Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Who cares

"Every one of these women is somebody’s child." — Patricia Barone, mother of murder victim, Gina Barone

AN ARTICLE ran in The New York Times April 7, 2011 about victims of the latest Long Island serial killer. There've been three LI serial killers in the last 22 years who've murdered a total of 30 women, all of whom were sex workers.

The topic of serial murders is in itself horrific, but there were two things about this particular story that have been haunting me. The first was what Gary Ridgway, known as the Green River Killer, said in his 2003 statement of guilt to prosecutors in which he admitted murdering 48 women in the Seattle area. He picked prostitutes because, "I knew they would not be reported missing right away and might never be reported missing. I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught." NYT

The other thing I haven't been able to shake is what two mothers of victims had to say. Mari Gilbert said that her daughter, Shannan, had been missing since May 2010, and the police, press and public didn't care about her disappearance until the last month or so when it became part of the Long Island investigation. She believes her daughter didn't matter because she was a prostitute. "I think they look at them like they're throwaway."

An earlier victim's mother said that after her daughter, Gina, went missing in late 1996, she tried to get news media outlets to cover the story, but most didn't. Gina's body was discovered almost two years later a block from Vassar College. Her mother Patricia Barone said, "If a Vassar College girl was missing, we would have had cops all over the place. Every one of these women is somebody’s child, and people don’t kind of get that. Your children are your children no matter what they do out there."

The thing I really hope you to read is an op ed piece written by Nicholas Kristof that appeared in the NYT on April 24. I found it heartbreaking. 

He writes about how American girls become prostitutes. A common scenario is: she lived in a troubled family situation that included addiction, violence, poverty or all three. To escape the situation, she ran away from home with no resources and as a result became easy prey for dangerous people — pimps, drug dealers and abusers who got her hooked on drugs and forced her into prostitution — or living on the streets with no one to turn to she reached a point where the only thing she could sell to live was herself.

Fortunately, that didn't happen to me, but something occurred when I was barely 19 that's an example of how easily a vulnerable, young woman could be captured and end up as a statistic.

I was raised by grandparents who were born in 1888 and 1889, and so as one might suppose, it was a very, very quiet life.

One of my grandparents' favorite activities during nice weather was to sit on the front porch of an evening counting the cars going by or naming whether they were Fords, Chevrolets, Pontiacs, Buicks or the rare Cadillac.

Something besides the makes and models of automobiles occupied my thoughts on those front porch nights. Besides naming and counting, I wondered intently where all those people were going. I lwanted to be one of them as they drove down the highway on what I imagined was an exciting trip somewhere. I longed to see the world and find out about all those places everyone else seemed to be going.

I turned 19 in May of my first year at Iowa State University. My cousin Debbie was graduating from high school in Narragansett, Rhode Island later that month, and I wanted to fly there to be part of the celebration. I already had a summer job, and I had earned enough money for a ticket.

My travel arrangements were that I would fly to New York City and then take the bus to Providence where my uncle and aunt would pick me up. I suspect a plane ticket to NYC was much less expensive than one all the way to Rhode Island, and the plane/bus combo was what I could afford.

I'd never been on a plane, and I had only taken one trip by myself, and it consisted of being put on a Greyhound in Ankeny, Iowa by my grandparents and being met by my cousin in Vinton, Iowa, less than two hours away. I spent the whole entire bus trip worrying about whether or not they'd give me back my little suitcase.

Besides that, I had driven myself round trip from Ankeny to Ames and Ankeny to Merle Hay Mall several times, half hour drives each way. My experience in the world was very limited.

This was to be my big, big, grown-up adventure. I was nervous, but also so excited. I still remember clearly the dress I wore for the trip — lime green paisley, with an empire waist, and long, wide sleeves — quite modern and fashionable, and I fancied that looked oh so sophisticated. At 95 pounds with hands and feet the size of an average 12-year-old, in reality I'm sure I looked to be 16 at most.

The flight was noisy and long, but all went well until I reached the Port Authority Bus Station in New York. It was crowded place with people bustling every which way. Suddenly a large, stocky man was walking in stride with me. He asked me something like whether or not I needed a cab, and in the blink of an eye that I hesitated to answer, he had grabbed me by the arm, and gripping me tightly, pulled me up against him side to side and forced my hand down on his very hard penis, dragging me along as he walked.

Apparently noticing the stricken look on my face, an older couple walked up to "us", and pointedly asked me if I wanted to wait for the bus with them. I managed to get out "Yes" and the predator peeled off.

These events are still hard for me to think about, let alone write about. Until now I've only ever told Paul about it, and even yet the remembrance brings tears of shame, sadness and outrage. We were close to an exit, the place was busy and crowded; it doesn't take much to imagine that it could have easily turned out tragically.

I wasn't yet out of danger, however. I got to the bus depot in Providence and phoned my aunt and uncle who told me to wait at the bus stop. At least that's what I understood them to have said. I was at the bus depot, but I thought they were making a particular point to say that I should be waiting outside at the bus stop. I inquired where the nearest one was and walked there. It was about a block and a half away. So there I was in Providence, Rhode Island waiting at a bus stop at 11:00 o'clock at night. My heart was pounding.

A 30-ish, crazed-looking man walked in, sat down on the other end of the bench and began speaking incoherently to me. Scared out of my mind, I started walking back to the bus station as quickly but, I hoped, as nonchalantly as I could so as not to attract his attention. 

