“Cinderella Ate My Daughter”

In the last two blog entries I have attempted to explore the whole issue of internet predators and teen victims (albeit in a somewhat cursory fashion given that the subject is so vast). In a nutshell:

We live in an online world where youth increasingly cultivate relationships via social media. For them, danger can result from the belief that this anonymous cyberspace and the people met there are somehow more real than actual friends; that virtual “friends” can replace and be as enriching as face-to-face interactions with real-life people. Young girls continue to grow up with a natural need and desire for acceptance and romance. It’s just that now, the person cultivating the relationship on the other end of the mobile device may very well have sexual assault/abuse/kidnapping/trafficking as their end game.

For the final installments on this theme (for now), I want to turn attention to the role culture is playing in grooming young girls to be sexually manipulated. And to help me with this I am drawing on two works by author Peggy Orenstein: “Cinderella Ate My Daughter” and “Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape”.

“Cinderella Ate My Daughter” is a book for which Ms. Orenstein researched the marketing and sexualization of girlhood here in the United States. As she characterizes it, we are now living in a girlie-girl culture awash in princesses and hues of pink and purple. And over the past several years, this marketing is aimed at reaching girls at younger and younger ages. One only needs to look at Halloween costumes marketed for ‘tween’ girls (ages 8-12) to verify this to be true. Here’s one example:

Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz

An unintended consequence of this marketing onslaught is young girls who form a self-image that they absolutely MUST be pretty, pink, hot, and sexy. The time-worn story goes something like this:

Once upon a time in a land far away, there lived a young girl who dreamed of being a princess. And what was the first thing that culture told her about being a girl? Not that she was competent, strong, creative, or smart. But that every little girl wants (or should want), to be the “Fairest of Them All” (mixing the princess metaphor to also include Snow White!) And as the princess of the land, of COURSE she would marry her Prince Charming, her knight in shining armor. And they would live (everyone please feel free to chime in here): Happily… Ever… After!!!

We use this quote from human trafficking survivor Holly Austin Smith in our presentations with teen girls:

“Like many middle schools girls, I believed my self-worth was dependent on having a boyfriend and/or having sexual appeal to boys and older guys. Welcome to the typical life of any misguided and media-overexposed American teenager living in the suburbs and addicted to love. For those kids who aren’t being noticed by anyone except predators, a pimp or other trafficker is likely to fall in line.”

I mean what if being a princess doesn’t turn out to be all that it was cracked up to be? What if the stereotype of a princess instead reveals her to not be pretty enough… or good enough… or important? What if the princess culture of sexualized pinks and tiaras leads instead to depression, eating disorders, distorted body image, and risky sexual behavior?

Again, from Ms. Smith:

“I cringe when people refer to me in news articles as a “former sex slave” because if I was a sex slave to anyone, it was to popular culture. Advertisers, entertainment producers and other moguls of the media were the ones who seasoned me to accept sexual exploitation and prostitution. My body was an object, its sole purpose, I believed by that point, was for sex.”

Picture a young girl who wants a guy and tries her best to snag him by: wearing the same fashions as Beyoncé… and applying her makeup just like Kim Kardashian… and watching porn to learn what guys want from sex. In short, emulating everything she can possibly think of in the hope of attracting him into her life. And yet, she still looks in the mirror and sees… a LOSER. And to compound matters, she may be image-shamed in the hallways at school (i.e., fat, flat, ugly)… or on social media… or even by her “friends”.

Then one evening as she’s working at the local library on a paper for school, an older good looking guy sits down at her table and after a time of glancing innocently her way says, “You have the most beautiful eyes.” And what comes out of her mouth next could very well define what her life is about to become. She could totally blow him off. Or she might utter a completely non-committal, “Thanks,” (but which still leaves the door ajar to his advances). Or… after being pummeled by everyone in her social sphere for oh so long, here is someone who actually seems INTERESTED in her… she could look longingly back and say, “Really? Do you think so?” And in that moment… she’s HIS. Unfortunately, what I have just described is a common set-up for how traffickers “recruit” victims (and yes… public libraries have become a prime recruiting location).

I’ll pick this up next time and continue with cultural factors that impact the sexualization of teens. Till then…

 

Is There Danger On Both Ends?

