Girls Like Us: Fighting
For a World Where Girls Are Not for Sale
By Rachel Lloyd
Harper. 277 pp.
Ask Me Why I Hurt: The Kids Nobody Wants and the Doctor Who Heals Them
By Randy Christensen
Broadway Books. 270 pp.
With so many harrowing tales about homeless youth and sex-trafficked teens appearing with gruesome regularity on Law & Order: SVU and other popular crime shows, you’d hope there might be more public outrage spurring help for these young victims. Then again, since this is only TV, you might also wonder if these stories weren’t so much ripped from the headlines as exaggerated fabrications. It sure would be easier to get to sleep after watching those distressing dramas, if that were so!
Don’t count on a comfortable snooze yet. Two new books—Girls Like Us: Fighting For a World Where Girls Are Not for Sale, by Rachel Lloyd, and Ask Me Why I Hurt: The Kids Nobody Wants and the Doctor Who Heals Them, by Randy Christensen with Rene Denfeld—confirm that the gritty TV depictions of kids scratching out an existence on the streets is just the tip of a grimy iceberg. Together, they chronicle the real-life stories of a world of pain. They introduce us to vulnerable, already traumatized, preteen girls who are victimized by pimps and abused by johns; runaways sleeping in garbage-strewn ditches; retarded or mentally ill kids roaming the streets on their own; adolescents suffering from infections, illnesses, or lack of nutrition, with little or no access to basic medical care.
These books provide hope, represented by the projects and programs through which these authors are changing the lives of some of these kids. Randy Christensen chronicles his work as a pediatrician and medical director of the Phoenix-based Crews’n Healthmobile, a mobile medical clinic for homeless children. Rachel Lloyd, for her part, writes about sex trafficking from the dual perspective of a former teen runaway and ex-prostitute who escaped “the life.” Now, as the head of a New York City nonprofit counseling center, she helps sexually exploited girls gain the psychological strength and practical skills to break free of their pimps and find their way to new lives.
Lloyd is a particularly effective advocate, giving voice to those she helps. At the same time, she makes it clear that the sex trafficking of young girls is no longer “the white slave trade,” happening in other countries, but takes place in the United States. Indeed, a 2001 study from the University of Pennsylvania estimates that between 200,000 and 300,000 American adolescents are at risk for commercial sexual exploitation each year here. As the study’s co-leader, Richard Estes, writes, “Child sexual exploitation is the most hidden form of child abuse in the United States and North America today. It is the nation’s least recognized epidemic.”
Lloyd unflinchingly brings the epidemic out into the open. She begins with the story of Danielle, a seemingly ordinary 11-year-old (yes, 11) who loves SpongeBob and Harry Potter, but who’s been picked up by the cops at New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal. Danielle has been “trafficked up and down the East Coast by a twenty-nine-year-old pimp and sold nightly on Craigslist to adult men who ignore her dimples and her baby fat and purchase her for sex,” Lloyd reveals. Like many of the girls Lloyd helps, Danielle has no family to turn to; with an absent father and a drug-addicted mother, she spent years bouncing from home to home in the foster-care system while longing for a sense of belonging and connection. So, following the pattern of too many other young girls lured into the sex trade, when she met an older man who paid more attention to her than anyone had before, buying her costume jewelry and sweets and stiletto heels, she was eager to believe he loved her, even as he groomed—and manipulated—her into becoming a lucrative, young whore for hire. Danielle refers to this older man as her “daddy”; nothing strange about that, since pimps like their girls to call them that, to maintain a mirage of love and sense of family fealty that helps them rationalize “Daddy’s” beatings and brutality as a product of his knowing what’s best for them.