There’s a reason the demand for underage Black girls is so disproportionately high. The supply is too.
There’s a street in Houston, Texas known as Bissonnet Street. It’s a 19 mile stretch of road that starts in the prominent Museum District and ends right before you cross the southwestern county line. The Houston Press named the historic road the “Best Route in The City”, and travelers far and wide remain drawn to its ethnic diversity and cultural variety. At any given time on any given day, a drive down Bissonnet Street puts you in the heart of the action of one of Houston’s busiest commerce districts.
For miles, the hum of hurried traffic offers a shrill soundtrack for the cinematic site that is busy Bissonnet Street. Car tires hug the roughly paved road as they reach a 1.3 mile stretch between Beltway 8 and Southwest Freeway. And eventually, the cars slow to a snail's pace as drivers and riders gawk at the adolescent attractions that line the city sidewalks. It’s one thing to hear about young girls being kidnapped and coerced, sold into human trafficking, it’s another to see them hobbling down busy side streets in women’s lingerie.
As the tardy bells sound from the speakers of Best Elementary nearby, young girls start their day with a strut down the crooked sidewalks of what’s referred to as the Bissonnet Track, Houston’s most prominent Red-Light District, or open-air sex-market. Buyers and curious bystanders peruse the city route, examining girls as young as 11, according to local police, who frequent the area to engage in the solicitation of sex for money. Local officials congregate in the city’s center just miles from the preteen parade, discussing laws intended to crack down on the bustling underground business. Only to hop in their high-end vehicles and ride right through the thick of the action, unaffected by its ugliness. We do it too.
In 1978, The Whispers released a song titled “Olivia”. The melancholy soul song chronicles the tragic story of a young girl coerced into human trafficking by a smooth-talking man she met on her way to her grandmother’s.
Olivia the slave
Got distracted on her way
To grandmother’s house
A wolf in nice clothin’ came
Blew her mind and changed her ways
And now she turned out
Lost and turned out
It was a sad story carried by a beautiful song. It told a true story, one of the delicate dance between predator and prey, a story Black girls are all too familiar with. Some 41 years later, we no longer sing the song of Olivia but she’s no stranger to us, her story neither. Only today’s Olivia is a little less sympathetic, a little less well-meaning. We all know Olivia. She might be the fast ass girl from around the way or the little cousin that grew up way too fast. Today’s Olivia is no victim at all, today’s Olivia knows exactly what she’s getting herself into.
With the exception of brief periods of panic induced by intermittent media coverage of the crisis, human trafficking is an under-discussed topic in Black households. And despite high incidents of homelessness, poverty, and sexual abuse in Black girls, all key risk factors for human trafficking, conversations regarding the issue ignore community complicity.
While reports reference the over-representation of underage black girls in the underground sex market, few stop to ask why a group that accounts for less than 15% of American children under the age of 18 makes up 59% of juvenile prostitution arrests. Likely because the answer to that question throws a monkey wrench in our little blame game, pointing instead to an internal issue as the real culprit, not just its expression beyond our community borders.
There’s a reason the demand for underage Black girls is so disproportionately high. The supply is too. And the supply of trafficked Black girls is high because Black girls are at a greater risk of being trafficked, to begin with. Why are Black girls at greater risk, you ask? Because they’re undervalued, unprotected, and hyper-sexualized within their own communities, making them a target to just about everyone else’s. And that neither begins nor ends on Bissonnet.
The devaluation of Black girls actually begins in the womb, where most Black children experience trauma for the first time. Amelia Gavin, an associate professor in the University of Washington School of Social Work, attributes the excessive preterm births, maternal depression, and maternal mortality to racial and socioeconomic disparities in health care, education, and overall quality of life.
Not only do these factors create an unhealthy environment for the mother, but that environment is then recreated within the womb, where mommy’s health serves as a barometer for baby’s. When a mother experiences trauma during her pregnancy or, in the case of a Black mother, copes with the compounded day to day stresses that accompany Blackness in America, the body releases stress hormones intended to prepare the body to fight or flee.
When these stressful situations are short-lived, the body eventually returns to its’ balanced homeostatic state, but when the trauma is ongoing or chronic, these stress hormones remain in circulation throughout the body for extended periods of time, diverting energy from other bodily processes including the ones that support a healthy pregnancy, heart health, and neurological function. In layman’s terms, Black girls are created in the image of their mothers’ trauma, and, unfortunately, Black mothers have a lot of it.
Beyond medical negligence, which Black girls experience in the womb, many experience cultural negligence the very moment they’re born. A disproportionate number of Black children are raised without the presence of their biological fathers in the home, to the tune of 77%, a staunch contrast to the 23% of white children living without their fathers. Our acknowledgment of involved fathers tends to end right around our appraisal of their ability to prepare and provide. But another crucial thing involved fathers do is protect, literally.
Children raised in homes without their biological fathers experience sexual abuse at twenty times the rate that children raised with both biological parents do. And when children are removed from abusive homes and placed in temporary dwellings with neither biological parent, they’re still abused at a rate 10x higher than that of children raised in the home with both.
Reports estimate that while only 12% of young girls are lured into sex trafficking by “pimps”, the majority are coerced into the lifestyle by family friends, relatives, and intimate partners, people they should be able to trust. Studies also indicate that the perpetrators of human trafficking crimes are often victims of childhood physical and sexual abuse themselves, being less likely to have a high school diploma, more likely to be raised in single-parent or foster parent homes, and more likely to be introduced to the lifestyle by relatives and family friends. The correlation here cannot be ignored.
This means the same community responsible for creating these vulnerable young girls is also responsible for creating the individuals that prey on them. Not just conceiving them in trauma, but then birthing them into social abuse and cultural dysfunction, and creating an environment wherein all of it is permitted and pardoned. How can we demand the world to recognize the value in the same lives we collectively overlook?
Perhaps, we want the media to do for Black girls what we ourselves refuse to do. Which is to acknowledge and address the ways in which our participation in narratives that undercut our humanity causes us harm. Our homes are not immune to the idea that Black girls less innocent, less needing protection, and more prepared for sex and mature subject matter at a young age. These ideas might originate outside of our communities, but these beliefs are far from foreign to us. When 700 underage Black girls in a single city end up sexually exploited and exposed to HIV by one sexual predator, we have to ask why it takes such a significant sacrifice for the alarm to sound. We may disagree with the way the world treats Black girls, but we don’t necessarily disagree with their reasoning.
Why don’t we care about Black girls until they’ve gone missing? The Black community is responsible for the welfare of Black children before any institution, organization, government entity, or otherwise. It’s irresponsible of us to expect a system that benefits from our mistreatment to exhaust its resources trying to remedy it. We step closer to addressing the actual trafficking of our girls when we get honest about how and why they’ve gotten to be so accessible, to begin with, and that calls for us to evaluate the values and belief systems we adhere to that allow this dynamic to not just exist, but do so in full view.
There’s something to be said about our inability to look after Black girls until they’re gone, albeit internalized self-loathing or a disregard for our own future, which our children represent, it’s a dynamic that must be challenged directly. It cannot be left up to the system that orchestrated our reality, to undo the damage of it. The solution to this problem starts in and around us.