[This is the second installment of a blog theme exploring internet predators and teen victims. For your reference, the first part was posted on July 28: 50,000 Predators Are Trolling Social Media… RIGHT NOW!]

I begin this entry still stuck in the year 2006! In that year the Ad Council ran a public service announcement on the danger of internet predators that remains chilling to watch. It depicts an overlapping dialog between an older male and much younger teen girl. I’ve linked to a YouTube post of the video and encourage you to check it out for yourself to take in its full impact:

Child Internet Safety PSA – Online Predators

Here’s the script:

Man:  Meeting a teen girl online is actually pretty easy. You can go into any chat room and just start talking. Most of the girls are usually so insecure and desperate for…

Teen:  Attention from older guys is totally flattering. They’re so much more mature and understanding than the guys my…

M: Age actually works to my advantage. They like to brag to their friends that they’re dating an older guy, so I just play along and pretend I’m really…

T: Interested in the same things I am. You can talk forever and really get to know someone without worrying about looks or whatever. That’s the best thing about…

M: Chatting seems unthreatening to them, so they lower their guard. After a while I start talking about how we’re soul mates and how lucky we are to have found each…

T: Other people don’t understand. I know what I’m doing. If you really care about each other, there’s nothing wrong with…

M: Meeting them is the goal. Once I get them out of their house… well, that’s when things get really interesting.

Announcer: Online predators know what they’re doing. Do you?

Now… from the research on internet predators that continues to this day, this is a somewhat accurate overall portrayal of an internet predator-victim scenario: older man trolling the net (e.g., chat rooms) searching for an impressionable girl to engage in conversation, teen looking for romance and flattered by the anonymous wiles of an older guy, more ”mature” male knowing how to psychologically manipulate a younger girl into believing he “gets” her, teen becoming more and more enthralled with the “depth” of their connection to the point of sensing no real danger and actually needing to meet with her “prince in shining armor.”

Without becoming a total research nerd, numbing your brain, and causing you to flee, I nevertheless would like to provide a couple of salient points to more completely detail what we have discovered about these internet encounters. As we already know, most Internet-initiated sex crimes involve adult men who use the Internet to meet and seduce underage adolescents into sexual encounters. They use communications such as chatrooms, social media, instant messaging apps, and video games to meet and develop intimate relationships with victims.

However, a finding that surprises many is that in the great majority of cases victims are COMPLETELY aware they are conversing with an adult. Offenders RARELY deceive victims about their age OR their sexual interests. Sex is usually broached online, and most victims who meet offenders face-to-face go to such meetings EXPECTING to engage in sexual activity. And further… three quarters of victims who have face-to-face sexual encounters with offenders DO SO MORE THAN ONCE!

Now… take all of that in for a moment. Unlike the predominant belief, the age and intent of the predator are VERY upfront. And counter to the common perception, more often than not the teen isn’t duped or coerced into the sexual encounter; they are willing participants oftentimes returning additional times.

Factors that make youth vulnerable to seduction by online predators is certainly a complex topic: immaturity, inexperience, and the impulsiveness with which some youth respond to and explore normal sexual urges. And please understand… in NO WAY am I attempting to characterize vulnerable teens as “at fault” for the heinous sexual assault that can befall them. But it makes me wonder… does the danger reside exclusively with deviant sexual predators? Or have attitudes and practices that are becoming “normalized” within teen culture more and more contributing to the danger as well?

It is this cultural aspect that piques my interest. What part does culture play in grooming our teens to be susceptible and vulnerable to the advances of online sexual predators? It is to this question that I will turn my attention next.

Before leaving, though, I want to provide some information to any adults who may be overly concerned for the online safety of a young one in their care. Below is a link to a PDF document by cyber-security expert, Mike DeCesare, in which he gives four tips adults can use to keep teens safe online:

How To Keep Teenagers Safe Online

Till next time…

50,000 Predators Are Trolling Social Media… RIGHT NOW!

“It has been estimated that, at any given time, 50,000 predators are on the Internet prowling for children.”

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales

Now THAT is quite an attention grabbing quote! For those of you with discerning eyes, you’ve already picked up on whom the Attorney General was and when he served. Alberto Gonzales was, for a time, U.S. Attorney General under George W. Bush. He made those remarks in 2006 in announcing a then new federal policy to deal with the problem of internet predators: the Project Safe Childhood program.

