More than a decade ago, I met a scared 15-year-old who was trying to get his life back together after being kidnapped by a pimp and sold for sex.
Melanie Thompson recalled the day her life changed: She and two other girls in New York met some older boys who invited them to hang out. The girls did it, the boys provided alcohol, Melanie passed out – and she says she woke up being raped. She told me how a prostitute then locked her with another girl in an abandoned house, and she had a new job: to have sex with strangers against her will.
She was 13.
When we spoke two years later, she was in a residential program for formerly trafficked girls. She was thoughtful, charming and liked poetry, but I wondered if she would be able to rebuild her life. Then I lost track of her, until a message arrived from her this spring. We met, and she filled me in on her nonconformist journey — and her campaign against what she sees as misguided liberalism that would legalize pimping.
Melanie spent years in foster care after I met her. There is no doubt that some foster parents are outstanding, but overall, America’s foster care system is a disgrace. Just about half of foster children finish high school; perhaps 4 percent earn a BA According to several estimates, majority of trafficked girls were in foster care or some other part of the child welfare system.
That was Melanie’s world. She says she was trafficked again, leaving her teenage years a blur of trauma. The sex trade left a mark on her and made it difficult to relate to other high school students, she said.
“You feel like damaged goods,” she recalled. “You also internalize the shame that people put on you.”
After attending five high schools, she finally graduated at the age of 19. A path opened when she interned with the Coalition Against Trafficking in Womennon-profit in New York.
Taina Bien-Aimé, the executive director of the coalition, was swept away. “She is an extraordinary person, very determined, ambitious, intelligent, focused,” Bien-Aimé told me. So she hired Melanie, who is now the outreach and advocacy coordinator for the coalition.
Meanwhile, Melanie earned her BA in gender studies. In college, she often found herself the odd woman out. In classes, there would be discussions about the sex trade, with rich students or professors talking about sex work for consenting adults as empowering, while that didn’t ring remotely true for Melanie. Her situation as a trafficked child was of course different, because there was no consent and she remembered nothing but abuse. But her life in the world of commercial sex left her convinced that lines were blurrier than outsiders realized and that there wasn’t much empowerment going on even among adults; it was mostly about vulnerable people being exploited.
That disconnect is now her focus. It’s driving in blue states, including New York, to decriminalize the entire sex trade, giving a green light to prostitution and brothel keeping. Melanie argues for something closer to the model in Sweden and Norway, which do not arrest prostitutes (instead offering them social services) but prosecute prostitutes and prostitutes. Although frankly no legal approach works that well, Sweden has promoted its approach internationally as a way to reduce trafficking. Maine just became the first state in America to adopt that Nordic approach.
Melanie, now 27, warns that the result of full decriminalization, including allowing pimps and brothels, would be more trafficking of victims who are overwhelmingly Black and brown, or coming out of foster care, or LGBT youth or other marginalized Actually, one a large global study found that legalization is associated with more traffic, not less.
Clearly there is a slice of the commercial sex trade that is consensual, another that is non-consensual, and other elements that are more obscure. In other contexts where there is significant power imbalance and vulnerability, such as relationships between bosses and interns, we tend to apply prohibitions because of the potential for predation.
The push in recent years to allow pimping seems strange to me, because elsewhere we liberals are mindful of the potential for exploitation. We block work between consenting adults if it’s done for less than the minimum wage, for example, and we block consenting high-risk work like using window washer platforms without many safeguards.
Commercial sex is more dangerous than window washing or almost any other job, and Melanie scoffs at the view that pimps are business partners of women selling sex. “I never touched the money,” she told me. “And if you got caught trying to hide anything, it wasn’t good for you.”
We’ve made strides in empowering wealthy, educated women and girls, with Title IX, #MeToo and more female lawyers, doctors and board members. But some of the most vulnerable girls in America, those in foster care, benefited far less.
I fear that if this well-intentioned push for full decriminalization succeeds, the winners will be pimps and the losers will be some of America’s most vulnerable young people. There are many other Melanies out there who need help, and we risk throwing them to the wolves.