A Shift in Perspective- Child Sex Trafficking and Advocacy in NYC

by Sarah Hoyle

Thursday, May 28 was a long day. I didn’t step back into my summer dorm until 9:30pm, still in my work clothes and my not-made-for-NYC shoes. Rev. Koenig, German Zarate, and I had just come from a performance and panel discussion hosted by End Child Prostitution and Trafficking-USA (ECPAT-USA), the NYC Clergy Roundtable and other organizations working to end sex trafficking. ECPAT-USA is a long-time partner of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The performance, “A Day in the Life” by the young women of The Arts Effect NYC, gave faces to the stories of young teenage girls from New York City who were victims of sex trafficking. The panel discussion to follow involved the Rev. Que English, chair of the NYC Faith-Based Coalition Against Human Trafficking and Domestic Violence, Lauren Hersh, the Director of Anti-Trafficking Advocacy & Policy at Sanctuary for Families, Carol Smolenski the Executive Director of ECPAT-USA, and Anthony Favale the Deputy Inspector for a new unit of the NYPD that focuses on Child Sex Trafficking. The performance was incredibly moving, and the discussion lively and informative, but now I was tired.

I made it back to the dorm just in time to catch the end of a summer meet-and-greet with my fellow dorm residents. In an exhausted attempt to make a few friends in the big city, I quickly jumped in on a conversation with people I had known less than a day, and was asked “So what have you been up to today?” I highly doubt discussion on the buying and selling of children for sex is written anywhere in “How to Make Friends and Influence People,” so I paused. Part of the Presbyterian Ministry to the UN’s mission is to advocate for victims of injustice around the world, but I had just learned that hundreds of children disappear every year to be used as sex slaves right here in New York City. I had just learned that what we typically call “prostitutes” or “hookers” are almost never in the streets selling their bodies by choice. I had just heard the story of a 16 year old girl who felt worthless and ruined for having a criminal record for “prostitution” after being kidnapped and sold. I was wearing a bracelet claiming “Not On My Watch” to put an end to the cultural glorification of “pimps and ho’s” and to watch out for potential victims in NYC. I was tired, yes, but as soon as I cautiously began to explain where I had been, this idea of “advocacy” began to click.

My new friends were just as shocked as I was that child sex trafficking is such a huge problem in the city, and in the United States. Most people, when they think of children being exploited in such a way, think of “third world countries,” or really any community other than their own. But with websites that allow this form of exploitation being so easy to access, Officer Favale explained that perpetrators are almost never who you expect them to be and are sometimes seemingly upright citizens. We discussed how our culture glorifies the commodification of women’s bodies, making young men grow up with unhealthy expectations about sex that propagate the multi-million dollar sex trade industry in the USA. We also discussed how young women who seem to be making the “choice” to sell their bodies for sex are often trapped in cycles of violence outside of their control. I learned that, when it comes to sex trafficking, things are not always as we expect them to be, or as our culture assumes.

I also learned that advocacy is not always what I have imagined it to be. It is not always marching in a massive protest down the streets of a city, pushing agendas on the senate floor, or meeting with important diplomats (in fact it almost never is). Though these things are important, advocacy can be a simple conversation with new friends on an issue of injustice in the world.

“Advocate, n. a person who speaks or writes in support or defense of a person, cause, etc.” That’s it- and it’s something I think we should all be a little more often. I didn’t need to come all the way to New York City to do that, but I’m very glad that I have.

Be sure to check out the links above to learn more about this important issue! 

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