Historically, this was around the time when there was still a lot of conjecture about the whole internet predator issue. We knew from law enforcement that there were an increasing number of cases of child sexual exploitation: in 2006 the FBI had more than 2,400 child exploitation investigations under way. But we were JUST beginning to gain a more detailed psychological profile of the phenomenon of ‘internet’ sexual predators from research studies such as the Youth Internet Safety Survey conducted at the University of New Hampshire.

This is all meant to underscore the “50,000” number. It’s a number we use in our presentations to hopefully grab the audience’s attention as we consider just how serious and pervasive this issue is in today’s world. But we also stress that it’s just an estimate and an estimate that was given ELEVEN years ago. Quite honestly, I don’t have more current statistics (and would welcome you supplying me with some (along with their source) if you do!)

But what if that number is inflated (and goodness, 11 years hence, it could easily be something even more astronomical). But what if that number is something more along the lines of 10,000 or even less? If you’re like me, it still is positively horrifying to even consider. Imagine… RIGHT NOW, there are thousands of sexually deviant predators trolling social media looking for innocent teens to victimize.

And tragically, time and again as I scour my Google Alerts, new stories of the sexual exploitation of children by internet predators emerge. By way of example, I’m providing a piece of a news article of an arrest made this week in Chicago. It should give you a sufficient overall gist of the sequence and scope of the exploitation:

‘Snapchat Perv’ Lures Teen, Sexually Assaults Her at Hinsdale Oasis

Illinois State Police said he took photo of the assault for later use, then ditched 16-year-old girl at tollway oasis.

July 25, 2017

By Lorraine Swanson

HINSDALE, IL — A Chicago Heights man lured a 16-year-old girl via Snapchat to the Hinsdale Oasis under the ruse of setting her up with a blind date before sexually assaulting her, prosecutors said. Illinois State Police were in court earlier last week seeking an arrest warrant for Luke Luevano, 21, on assorted sex and child pornography charges. The alleged abuse happened on May 8.

The teen told police she had met a twenty-one-year-old man online and they began exchanging Snapchats. The two then exchanged phone numbers. Luevano allegedly told the teen that his roommate might be interested in her. The prosecutor said the teen and “roommate” began sending texts that were sexual in nature.

Illinois State Police said the “roommate” turned out to be Luevano. Luevano arranged to pick the teen up at her home, the prosecutor said. The teen claimed when she asked Luevano how old he was, she got no response. She told him she was 16. Luevano is said to have driven the teen to the Hinsdale Oasis, where he allegedly forced her into giving him oral sex.

While in the act, the teen saw what she believed was a camera flash. She asked him to delete the picture. The prosecutor said police recovered the photo from Luevano’s phone, which the teen identified as her head and Luevano’s penis. Luevano allegedly took off his pants and had intercourse with the teen. After the alleged assault, he left the girl at the tollway oasis.

Luevano admitted to police that he knew the girl was 16. He took the photo so he could pleasure himself at a later time, the prosecutor said. Luevano has no prior criminal background.

 

A twenty-one-year-old man with no criminal background nevertheless feels compelled to troll Snapchat until he lures a teen to a motel where he sexually assaults her (and there’s the whole child pornography component to this as well). BUT… the other end of this scenario finds a 16-year-old girl with her social media status set to public, who WILLINGLY agrees to meet with a virtual stranger in the hope of a romantic connection.

It’s THIS part of the tragedy that I feel the need to explore further. We have long suspected the danger of internet predators (which has only been confirmed over the years). But what remains little comprehended by most adults (yet revealed by research studies such as the Youth Internet Safety Survey), is WHY an innocent and vulnerable teen would willingly agree to expose herself to such danger. I’ll pick up with this aspect the next time. Until then…

FAILING TO UNDERSTAND

[NOTE: This post references an article I posted on our FaceBook page. For those of you not following us on FB, I’m providing a link to NCO Justice Coalition so you have the opportunity to read it for yourself.]

Ohio teen charged with raping 4 children

Dominique Seem

As we speak to the girls and boys detained in the detention wing of the Erie County Justice Center, we illustrate how the economic model of supply and demand is at work within the crime of human sex trafficking. This may be a rather grotesque application of the model, but a valid one nonetheless: producer, consumer, and product/service: the pimp who forcibly enslaves and then sells the victim to a predator who is in the market to rape her/him: producer-pimp, consumer-predator, and service-victim.

