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 siting that is busy Bissonnet. Until cars creep to a slowed pace, gawking 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 at lunchtime in lingerie. As the tardy bells sound from the speakers of Best Elementary nearby, young girls can be seen starting their days strutting the sidewalks of what’s referred to as the Bissonnet Track, Houston’s most prominent 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 crackdown on the bubbling underground business. Only to hop into their vehicles and drive home through one of the nations most notorious trafficking hubs, completely unaffected. And they’re not the only ones. 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
Some 41 years later, we’ve become so numb to the stimuli of sexual violence against Black girls, Olivia likely wouldn’t be viewed as a victim at all. The story of Olivia is one we know very well, only modern day depictions paint Olivia as a willing participant. And when a community doesn’t assess their children the benefit of intrinsic value, the people outside of that community will assess them a cost. 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 indicators in the human trafficking crises, conversations regarding the issue ignore community complicity. While reports reference the over representation of underage black girls in the underground sex market, no one stops 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 the blame game we entertain, 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 Black girls is so high, it’s because the supply is too. And the supply of Black girls being trafficked is high because Black girls are at a greater risk 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 we can’t blame that 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 excessively high numbers of preterm birth, maternal depression and maternal mortality to racial and socioeconomic disparities in health care, education and overall quality of life.
Not only do these stressors create an unhealthy environment for the mother, but that environment is recreated within the womb as the mother’s health serves as a barometer for the child’s. When a mother experiences trauma during her pregnancy, or in the case of a Black mother, copes with the compounded day to day stressors that accompany Blackness in America, the body releases stress hormones intended to to prepare the body to fight or flee. When these stressors 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 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 the medical negligence Black girls experience from the womb, many experience a cultural negligence once 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 vital 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 with both. Is there any doubt that the same individuals who would sexually exploit a child in their home would exploit another’s child in the public? And are we to believe that the same individuals taking advantage of children for sexual gratification are not the same individuals who would do so for profit? Because they are. And we know it.
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 to be raised in single parent or foster parent homes, and more likely to be introduced to the lifestyle by relatives and family friends. This means the same community responsible for creating these vulnerable young girls is responsible for creating the individuals that prey on them. Not just conceiving them in trauma, but then birthing them into abuse and dysfunction, and abandoning them to the devices of one another once circumstances become too difficult to pray away. How can we demand the world recognize value in the same lives we collectively overlook?
We want the media to do for Black girls what we ourselves refuse to. The narrative that paints our girls as less innocent, less needing of protection, and more knowledgeable on mature topics like sex is not exclusive to the white community, countless Black people share in these views as well, whether knowingly or unknowingly. How else do 700 underage Black girls in a single city end up sexually exploited and exposed to HIV by one single predator over the course of 8 years, if not for an overall casual disregard for their wellbeing by multiple members of their community? 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 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’ve gone missing, albeit internalized self-loathing or a disregard for our own future, which our children represent, it’s a dynamic that must be challenged. It cannot be left up to the system that orchestrated our reality to undo its damage. The solution to this problem starts in and around us.