Lifetime Television claims to "celebrate, entertain and support women" even as it airs a new series that glamorizes prostitution. Then, of course, there is Village Voice Media, generating tens of millions in annual profits from Backpage.com, its online red-light district where human beings -- including a disturbing number of minors -- can be bought and sold for sex. Such commercial efforts to mainstream prostitution are a disturbing trend in a movement with devastating consequences, particularly for young women and girls.
Meanwhile, a federal grand jury just indicted a Brooklyn pimp for a string of horrifying crimes. Jeremy Naughton is charged with kidnapping young women, some of whom he found in online postings. Prosecutors say Naughton held women against their will, using violence to force them to sell themselves. At one point he's said to have intimidated a prostitute by snapping her dog's neck.
The allegations against Naughton sound familiar to those of us increasingly concerned about human trafficking. The crimes committed against his victims are typical of the daily exploitation of vulnerable girls, young women and others.
Even given stories like these, the disturbing entertainment industry trend to glamorize "sex workers" continues. Lifetime's Client List portrays newly single mom Riley Parks, played by Jennifer Love Hewitt, finding work at a massage parlor. But Riley discovers the parlor also provides illegal services to "special clientele."
Riley first refuses to degrade herself. But legal massage customers, shown as crotchety old women and overweight, hairy-backed men, take a toll. After a change of heart, Riley receives a new class of customers: handsome, appreciative young men. Hewitt's character proclaims, "I may not have been able to save my marriage but I'm going to save my family."
This portrayal of prostitution as rewarding and honorable is a stark departure from a reality in which prostitutes overwhelmingly don't find their work glamorous. Minors involved in the business are often runaways. A majority of adult prostitutes experienced sexual abuse as children.
"I have been fortunate to survive having my ear cut off, my face rebuilt, my bones broken, being hit and run over by a car -- all my teeth knocked out," says Kathryn Griffin Townsend, founder of an organization to assist women who have been rescued from prostitution.
Research shows Townsend's traumatic experiences aren't unique for those in the sex trade. In a 1998 study funded by Kaiser Permanente, 92 percent of prostitutes said they wanted to leave the business. That may be because, according to another study, a majority say they are assaulted by customers. That's in addition to the abuse, demonstrated in the Naughton case, many face at the hands of pimps.
Had she researched her role, Hewitt (also credited as the show's executive producer) might have learned these alarming facts. But in response to a question from a Huffington Post writer about interviewing actual prostitutes in preparation for the role, Hewitt said, "I was like, 'Nah, that's okay. Some things can just be acting.'"
We've been sold a false bill of goods by some in the entertainment industry that there is something romantic about prostitution. Unless we do something about it, it's a lie that will likely lead to more young people becoming caught up in an illegal business that's difficult to escape.
What may be done? The answer lies in public opinion. Over the years, views about drunken driving and domestic violence shifted for the better. Speak with your children about the reality, versus the Hollywood-spun fantasy, of human trafficking. We must also demand that websites such as Backpage.com cease the advertising of human beings. State attorneys general are leading the fight, pressing Backpage.com to abandon so-called "adult services" ads. But you can help. Participate in any of the letter-writing campaigns and boycotts aimed at Backpage.com owner Village Voice. Businesses, both large and small, should resist associating with a company profiting from human exploitation.
Human trafficking victims do not enjoy the liberties central to our republic. We don't serve those victims by glamorizing their struggles and making it easier, through the Internet, for pimps and johns to find new victims.
Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna is president of the National Association of Attorneys General.
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