With the girls our goal is to equip them to be proactive; for them to have the necessary knowledge to NOT become a victim. [NOTE: Oftentimes the girls we’re working with add to OUR information base! Being THE demographic traffickers are looking to ‘groom’ (female, early teens, vulnerable (broken) in some way), they experience this active recruitment around them in their everyday lives ALL of the time. There have been sessions when we’ve walked away wondering who taught who more… them or us! But this simply serves to underscore that this phenomenon is very real and happening in ALL of our communities.]

With the boys our emphasis tends in a different direction. While we certainly hope the arc of their lives doesn’t take them on a path to becoming a pimp, our more immediate focus attempts to shine light on cultural factors that, if not recognized and examined, could possibly lead them to becoming buyers of sex. And I wish to emphasize the ‘possibly’ part of that last sentence. While sexual objectification, harassment, dating violence, acquaintance rape, and pornography increasingly proliferate our culture (indeed, many global cultures), statistics that I have seen suggest that it is only a small percentage of males who actually cross the line into the domain of human trafficking; repeatedly gratify their sexual urges by seeking out and then purchasing a minor victim to rape for half an hour to an hour. And yet, even if only a small percentage… that is nevertheless, WAY too much.

But then along comes a story such as the one unfolding in Warren, Ohio and I find myself at a complete loss to even begin to fathom how an 18-year-old boy could EVER be motivated to (allegedly) rape four children ages 2 – 9. This is a level of brokenness that screams at me for understanding. How does one so young develop a mindset leading to such egregious acts? What have been the mitigating factors in his upbringing that have helped foster his psychological state?

And just so you’re aware, while I may be limiting the stories I post to our FaceBook NCO Justice Coalition site to those pertaining to Ohio, these types of incidents do pop up from time to time in my Google Alerts from around the country: perpetrators far too young, abusing even younger children. They’re not widespread, mind you, but they do occur with a regularity that I find both unsettling and alarming.

In our neat, almost textbook presentations to teen boys, there is a noticeable gap between the cultural factors we present and how that could possibly connect to a life like Dominique Seem. And realistically, even not knowing any of the background factors in this young man’s life, there likely ISN’T a neat, connect the dots like trajectory. His are some incredibly deep psychological woes.

But rather than becoming dejected by this story, it serves to bolster my motivation to do what I know how to do best… teach. While I may not always appreciate the value our presentations may (or may not) be having on the recipients, it is SO important to me to keep up the effort. We certainly don’t have all the answers and likely aren’t even asking all of the pertinent questions… but I remain confident that we ARE presenting at least a glimmer of the culture in which these young men are growing up in. And that culture IS grooming them to believe that somehow, just because they’re males, they have a certain entitlement when it comes to sex and relationships… an entitlement that doesn’t include young ladies as part of an interdependent equation… an entitlement, thereby, which isn’t entirely healthy. And THIS is a message worthy of spreading.

BROKENNESS

[NOTE: This post references an article I posted on our FaceBook page this past week. For those of you not following us on FB, I’m providing a link so you can read it for yourself.]

Muskingum County not immune to human trafficking

It’s difficult not to be sickened, outraged, and completely incredulous with this story coming out of Zanesville, Ohio; that a mother sold her eight-year-old daughter to a 76-year-old man for sex. It wasn’t for the jury either, who found her guilty after deliberating for only 30 minutes.

But as horrifying as this is (and truly, it IS horrifying), it has caused me to once again revisit how the scourge of human trafficking is a symptom of an even larger problem within our culture: brokenness. Do any of us really know what might be going on behind the closed doors of our neighbor: always quick with a smile and some friendly banter, living in the upscale home with beautifully manicured landscaping? Because, behind some of those doors we find children who are being sold by a parent (or guardian): children who keep going to school, living at home, and suffering in silence.

Just because it may be easier to conceal trafficking in communities where, by all appearances, no one would EVER suspect it happening, doesn’t mean it ISN’T happening. As one takes a closer look at constantly emerging news stories: stories that expose myriad (sometimes unfathomable) ways parents, guardians, teachers, coaches, pastors, police officers, adults in general abuse and assault children: it becomes apparent that we as humans can become broken in unimaginable ways. And it is because of this brokenness in both ourselves and our communities, that the sexual exploitation of children can (and does) flourish.

