We hear about children being forced into all sorts of sordid things, from stripping to pornography, to all-out trafficking for sexual purposes. Experts say the latter is a pretty lucrative business that’s so common news about it barely rattles us anymore.
But in 2005, when the FBI published a list of cities with significant sex trade in children, Ann Kruger was shocked.
For one thing, Atlanta was on that list, and for another, a public health study published that same year noted the typical juvenile commercial sex victim in Atlanta was an African-American girl between the ages of 12 and 13.
Kruger, an associate professor of educational psychology at Georgia State University, turned to her colleague Joel Meyers, executive director of GSU’s Center for Research on School Safety, School Climate and Classroom Management, which promotes basic and applied research and facilitates educational and outreach effort.
“Do you know about this?” she asked him.
In their own way, Meyers and Kruger had long worked on the prevention of social problems in school-aged children. They understand better than most that the way we care for our children, or fail to, is not only a reflection of our character and compass, but has direct consequences for the future of our society. When we don’t care for their well-being and turn a blind eye, we are just as guilty of harming them.
“One of the things that was striking was these children were being victimized in the shadows of our buildings,” Kruger said.
Days later, she and Meyers called a meeting of university faculty and students who might have insight into the issue and who might be similarly moved to act. They invited Stephanie Davis, an adviser to then-Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin. They also reached out to Walt Thompson of GSU, who was running an after-school program for middle schoolers and who had firsthand knowledge of both the children and the schools they attended.
Meyers and Kruger are prevention researchers. Instead of focusing on the outcome of commercial exploitation, they were curious about the issues young girls face growing up, what made them unsafe and what could be done to make things better.
And so over the next several years, they set out to get to know over 70 African-American middle school girls who were participating in after-school programs located in low-income neighborhoods with high rates of crime associated with the commercial sex trade.
What they found was as shocking as the FBI reports.
The girls described problems trusting other people, including adults, daily encounters with aggression and violence, familiarity with prostitution, and sexual views of themselves and their future.
The students with the most serious challenges were participating in an after-school program at a transitional housing center. Those girls reported witnessing aggression between adults at home, being physically and sexually abused by adult family members, being bullied and teased by their peers. They said they felt unsafe inside and outside their home, that they participated in risk-taking behaviors that elevate the probability of harm. They frequently described sexual experiences that occurred as early as age 14, being pressured for sex by older boys and watching pornography with them. They described themselves in stereotypical fashion, focusing on the shape and size of body parts. And yes, some were preoccupied with complexion, favoring a Eurocentric concept of beauty.
“Even children who were in after-school programs had these sexualized scripts about being a teenage girl,” Meyers said. “One middle school girl talked about having a ‘regular customer’ at a skating rink.” Given the preventive focus of Kruger and Meyers’ research, these girls were not actively involved in commercial sexual exploitation. However, these middle school girls used the language of the adult sex industry (“giving boys lap dances”) to describe their own activities with peers.
That showed, researchers said, that the girls had internalized the sex culture surrounding them.
Here’s why their findings, published recently in the journal School Psychology Forum, are so important.
“When repeated, these experiences could normalize aggression and objectification and challenge the formation of a coherent, positive identity,” said Kruger, lead author of the study. “These threats to their well-being place them at risk for unhealthy consequences, including commercial sexual exploitation.”
But here’s the good news: Kruger and Meyers didn’t just leave things the way they found them. They designed a curriculum that they hope will help girls develop decision-making skills, supportive and trusting relationships and a positive identity.
The curriculum is student-centered and offered in a small group format. The GSU Center for School Safety has been providing this service in APS middle schools continuously since 2009.
“We’re trying to do things to strengthen them so that they’re less likely to be victimized,” Meyers said. “That preventive approach is very rare. Usually, if there’s something being done about commercial sexual exploitation, it’s after the fact.”
Let’s hope their efforts pay off.