In the aftermath of the government closing Backpage.com, the leading global site for prostitution ads, many of which included trafficked people, there have been numerous cultural conversations about prostitution. When the Women’s March tweeted support for “sex workers’” ability to seek clients on the site, many such as myself were astonished. Some others felt a need to pause and reconsider if prostitution can be a free choice, and if it can be, should we try to safeguard individuals’ freedom to sell themselves for sex if they want to?
For the record, I think this is as ridiculous as suggesting it’s possible to consent to exploitation and abuse, not to mention suggesting we should have freedom to do something illegal (I mean, c’mon people, what would laws be for, anyway?).
But for the sake of argument, let’s try to consider it on face value. Even organizations pushing for “sex worker rights” use language that suggest the sex industry is often people’s last option for employment. But if they’re facing poverty or selling themselves for survival, is that really a free choice?
A recent documentary answers this in a vivid way.
Love, a new half-hour film directed by award-winning filmmaker Raúl de la Fuente and viewable for free online, offers a glimpse into how prostitution is affecting people in Sierra Leone.
Homeless girls and boys, many of whom lost their parents to the Ebola virus and have no one to take care of them, sell themselves for sex to make enough money to eat. The documentary includes girls like Aminata, who revealed in the film that she’d been on the streets since she was 13. “I sell myself for sex to have money to eat,” Aminata explains, “and to send money to my grandmother.”
In the slums of Freetown, where Aminata lived, there are many prostituted boys and girls who told the documentary filmmakers they were 15 years old.
“I live on the streets. I suffer a lot, get beaten,” one shares, “in order to eat something. Nobody is looking out for me, I’m doing it for myself.”
But the sad reality is that even if this is a way for homeless teens to earn money for food, it is at such a large cost to their physical and mental health that it can hardly be called a living. At best, it’s a deepening of poverty and exploitation.
“If we’re sick,” one says, “we have to go work on the street because if don’t, won’t have food to eat.”
At another point, a girls explains how “using protection” is a joke since many ‘johns’ refuse it, so their lives are risked daily from exposure to STDs. “I want to use protection but some men do not use it,” she says. “I’m aware that I can get HIV, gonorrhea, syphilis.”
There are few resources available to the abused children. Aminata said that one time they were taken in by law enforcement, but what followed was far from justice. “They arrested us, raped us roughly and didn’t pay us, and sent us back.”
Despite the few options available, many at-risk youth in Freetown find their only way out of the abusive cycles through the missionary work of the Salesian Mission Procure of Madrid and the Sons of Don Bosco.
“There are many young people in Sierra Leone who earn their living as prostitutes,” explains Fr. Jorge Crisafulli, “but in talking to them one realizes that they are only children. They think like little girls, they behave like little girls, and they have the rights of little girls! The Salesians in Freetown offer them an alternative to life on the streets, a way out of this modern slavery. They are given the opportunity to study and receive an education. It is important to understand that these girls are not objects, but people.”
Fr. Crisafulli explains how many of these girls have “no money for medical help, [and are] refused help from the hospital.” He and his comrades at the Salesian mission attempt to offer a better life.
The Salesian mission in Freetown offers a rehabilitation program, as Fr. Crisafulli calls it. “The only way out of that slavery, is to offer food, home, health care, psychosocial help, because many have deep traumas.” For Aminata, her first sexual experience was at age 13 after her mother died, when her friend invited her to a club and two men offered her a large sum of money for sex. Living through that painful experience set her on her current path.
“The key to get out of this lack of dignity is education,” Fr. Crisafulli says. “We want them to say ‘I can be a worthy person.’”
One woman who Fr. Crisafulli helped is Augusta, who received education and support from the Salesians, now owns her own catering company. “I can feel good now,” she says in the documentary, with a smile. “I am happy. I am doing my job, I am getting money from it, and I am enjoying it.”
In 2016, the Salesians rescued 110 girls and boys.
But not all of them are ready to accept help. The Salesians offered Aminata help on multiple occasions, but she repeatedly refused.
“I ask her, when are you stopping?” Fr. Crisafulli states sadly. “Her answer is clear: ‘it’s my story.’” But, later Crisafulli adds, “Nobody is lost forever; while there’s life and capacity to dream, there’s always an opportunity to get ahead.”
Fr. Crisafulli has hope, in other words, despite living in a world where everyone else seems to give up sooner.
After studying the research on prostitution for years here in the United States, I’ve come to think that it is related to a loss of hope that causes people to ignore or accept atrocities like the prostitution of minors (which in the United States is defined as sex-trafficking, since minors cannot consent to sex, and it’s often surrounded by severe psychological manipulation). Somewhere along the way, some of us give up the sense that we can do better than this — that we should help these people find something better.
If you’re one of those people, or if you know someone who is, I recommend watching Love. Now’s a good time to be reminded that we should never give up on showing love to others, even if they’ve forgotten what it looks like.
We should never underestimate the power of the human heart to turn around. Yes, we are all in charge of our own stories. And for Fr. Crisafulli, in the end, “these girls are the real heroines of the story.”
Mary Rose Somarriba completed a 2012 Robert Novak journalism fellowship on the connections between pornography and sex trafficking.