them. There has been a huge task force launched by Attorney General Sam Olens to go after pimps and johns. This task force’s has been clear to send the message that if you buy sex or exploit a young girl for sex you will do jail time.
What are some options for recovery that Georgia offers to DMST victims?
Leah: There are several types of programs, most commonly recovery group homes and therapeutic foster care. With therapeutic foster care the foster parents go through a lot of training so they understand mental health issues and can supportive services on an ongoing basis. Outpatient counseling is offered to girls who are able to go back home to their families – but this is not as common. GA Cares handles the referral of services for all DMST victims in GA and provides mentoring and case management for the youth they serve.
Do you think there is a stigma against young girls who are working in prostitution that sees them as perpetrators and not as victims?
Leah: Historically there has been a stigma against young girls, but that has shifted a lot over the past few years. People are now more educated and willing to see an underage girl as a victim rather than a perpetrator. The bigger issue now that is that women over 18 face all the stigma and are not given the same grace to be seen as exploited.
What is the biggest difference between a sex trafficking victim and a commercial sex worker?
Leah: I think one of the biggest differences is the way they’re viewed. Society looks at DMST victims and says, “Oh she was forced…poor her.” They look at the commercial sex worker and think, “She wants to be there.” But really they’re not all that different. The sex worker might be a different age, she might not have someone standing over her keeping her there, but she doesn’t wake up and just decide to do this. The histories of abuse are very similar. Almost all DMST victims and commercial sex workers have some history of sexual abuse prior to entering the industry.
Megan, as an anti-commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) advocate, how would you define a commercial sex industry worker?
Megan: A person who is working in the sex industry to provide a means for themselves, whether it be to support a drug addiction, to put a roof over their heads, to eat…It’s an occupation they’ve chosen at that point in time. You can include go-go dancers, strippers, prostitutes, internet vixens, girls who post adds on the internet, web cam girls, porn actresses and women who work for escort services in the definition of a commercial sex worker.
What are the factors that cause a woman (or man) to enter the sex industry of their own free will?
Megan: A lot of different things from losing a job and having to provide for their kids to having nowhere to go and nothing to eat. People that are enduring hardships often feel like they have no other option for survival. If you’re laid off from a job and the next morning your rent is due, you don’t know what to do when your landlord doesn’t care about your story. It can also be emotional. If you didn’t have someone to care about you or be there for you. I’ve known women who had no family there for them, they dropped out of school and had no education – they just wanted to hear someone say, “You look pretty.” A girl may meet a guy on the street who tells her those things but he’s a pimp. They do it for love and that’s not real love, but they don’t have an example of what true love looks like.
Are there other reasons such as force, fraud or coercion that cause people to enter the commercial sex industry?
Megan: In a way. I’ve known instances where girls will look up to other women they see in the sex industry when they see them taking care of themselves. They see these women and put them on a pedestal, and to me that’s like fraud. I think with force and coercion, that doesn’t happen as much initially, but it happens after you are in the industry. People around you say things like “What else can you do? Are you going to go find a job?” You seldom have positive influences around you. You can tell yourself “I think I can do better,” but if other people are putting you down, you start to believe you really can’t do anything else and so you stay in the life.
Does this understanding of CSE overlap at all with the legal definition of sex trafficking, making some people in the industry sex trafficking victims?
Megan: I don’t think by legal definition other than the age. But it’s pretty easy to see that the lines are blurred. Beyond the strict legal definition it’s pretty much the same thing.
Leah: Legally the lines about coercion are very clear in that visible force, fraud must be involved.But in the sex industry there may be that same element of control, but it’s not as easily identifiable.
Is there a stigma surrounding commercial sex workers? What are some of the biggest myths about sex workers?
Megan: Absolutely. Most people think that it was those women’s choice, their aspiration. I don’t know any women who would say that was their dream job. People see them and jump to conclusions because they don’t know the whole story. They don’t care to find out the stories and for that reason I think that stigma will be hard to change.
Leah: I think a lot of people believe that if they wanted to get out they could.
Megan: Getting out is hard because there is a lack of resources and many women are ignorant about organizations that could help them.
Leah: And lack of community. If you had community you would have people coming around you to support you through it.
Do commercial sex workers ever feel trapped in the life?
Megan: Yes. A lot of times it will be something as simple as a woman needing a babysitter to go to a job interview to try to take that first step, but because they’re living in a hotel they have no one around them to watch the kids. And in that moment they feel trapped in the cycle, thinking they will never get out.
What services are available to people seeking to leave employment in the commercial sex industry?
Megan: Now there are employment opportunities and organizations that are specifically created to help these women not only find work but with personal development and mental health. Hopefully there will be a lot more to come. I hope the more awareness that comes the more change will take place. I think this city does have a closed mind unless they hear a story of a girl they can compare to the girl in “Taken”. But it is happening right in our city to girls and women, and more people should care.
Leah: We’re so quick to be an activist for a girl who is survivor of DMST, but if it’s a woman in the sex industry we’re closed off. What a lot of people don’t understand that girls who come out of DMST and grow up without services to help them heal will often end up in the commercial sex industry.
Megan: People need to think beyond their own limit. That’s someone’s daughter. You never know when it could affect you.
How are women in prostitution treated by the legal system?
Megan: Like complete criminals. And I’m not saying that they should just be able to go free when they break the law, but I think beyond having to do jail time or community service something should be implemented beyond that to help them move on. Because if they don’t have a job or a work program, they are just going to go back to doing the same thing.
Leah: Fulton County is now looking at some alternatives to jail time, but we have to make sure that the options presented to women are options that actually work for them and their situation.
Are there cases where commercial sex workers should be viewed as victims?
Megan: I think absolutely. There are instances in which the circumstances are so extreme that they feel like victims with no other options. It’s more so about the lack of knowing of programs that are available to them to help them get out of the life. The general programs like shelters are so crowded that it discourages people from going to them. But I think if women knew there are programs specialized to their situations, many women would make that choice to leave the sex industry.
Are there cases where commercial sex workers should not be viewed as victims?
Megan: Everyone is a victim even if they don’t realize it. If I hear a woman say, “I am not a victim,” I say she doesn’t realize her true worth. There are so many other things that she could do with the right support around her that wouldn’t be so demoralizing to herself.
Leah: It’s not honoring to insist on calling someone a victim if they don’t identify as one; yet at the same time, even those who see themselves as choosing sex work are being exploited. We wonder why when women are offered a way out they don’t take it. We have to remember there is some other factor keeping them from seeing it as a way out. Fear that it won’t work, fear that she won’t really be able to provide for herself or her kids, someone will come after her – it doesn’t seem like a real option to them. If they saw it as a real option they would have taken it.
Should the fight against sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation be connected?
Leah: The connection is definitely there whether or not we acknowledge it. Part of it is the demand for porn and strip clubs – they become successful businesses which then drives the demand for sold sex – which then drives the demand for young girls sold for sex. It is very interconnected in that way. The popularity of porn and strip clubs normalizes it and drives the demand easily. And as I said earlier, so often DMST victims who don’t get help, grow up and end up in the sex industry. Anyone who considers themselves an advocate for sex trafficking victims should consider themselves an advocate for commercial sex workers.