The average age of entrance into prostitution in the United States is 13 years old. That’s legally too young to consent to sex.
This, among other harsh realities, is the subject of the 2008 documentary “Very Young Girls.” On Wednesday, April 20, Barnard and Columbia Health Services’ Sexual Violence Prevention and Response Program co-sponsored a screening of the documentary at the Diana Center Event Oval. The event was part of ongoing programming for Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
“Very Young Girls” provides an eye-opening and honest look at sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation in the streets of New York City. Many of the young women who tell their stories in the film were as young as 12 or 13 when they were forced into prostitution. They reveal stories of extreme manipulation and abuse, and cameras follow them closely as they struggle to escape “the life.”
But there is also an uplifting aspect to the documentary. Much of the film focuses on Girls Educational and Mentoring Services and its inspirational founder, Rachel Lloyd. GEMS works to “empower girls and young women, ages 12-21, who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking to exit the commercial sex industry and develop to their full potential.” A former prostitute herself, Lloyd now dedicates her life to helping other women escape their abusers, heal, and get an education. GEMS partners with several other New York City agencies, such as the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, in order to help young women recover their lives.
The screening included a Q-and-A session with Janice Holzman, the communications and development director for GEMS. At one point in the film, a police officer refuses to help a woman whose daughter is being held against her will by a pimp. After strong audience reactions to the scene, Holzman reminded viewers that improvements have been made since the film was released. “That was 2006 when … a lot of that footage was a taken,” she said. “It’s not 100 percent better, but we’re making movements in the right direction.”
The movements to which Holzman referred include New York’s Safe Harbor Act. This legislation defines underage children as victims of sex trafficking, which means that minors are no longer charged with prostitution and treated like criminals. In fact, many young girls are sentenced to GEMS programs instead of prison.
As shown in the film, rehabilitation is a long and difficult process. “We see it as very similar to the situation of domestic violence in that it takes five or seven times for these girls to leave their attackers,” Holzman said.
Phung Tran, a spokesperson for Columbia Health Services, said events like this one are relevant to Columbia students because they encourage engagement with difficult issues. “All SAAM events are student-generated and student-driven,” Tran said. “Events and film screenings … provide a forum for dialogue among the campus community.”