In a rather crass way, the Zanesville story actually acts as a kind of exemplar of the point I’m attempting to make:

BROKEN VICTIMS: This poor child has been irreparably broken. From what we know from similar cases, to overcome the damage to her self-image and self-worth will now become a monumental challenge, if not a lifelong pursuit. And if not adequately addressed, this will likely perpetuate an ongoing cycle of abuse throughout her life.

BROKEN EXPLOITERS: We have no clear information on the mom’s background, so her brokenness is but conjecture. However, it doesn’t seem a far flung leap to suspect that SOMETHING occurred in her upbringing to predispose her to selling her own child. In what way is Lori Henry broken? We don’t know, but simply by the fact that she DID sell her daughter for sex points to her brokenness.

BROKEN CONSUMERS: Again, we have no detailed information on this 76-year-old man. But all I need to know to make my case is that HE HAD SEX WITH AN 8-YEAR-OLD! In no way, shape, or form can this EVER be construed as anything but broken. Yet something in his upbringing prepared him to not only accept, but act upon having sex with this child.

BROKEN HELPERS: Now we arrive at the caveat and my bottom-line point: Those of us who are engaged in the work of eradicating sex trafficking from our communities need to be EVER mindful of not becoming a part of the problem; exhibiting brokenness ourselves.

Anecdotally, I have several scenarios to draw upon, but will only a share a couple:

  • In a group discussion, the well-meaning but misguided person who ends up re-victimizing a survivor, “Suzy, you were once a prostitute. Why don’t you share YOUR story with us?” If Suzy shares her story, it is HER decision to make.
  • Or at a presentation, the well-meaning but misguided participant who can’t WAIT to share from their fount of sensationalized innuendo, launching into an ongoing diatribe of meaningless information that benefits absolutely no one in attendance.

If we are TRULY willing to be helpers in this cause, we have to ever be circumspect in checking ourselves for our own brokenness. Are we being humble and sensitive to others or do we decide when and what they should share self-righteously believing it is in their best interest? Are we sure we’re only sharing accurate information in an attempt to edify or do we delight in spewing forth the latest sensationalized rumor, looking only for its shocking effect?

And finally, do we hear a story such as the one from Zanesville and immediately shout, “I hope she fries,” or, while being completely and understandably outraged by the incalculable damage done, allow another more empathetic part of us to kick in trying to fathom the magnitude of brokenness of our fellow human beings that led to this horror? Trying to understand the brokenness that we all share, so that we might be that one open to receive and respond with mercy should a person caught up in brokenness seek out someone, anyone, who will listen without judgment? I, for one, aspire to be such a person.

How Our Message Has Evolved

In the late spring of 2013 when we began this Justice Coalition journey, the people who were drawn to gather at The Chapel (Sandusky campus) had hearts on fire to do whatever was possible to eradicate human trafficking. Our formative discussions focused on just what exactly we COULD contribute to the fight against the scourge of modern day slavery.

As we moved into that summer, a continuing conversation prompted by our study of “The Just Church” by Jim Martin, helped clarify that ours could become a meaningful voice by educating the community about the reality of sex trafficking… not just overseas… not just in Cleveland or Toledo… but right HERE in our midst. That emphasis has not changed. We now have a bevy of presentations designed for various target audiences: public, parents, teens, church groups.

Then in the winter of 2015 we began a relationship with the Erie County Justice Center that continues to this day, regularly speaking to the teens in the detention wing. What is different about these presentations is that they aren’t given to a mixed group, but separately to the girls and then the boys. Making that adjustment was when our message began to evolve.

We sat in that room at the detention center listening to the girls share the vulnerabilities and threats they encounter on an almost daily basis and listened as the boys touted a perspective akin to entitlement. And it began to dawn that for these kids, the potential for human trafficking was very real… a highly possible endgame (victims for the girls; buyers for the boys). It seemed that to really have any sort of meaningful impact, we had to start digging into the cultural factors with which these kids are being bombarded… talking about human trafficking wasn’t enough… somehow we needed to be equipping them with knowledge about the world around them that they could use to be proactive in their own lives (if they so chose).

Sometimes we walk away from those sessions wondering if any of it got through. But then from to time we receive an encouragement such as the two that follow… encouragements that let us know that we’re on the right track… that these kids want and benefit from learning more about topics such as internet predators, sexual harassment, acquaintance rape, dating violence, and pornography. Difficult subjects for sure. But we now have developed further resources (PowerPoint presentations) to address these in ways suitable for middle thru high school groups, mixed or separate, and also for parents and caregivers.

Sooo… for those who are also following us on our FaceBook site, expect to see postings on those subjects as news organizations in Ohio report on them. And in subsequent blogs know that I will be exploring these cultural topics in much more depth, so stay tuned!

Thanks for reading!

Until next week…

DEBUNKING MYTHS: It Doesn’t Happen Here…

Since my retirement from public education seven years ago, I have been passionately vested in a new teaching cause: informing anyone who will listen on the reality of human trafficking and that it occurs even here in North Central Ohio. Admittedly, this is a hard subject for most people to accommodate. In fact, I haven’t known a single person who has become actively interested in being involved in this work who hasn’t, early on, experienced something akin to a paralysis at heart. The darkness of what this entails: forcibly enslaving innocent youth to multiple daily rapes by individuals willing to pay for momentary sexual gratification, the entirety of “profits” accruing to the trafficker and none to the victim: easily becomes overwhelming as one begins to dig beneath the surface.

I have now been involved in presenting to various groups long enough that certain patterns have emerged: certain questions and prevailing attitudes have become typical and almost expected at each and every presentation. One of them goes something like this, “OK, I have heard that Toledo is one of the biggest cities for human trafficking. But SURELY it doesn’t happen here in Perkins Township. I’m not so naïve to think that we don’t have our share of problems, but surely human trafficking CANNOT be one of them. This is a SAFE community for our children.”

And by and large, there is truth to that argument… Perkins Township DOES provide a safe community in which to raise a family. Are youth vulnerable to a variety of risks in today’s world? Yes. Has the danger of human trafficking risen to such a pervasive level that we need to be in a panic over our children’s safety? No of course not. BUT… does human trafficking exist in Sandusky and Perkins Township? One only needs to purvey the escort section of Sandusky’s Backpage site to quickly realize the answer to be yes.

Without intending to re-victimize the young girls “sold” for sex here in our community, from time to time I visit the Sandusky escort page on Backpage and grab screen shots to be used in our presentations (and yes, despite what you may have heard or read in the news, Backpage is still VERY active in the escort business). We use the ads and pictures of these young women to help verify that human trafficking DOES happen here: young women who are being victimized in our motels: young women who are OBVIOUSLY minors.

In addition, I’m always on the lookout for local news that further helps to buttress the contention that yes, human trafficking DOES happen here. To wit, last Tuesday there was a brief article in our paper, the Sandusky Register, with the headline:

Police raid home as part of sex offense investigation

SANDUSKY REGISTER

May 30, 2017

PERKINS TWP. – Perkins police raided a home on Whispering Pine Road last Friday as a part of a sex offense investigation (Hull Road near Great Wolf Lodge).

Sandusky Register

I’ll leave it for you to read the entire article if you have the interest (it’s only a couple of paragraphs).

While this investigation is still in its early stages and the police are not yet able to provide much in the way of details, it does suggest that a sexual offense WAS occurring in a home here in our ‘burbs that warrants an investigation. (CAUTION: We ever need to be careful NOT to project onto an alleged situation such as this. Is this an example of a sex ring happening in our midst? Perhaps, but we simply do not have enough information at this time to make that claim and we NEVER want to be in the business of spreading sensationalized rumors).

But the point I hope I’m making is this: the next time you hear someone suggest (or find yourself thinking) that human trafficking, as horrendous as it is, cannot possibly be happening here in our safe community, please keep in mind that yes… it actually does!

 

NOTE: I want to thank each of you have signed up to receive an email notification each time I post this weekly blog. THANK YOU! For those of you who have a FaceBook page, I’d like to request a favor. In an effort to drive more traffic to our FaceBook site, would you kindly go there and “like” us?! In that way, each time I post something it will show up in your news feed for your friends to see, thereby helping to grow the number of people aware of the information we are sharing. Thanks in advance!

NCO Justice Coalition (FaceBook)

Until next week… Ken out!