As I’ve mentioned before, it takes a lot for me to sit down and watch a full episode of a TV show, yet it does occasionally happen. But when I heard about A Path Appears, I made a note in my calendar to sit down and watch. Journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn set out to highlight some of the most difficult issues facing women today. The PBS series debuted last night with its first episode, “Sex Trafficking in the USA.”
A difficult part of drawing attention to the issue stems from the stereotype of “trafficking”: girls brought from another country, men with AK-47s, an exchange of money as women are bought and sold. Yet as Rachel Lloyd, founder and CEO of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, points out, this image does not reflect the reality of the trafficking happening in our own country. “It rarely has anything to do with American girls on the track,” she adds. “We view that as ‘teen prostitution’ so they’re not real victims.” There are between 100,000-300,000 sex trafficking women in the United States every year and that’s just a rough estimate. Every day, more women add to that tally as they are brought into the fold via force, fraud, and coercion.
In The Life
At first glance, it might seem easy to be judgmental, to view women who engage in sex work as “other,” as if there is something inherently different about them. “They’re hailing cars, they’re wearing utterly inappropriate clothing. They certainly don’t look like anyone’s enslaving them or making them do what they’re doing,” Kristof says in conversation with Becca Stevens, founder of Magdalene and Thistle Farms. Yet as the team travels the country, they uncover stories of drug use, violence, rape and humiliation. “If that’s your choice, what are the options?” Stevens counters. The truth is it takes a lot of failed systems in communities to get them out there and that’s why it takes communities to bring them back.”
Shana Goodwin. Photo courtesy of PBS.org
As the women of Magdalene tell their stories, they illustrate the lasting legacy of vulnerability and childhood trauma. Told as a unit, it is clear that these women are not alone in their struggle but, prior to their involvement in the farm, each one felt isolated and trapped in a toxic cycle of shame. Like many women, Shana explained that she didn’t consider herself to be a victim of trafficking because that was something that happened somewhere else. A combination of Stockholm syndrome, fear, and a deep-seated desire to be loved and have a family kept her there for years. As Sabrina, a former prostitute adds, “It’s not that they’re bad people; they’re just lost.”
Falling Through the Cracks
“Society’s idea of a woman who sells her body is that she’s hardened, she’s calloused, she doesn’t care,” narrator Blake Lively comments. “ You don’t ever think of someone being vulnerable and broken and wanting to get out of that life.” Yet “vulnerable” accurately describes Savannah, a 17 year-old girl who ran away when she was 13 and got locked in a house by her pimp, and Naomi, who stopped responding to messages from her social worker and appeared on sex trafficking websites. The documentary states that 1:7 young people between the ages of 10 and 18 will run away; 75% of those are female. Within 48 hours of being on the streets, it is highly likely that they will be approached by someone looking to traffic them.
Savannah and her mom, Sara. Photo courtesy of PBS.org
Yet, as women like Audrey Morrissey illustrate, the problem is not hopeless. Morrissey, a former sex worker and leader of the program My Life My Choice, educates at-risk teens about the predatory tactics pimps use to recruit women. Along with a team of social workers, investigators and advocates, Morrissey helps extricate girls tangled in dangerous and seemingly hopeless situations. By the end of the episode, Naomi and her mother, Maria, reunite in a tearful embrace; I audibly sighed with relief.
Turning the Tables
According to the documentary, 10% of American men buy sex in a given year. Women are typically arrested but that doesn’t solve the problem; the pimps are still out there. Sheriff Tom Dart of Cook County takes a different approach by focusing the attention on arresting the clientele. The police force posts ads on the internet to entice potential customers, then posts up at a local hotel and lets the calls roll in. In the brief time the camera crew spends on the scene, fourteen men are arrested. With very little knowledge of what these women experience on a daily basis, the men represented a broad cross-section of society, all the men insisted that it was their first time soliciting sex; one of them even tries to convince the cops that he thought he was coming to see a masseuse for his back “because chiropractors are expensive.” Regardless of mens’ excuses, widespread stings targeting the demand help reduce solicitation.
Audrey Morrissey. Photo courtesy of PBS.org
Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunities
In spite of the multifaceted complexity of the problem, A Path Appears also highlights potential solutions. As Sheryl WuDunn explains, “Some people will just do the rescue part. Other will just do the safehouse and still others will do the skills training. What’s remarkable about what Rebecca has done is she’s using a targeted, holistic solution.” The solution in question takes the form of Magdalene, a two year residential community for women based in Nashville, Tennessee. To finance the operation and provide the women with work experience, Magdalene partners with Thistle Farms, a health and beauty company. Most recently, the group opened a cafe to create more jobs. Magdalene is a wonderful example of a chosen family that connects women with education and perspective on their lives and helps them get a handle on their responsibilities.
The discussion doesn’t end as the episode concludes; there’s much more work to do but the creators of A Path Appears are well aware. On their website, the team compiled an additional resource list. The site puts viewers in touch with organizations that combat sex trafficking in the United States as well as hotlines and help centers for victims of abuse. Take a look, pass it along, and get ready for next week’s episode.