Exploitation and Perception

Posted on June 25, 2012, by Rachel Lloyd, GEMS

I meet Krystal in the hallway of the Brooklyn Supreme Court. She’s late. Two police officers have driven her from a chain hotel upstate that the district attorney’s office has paid for. She looks like she’s barely slept, which I soon discover is an accurate assessment. Her hair is askew and despite my lectures on what to wear to court, she obviously just grabbed the nearest thing to her. Unfortunately, the outfit that she’s picked is a denim mini-miniskirt, construction Timberlands with no socks, and a tight-fitting, wrinkled T-shirt. It’s not exactly court attire and definitely not the outfit that we’d agreed on. Krystal’s long, long legs make the skirt, which is short, look even shorter.

I’m horrified.

Today is a huge day; she’s testifying in the trial of her ex-pimp and I’m already nervous about how she’ll be perceived by the jury. I drag her into the bathroom, before anyone else in the court corridors sees her, and try not to yell at her about her fashion choices on one of the most important days of her life. She tells me she thinks she looks OK. I try to explain that there’s OK for going to the bodega and OK for going to court, but we’ve already been down that road before and clearly it had little effect. I’m already worried about how well she’ll do in her testimony: She’s scared, and when she gets scared, she gets sullen. A pouting and sullen “former child prostitute” in a skirt short enough to be a belt is unlikely to win any supporters on the jury, and I’m guessing she won’t impress the judge, either.

Untitled, by Sheila, age 18

Ten minutes later, she walks into court wearing a mint green linen dress from H&M, low white heels, and a white cotton cardigan from JCPenney. I walk into court wearing a teeny-tiny denim skirt, Timbs with no socks, and a tight-fitting, wrinkled T-shirt. I hold my bag in front of my legs to try to hide how ridiculous I look, but it doesn’t really help. The assistant district attorney, whom I’d seen earlier this morning, does a double take and raises his eyebrows. I shrug, whaddya-gonna-do style, but I’m fairly mortified and also extremely cold as my bare thighs hit the wooden bench. Mainly for Krystal’s sake, but a tiny bit for mine, I pray that her testimony will be brief.

As it turns out, Krystal’s preppy outfit doesn’t even matter. She’s rightfully nervous and is clearly thrown off by the sight of her pimp, Pretty Boy, in the courtroom. He knows it and stares intently at her the whole time, breaking eye contact only to scribble furiously on his pad after she answers a question. I’d instructed her to look only at us, but her gaze seems inescapably pulled in his direction. Three years since the last time she saw him and he still wields control over her.

The direct examination from the Assistant District Attorney, who clearly hasn’t prepped her properly, is terrible. As I’d predicted, fear has set off her defense mechanisms, which to people who don’t know her and people who don’t understand the effects of trauma, just appears to be sullenness and resistance. Krystal finally manages to look away from Pretty Boy but then just stares at her feet and barely mumbles into the microphone. She has to be directed over and over again by the judge to speak up, which begins to embarrass her, which in turn comes out as frustration. The mic is loud and the courtroom is quiet, so after the fifth time the judge rather sternly instructs her to speak into the mic clearly, her annoyed teeth-sucking is heard by all. We’re off to a bad start.

Untitled, by Felicia, age 19

The day doesn’t get better. To verify that she was indeed “working” for the defendant and was arrested for prostitution multiple times, the ADA admits into evidence a Polaroid photo taken after one of the arrests and it’s passed to the jury. Even from the court benches, we’re sitting close enough to see the picture as it’s passed from person to person: Krystal at fourteen, already tall and developed, in a skimpy bikini top and short shorts. The men on the jury are quite obviously leering, looking long and close at the picture as if it’s a complicated diagram of blood-spatter patterns. The women on the jury hold it like it’s radioactive, looking scornfully at Krystal fidgeting on the witness stand. The picture has told a thousand words, all of them harsh judgments about the “type” of girl who would “choose” to do this. The fact that she’s 14 in the picture doesn’t seem to register with anyone. The fact that an adult man is accused of beating her, brainwashing her, and selling her on the streets doesn’t seem to provoke any empathy or sympathy. There’s no smoking-gun picture of him brutalizing her with a baseball bat. There’s just a girl in “provocative”clothing, pouting at the camera and charged with having sex for money. Any chance of being perceived as a victim has just disappeared. In the jury’s minds she’s been branded as a “bad” girl, “loose” girl, and “dirty” girl, and all the JCPenney white cardigans in the world won’t make that go away.

Halfway into the afternoon, as Krystal stumbles, cries, and at several points completely refuses to answer, the judge calls a recess until the next day. As Krystal and I switch back clothes, I try halfheartedly to encourage her, but she doesn’t want to hear it. She’s shut down and I don’t push it. She never asked for this. The cops and the DA wanted her to testify and yet she’s the one being humiliated and intimidated in a public courtroom in front of the man she fears, and used to love, the most.

Two days later when we get the phone call from the DA’s office, she’s not surprised. She didn’t really expect to be believed anyway.

“Abstract Face with Pink Screen” by Sherine, age 20

In her book Sex Crimes, former prosecutor Alice Vachss describes how victims of rape are perceived as either “good” victims or “bad”: “In New York City, good victims have jobs (like stockbroker or accountant) or impeccable status (like a policeman’s wife); are well-educated and articulate, and are, above all, presentable to a jury; attractive but not too attractive; demure but not pushovers. They should be upset, but in good taste — not so upset that they become hysterical.”

Commercially sexually exploited girls don’t have jobs or impeccable status. They sleep all day and get up at night, doing the same thing over and over again so they have a difficult time remembering specific dates and times. They have mixed feelings toward their pimps and feel guilty about testifying. They’re often angry, rightfully so, and they each handle the trauma of testimony differently. Domestically trafficked girls who have learned that comfort is rare, that tears get them only more beatings and that staying numb is the best way to survive, fare badly in the courtroom process. There is little understanding from justice officials and juries of differences in cultural responses and the varying effects of trauma. Girls are seen as either having a bad attitude or not being upset enough. If they are not good victims, in other words, they are not real victims.

What we’ve learned in the sexual violence movement over the years is that being raped feels just as scary if you’re a girl on the track who’s been sold to seven men that same night as it does to a “regular” woman or girl. Yet it’s difficult to view yourself as a victim, no matter what happens to you, when your pimp, the men who buy you, and even those who are supposed to protect you see you as incapable of being victimized.

Rachel Lloyd is the founder and CEO of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS).