The pedestrians were walking; taxi drivers honking; kids running; metros moving; baristas brewing; businessmen chatting. And it didn’t take long for the city to appear as if it had fully woken up.
The sun was a bit slow to rise in 70-degree New York City Wednesday morning as women and men gathered for the all-day Girls’ Justice Conference at New York University’s Kimmel Center. Attendees heard from a handful of speakers including judges, officers, authors, activists, professors and students.
Yasmin Vafa, executive director at Rights4Girls, moderated the second morning session and later, led a workshop alongside two other women.
In the workshop, the two speakers and one moderator discussed the ways in which young girls are sexually exploited, explaining how trafficked girls are sometimes further victimized within the U.S. prison system. Vafa also spoke on hyper-sexuality, saying she would like to challenge the status quo by allowing “girls to be girls.” Vafa believes our culture often pushes young girls to grow up too quickly.
“I think all of it is connected,” said Vafa. “(Hyper-sexuality) is being painted as the default position.”
In a separate Q&A session, she shared her thoughts with Accuracy in Media’s Amanda Florian, speaking on trafficking and the role the media plays in reporting on these cases.
AF: Tell me about Rights4Girls’ current campaign: There’s No Such Thing As Child Prostitution. What exactly does that mean?
YV: We started it to end the concept in both language and media practice. We had a change.org campaign and we called on (The Associated Press) to end this use because we felt that the media had a responsibility. The way media talks about issues informs the people and shapes how they perceive (the issues).
AF: So, The Associated Press removed the word “child prostitute” from their stylebook. Words are obviously important. Why was this move so crucial and why should news outlets care?
YV: That was a huge win! The AP taking it on was a tremendous victory. The survivors were thrilled and validated. (We want to) push back on those things and hold the media accountable because (trafficking) is not harmless or feminist.
AF: You talked a bit about reporting and how you felt about news outlets reporting on trafficking. You also briefly said a few words about an article that was published by The New York Times—one that questioned the legality and criminalization of prostitution. What are your thoughts on that?
YV: Obviously, many of us who work in this field and on this issue don’t support the criminalization of anyone who sells sex, whether they are a child, whether they’re an adult; whether they’re male or female because we see the selling of sex as a system of sexual exploitation. We see it as a symptom of gender-based violence and equality so we wouldn’t support the arrest of anyone who sells sex.
However, to argue for the full scale of decriminalization or legalization of the sex trade which would include decriminalizing pimps, sex-buyers and brothel keepers is a completely different situation because, as we were saying, the market and the nature of the sex trade is one that’s inherently violent; it’s inherently sexist; it’s inherently racist.
This whole move for full decriminalization is very problematic because you’re never going to have as many willing participants in the sex trade as there is demand for male buyers who want to buy sex. You’re always going to have trafficking. What decriminalization does is it increases the demand. Those individuals that were deterred by the illegality of the market are now going to enter the market. It ends up throwing girls—particularly vulnerable girls—under the bus.
AF: Do you see this as a feminist issue?
YV: I would say that the feminist perspective would be to decriminalize those who sell, but to hold accountable the individuals who purchase bodies for sex and those who profit off others’ exploitation. I think that is the feminist position because otherwise you are allowing and condoning and signaling to society that it’s socially acceptable for men to be commercializing the bodies of women, girls and other vulnerable children.
AF: Yes—and we have seen feminists like Laura Mulvey and Mary Wollstonecraft who really pushed for these types of things. They said that females were being too sexualized, especially Mulvey who spoke about this in relation to films and TV. So, I think the media really can play that kind of role you’ve been talking about.
YV: Absolutely, and it’s been this whole movement to say that we are participating in our own sexual exploitation and that somehow equates with liberation. I think that’s very dangerous because I think women and feminists have been working for so long to shed a lot of those gender stereotypes and restrictions we’ve been facing. I think getting caught up in or buying into these systems of oppression is really problematic.
AF: How is the culture that hyper-sexualizes girls connected to human trafficking and sex trafficking nowadays?
YV: Well, I think we’ve been seeing, in the media, things like “Toddlers and Tiaras” or “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” which really sexualized Kylie Jenner, even when she was underage. The cutesy manner in which they described (Kylie Jenner’s) relationship with an adult male—the rapper Tyga—instead of talking about it as a situation or a symptom of statutory rape . . . they were talking about it like this cutesy romance that’s been bubbling since she was 14.
So, I think the way in which, once again, the media; our culture; our society talks about issues really shapes how we—as a society—perceive things. When we sexualize Catholic school girl uniforms what we’re actually saying and doing is sexualizing children. We’ve seen from the research and the APA (American Psychology Association) that fostering and creating that desire for sex with younger and younger girls actually leads to a demand for sex with younger and younger girls. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing. When the No. 1 search term in pornography is “teen” this is exactly a symptom of a culture that is very happy to commodify and hyper-sexualize young girls.
AF: What can attendees do, especially after coming to this event today? Is there a real-world practice they can implement that supports girls in these situations?
YV: Yeah, absolutely. We talked about education and awareness being key and pushing back on the glorification of transactional types of sex. We really need to be holding the media accountable and holding our culture accountable; pushing back on things that condone the commodification of women and girls . . . challenging ourselves as young feminists to think about what that word means. Right? It doesn’t just mean gender equality—it means dismantling and pushing back on a system of patriarchy that oppresses women and, of course, it’s even more damaging when you look at it from more of an intersectional approach.