Even at 44 years old, tears well up in Gwen J.’s eyes when she recalls the day both her mother and pimp put her out on the street after beating her with a two-by-four. She was just 14 years old.
Gwen is a woman with speech as colorful as her hot-pink hair and gold toenails. She winks at me, and a warm smile spreads across her glowing brown skin. “See these colors I wear? I never got to wear these colors as a kid,” she says. “My pimp made me wear black and red when I sat on the bed to wait for customers. I wear bright colors for the girl I was at 8.”
As she alternates between tears and incredulity, Gwen explains to me that a family member introduced her to the sex industry when she was just 4 years old. “Of course, I didn’t know what I was seeing. I just saw all these beautiful white women who wore furs and had pretty hair,” she says. Within a few short years, that same family member prostituted her to paying customers. The air feels heavy when Gwen quietly says, “I was 8 when a big fat f*** made me have sex with him for the first time. What choice did I have? When you start this young, you either do what you’re told or you die.”
Underage sex work in the U.S.
Many Americans believe that sex trafficking involves kidnapping and smuggling of international victims, but the typical victim of the crime is an underage U.S. citizen who, like Gwen, is prostituted by a family member or trafficker lurking under the guise of benevolence.
Children who are trafficked into the industry like Gwen don’t remain children forever. Surviving the abuse and exploitation — which often escalates through the teenage years — requires a mixture of numbing and hardening. “I started doing drugs when I was 10, and got into crack by the time I was 11,” she says. “I had to numb out. I was doing it all — prostitution, strip clubs, turning tricks. My entire family turned their backs on me, so I started selling my body for crack or just a place to stay.” She was 14 when her mother and pimp violently attacked her and kicked her into the streets.
A turning point and survival
For the next 23 years, Gwen prostituted and numbed herself out on drugs so she could survive. Between her family, her friends and her johns, Gwen’s life was a revolving door of betrayals. “God, it still hurts,” she whispers into the air between us as she wipes tears from her cheeks. “It was an existence, not a life.”
After nearly 30 years working in the sex industry, something changed for Gwen. Even today, she’s not entirely sure how and why it changed, apart from God. She tells me that she credits the God of her Christian faith for helping her see that she was missing the lives of her children, and that she wanted to give them more than her mother gave to her. “God gave me hope for my future that I didn’t know was there,” Gwen says.
The next few years of change were excruciating. “I had to confront my inner demons,” she explains, “and it made me feel like my heart was ripping apart.” But on the other side of her grief was life: An organization called New Friends New Life provided her with social work services, counseling, job training, educational assistance and intensive mentoring. Gwen now has a good job and she’s been sober for seven years. She also volunteers her time to advocate for other women who share her story.
“I think that people don’t understand how young prostitution starts and that many women in the industry don’t ask for it,” explains Gwen. “I hope that people who drive by and see a woman on the street can stop and think, ‘she has a good heart,’ or ‘she doesn’t want to do this, but she has children who need things and she doesn’t know what else to do.'”