Most of us are concerned now about the sexualization of childhood—toddler beauty queens, Rihanna outfits in preschool. But three just-published articles still shock.
They come from the laboratory of developmental psychologist Ann Cale Kruger at Georgia State University—I’m happy to disclose I’m married to her—and concern Project PREVENT, a program she launched to explore the vulnerabilities of girls and to try to strengthen their resilience.
A 2005 FBI report on CSEC—commercial sexual exploitation of children—had shown that although all US cities have this crime, Atlanta was high on the list. Both of us were surprised that something we associated with slums overseas was happening a fifteen-minute drive from our home. (Georgia now gets a “B” grade on addressing trafficking from Shared Hope International; New York and California? “D”).
I sent an indignant email to a lot of people. Ann changed her research and her life. Others were helping girls after trafficking; she wanted to study and help girls at high risk. She and her colleagues identified neighborhoods and schools, poor and African-American, where known victims came from. Ann is white, but has a cadre of graduate students, mostly African-American; these young women, middle class and highly educated, were shocked by what they encountered.
They started focus groups and built trust. They told the girls that they were listeners, not teachers. Since the typical CSEC victim is twelve or thirteen, they aimed younger. The team never mentioned sex, just asked, Where and when do you feel safe or unsafe? They explored decision making in unsafe situations, and stereotypes. The girls began opening up to their peers, with one or two of the Kruger team present. Their spontaneous conversations told the story.
Openness and trust grew, but the girls’ remarks were astonishing. “You can’t trust nobody because people is fake,” said one. Of prostitutes she had watched, another said, “These girls offer something strange for a piece of change.” They talked about the “boyfriend-to-pimp transition.” One quoted a strange man on the street: “‘If I were your pimp I’d let you wear lots of makeup.'”
We took our kids to skating rinks, but they didn’t include what these girls described: lap dances for boys who were “regular customers” and “doing a split” over boys’ faces. They desribed the advantages of a career in stripping. Almost all had witnessed or experienced violence in the community or at home.
Average age: eleven.
One new paper quantified themes in the field notes. Threats and Objectification occurred in 22 and 43 percent of the statements, respectively. Threats included “When I was 4 years old my uncle put his thing in my mouth;” being recruited for sex with cousins’ friends; and physical abuse.
Objectification included preoccupation with complexion and hair texture and a commonly expressed wish to be white. One girl had been shown porn videos by a female friend starting at age seven, which she said led to a porn addiction.
The third new paper, by Erin Harper—one of Kruger’s students and now a professor at Miami University in Ohio—analyzed in-depth interviews of seven psychologists, social workers, and counselors—all 40-to-60-year-old African-American women—working in these schools. . They confirmed what Kruger’s team had heard from the girls.
One said, “The lack of attendance with some of the girls, they were actually being prostituted…I really couldn’t get any cooperation from the police.” Four found the girls preoccupied with their hair in a racialized way. Some found depression, “so many suicide risks.” Yet they also identified sources of ethnic pride and resilience.
Collaborating with the girls and the helping professionals, Kruger’s team has developed a curriculum. It is difficult to scale up and test a program like this, but 70 girls have participated. Data suggest, for instance, that girls in the program become more skeptical of the sexual messages in music videos than they were before it, and that they use new decision-making skills. Project PREVENT is living up to its acronym: Promoting Respect, Enhancing Value, Establishing New Trust.