ALTHOUGH TEEN PROSTITUTES live in the same cities and towns as ordinary teenagers across the United States, their world is very different. They are here in our communities, and yet they are hidden from most people. They are kids, and yet the life they live separates them from most other kids and from normal teenage activities and concerns. They are criminals, but they are the victims of repeated crimes. They are family members, but most have not known a family’s love and support. They have independence, but they do not have freedom. They are earning money, but they live in poverty. They are sexually active, but without intimacy. They have escaped one set of rules but are forced to obey other, harsher ones.
The world of prostitution is so separate from the ordinary world that most people rarely catch more than a glimpse of it. If they pause to wonder about a teen prostitute’s life—to ask what it’s really like, what would make a young person want to live like that, or what prostitution does to a teenager—they will not find many clues in the ordinary world. Even when the news tells of the death or the arrest of a young prostitute, it rarely explains anything about the world that young person lived in.
Looking behind the surface of that separate world is one way to see how teen prostitutes really live. Even from an early age, these kids often have a different and painful experience of the world. The steps they take to avoid being hurt in the ordinary world often lead them, unknowingly, into the separate world of prostitution. Exploring what prostitution means to the kids who are involved in it helps show what has worked and what hasn’t in helping teen prostitutes return to the ordinary world.
For some teens, prostitution is a kind of turned-around way of trying to get the financial support and love that they need, but that their families haven’t been able to provide. Yet their families may cling to a respectable image that is not connected to the harsh realities their child must cope with on the street. Lacking parental support and love, these teens would have a very difficult time trying to cross back into the world where they grew up.
One girl explained the attitude of her parents toward her life as a prostitute:
My family knows about it, but since I left home and have been supporting myself, I gets [sic] along better with them than when I lived there. My dad, he don’t say nothin’ about it. My mother says she wished I wasn’t out there, but she will accept me back and I am still her daughter no matter what I did.1
This girl sees her prostitution as something she “did,” not as a form of sexual exploitation. She perceives her parents’ lives as better without her presence—a very profound loss, and a strong barrier to her ever returning to live under their care.
“She didn’t really care”
Another teen prostitute’s name was published in the crime reports of her hometown newspaper. In this very public way, she was labeled as a criminal. Yet her story reveals that she, also, lacked support from the most important person in the life of most children, her mother.
Yeah, she read about it in the papers when I got arrested for prostitution. So I explained it to her and it just hurt her so bad, she said. But she didn’t really care ’cause she was trying to find some way of getting rid of having to support me, so it didn’t bother her all that much. She said it did, and carried on a scene, but it didn’t bother her at all.2
Her mother’s respectability does not include a sense of genuine caring for her daughter’s welfare.
These teens, like too many other runaways and hustlers on the streets of America’s cities, have moved into a life separated from everyday concerns and values. The stories told by these and many other street kids show how different their lives are from the lives of most American teenagers. While all teens share many of the same hopes and wishes, these teenagers face quite different worries and problems. Their stories are a window into the separate world of prostitution.