He followed me; I broke into a dead run; so did he. He chased me not just to the station but into the station. I ran up to the ticket counter and said, "This man is chasing me, and I am not leaving this ticket counter," and the drugged out, schizophrenic or whatever-he-was guy left. If it sounds like a scene from a murder movie, that's exactly what it felt like.

My aunt and uncle arrived wondering where I had been. They hadn't meant for me to go to the bus stop, but just wait at the station doors. I could so easily have not have been there at all, but at least I would have been sought.

There's a triangle — the pimp, the john and the prostitute. Or maybe it's a pentagon — the pimp, the john, the prostitute, the police and public opinion. If a man who frequents sex workers, let's say Elliot Spitzer, were to disappear, there would be serious, in-depth police, possibly even FBI, investigations because he's famous. He even has a job as television commentator now. No worries that he's a man who made a practice of buying sex from young women and in so doing fueled the demand that keeps the pimps and victimizers in business. He can be part of acceptable society, but the girl, yeah, she's disgusting.

Never mind that she's been victimized three times over. First she's a victim at home. In an attempt to escape, she becomes a victim of drug dealers or pimps, and then if she disappears, she's once again victimized by the public and the police who don't care. If she has a tainted past, we exclude them from our compassion — even our vision.

All women matter, though, not just all-American girls.

And wouldn't most of these bought and sold young women have been as all-American as any Vassar College (or Iowa State student) if they hadn't been handicapped from the beginning. The least we can do is not participate in condemning young women in whose shoes we have not walked. 

What About American Girls Sold on the Streets?

By Nicholas Kristof

April 23, 2011

When we hear about human trafficking in India or Cambodia, our hearts melt. The victim has sometimes been kidnapped and imprisoned, even caged, in a way that conjures our images of slavery.

But in the United States we see girls all the time who have been trafficked — and our hearts harden. The problem is that these girls aren’t locked in cages. Rather, they’re often runaways out on the street wearing short skirts or busting out of low-cut tops, and many Americans perceive them not as trafficking victims but as miscreants who have chosen their way of life. So even when they’re 14 years old, we often arrest and prosecute them — even as the trafficker goes free.

In fact, human trafficking is more similar in America and Cambodia than we would like to admit. Teenage girls on American streets may appear to be selling sex voluntarily, but they’re often utterly controlled by violent pimps who take every penny they earn.

From johns to judges, Americans often suffer from a profound misunderstanding of how teenage prostitution actually works — and fail to appreciate that it’s one of our country’s biggest human rights problems. Fortunately, a terrific new book called “Girls Like Us,” by Rachel Lloyd, herself a trafficking survivor, illuminates the complexities of the sex industry.

Lloyd is British and the product of a troubled home. As a teenager, she dropped out of school and ended up working as a stripper and prostitute, controlled by a pimp whom she loved in a very complicated way — even though he beat her.

One of the most vexing questions people have is why teenage girls don’t run away more often from pimps who assault them and extract all the money they earn. Lloyd struggles to answer that question about her own past and about the girls she works with today. The answers have to do with lack of self-esteem and lack of alternatives, as well as terror of the pimp and a misplaced love for him.

Jocular references to pimps in popular songs or movies are baffling. They aren’t business partners of teenage girls; they are modern slave drivers. And pimping attracts criminals because it is lucrative and not particularly risky as criminal behavior goes: police arrest the girls, but don’t often go after the pimps. (In fairness, pimping is a tough crime to prove, partly because the star witness is often a girl with a string of prostitution arrests who leaves a poor impression on a jury.)

Eventually, Lloyd did escape her pimp after he nearly killed her, but starting over was tough, and she had trouble fitting in. When she showed up at church in a skirt she liked, four women separately came over to her pew with clothing to cover her legs.

“Apparently skirts need to be longer than your jacket,” she recalls. “Who knew?”

Then Lloyd came to the United States to begin working with troubled teenage girls — and found her calling. In 1998, at the age of 23, she founded GEMS, short for Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, a program for trafficked girls that has won human rights awards and helped pass a landmark anti-trafficking law in New York State. On the side, Lloyd earned a college degree and then a master’s, graduating summa cum laude.

Lloyd’s story is extraordinarily inspiring, as is the work she is doing. One of the girls she rescued from a pimp later graduated from high school as valedictorian. But Lloyd’s memoir is also important for the window it offers into trafficking in this country.

Americans often think that “trafficking” is about Mexican or Korean or Russian women smuggled into brothels in the United States. That happens. But in my years and years of reporting, I’ve found that the biggest trafficking problem involves homegrown American runaways.

Typically, she’s a 13-year-old girl of color from a troubled home who is on bad terms with her mother. Then her mom’s boyfriend hits on her, and she runs away to the bus station, where the only person on the lookout for girls like her is a pimp. He buys her dinner, gives her a place to stay and next thing she knows she’s earning him $1,500 a day.

Lloyd guides us through this world in an unsentimental way that rings pitch perfect with my own reporting. Above all, Lloyd always underscores that these girls aren’t criminals but victims, and she alternately oozes compassion and outrage. One girl she worked with was Nicolette, a 12-year-old in New York City who had a broken rib and burns from a hot iron, presumably from her pimp. Yet Nicolette was convicted of prostitution and sent to a juvenile detention center for a year to learn “moral principles.”

Our system has failed girls like her. The police and prosecutors should focus less on punishing 12-year-old girls and more on their pimps — and, yes, their johns. I hope that Lloyd’s important and compelling book will be a reminder that homegrown American girls are also trafficked, and they deserve sympathy and social services — not handcuffs and juvenile detention.

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