HTGAWM’s sex trafficking storyline is a hidden but pervasive narrative for vulnerable Black girls
I don't need any more reminders that people don't fucking care about us, but I am so grateful that Jasmine's story was told.
*A note from our editor Sherronda J. Brown: January is Human Trafficking Prevention Month, and our theme at Black Youth Project is Human Trafficking and Slavery. We are interested in publishing works that address these topics and the things surrounding them.*
This post contains spoilers for season four of How to Get Away With Murder. It also contains discussions of sexual violence against children.
How to Get Away With Murder returned to television last week and all the Shondaland enthusiasts rejoiced. As the drama picks up right where it left off with Annalise and her minions, there is one storyline from the first half of the season that is still with me in a major way—the tragic life, and death, of Jasmine Bromelle.
Jasmine, portrayed by the incredible L. Scott Caldwell, was not on the show very long. She only recently appeared near the end of season three during Annalise’s time in prison. After her release, Annalise returned to help Jasmine with her case and ultimately win her freedom.
Having been arrested multiple times since age thirteen, Jasmine had spent most of her life in the prison system. She was finally able to walk free when Annalise determined, by looking at her earliest charges, that she had been a victim of child sex trafficking. After her first arrest at age thirteen when her own father sold her, she had been subsequently and repeatedly failed by the justice system, which locked her into a cycle of crime by repeatedly charging her for solicitation and prostitution rather than properly treating her as a victim of sex trafficking.
One year ago, Gabrielle Union wrote an incredibly important piece for Essence about the gender and racial disparities in human trafficking and how the industry disproportionately affects women and girls of color, especially Black girls. It is, unfortunately, an incredibly lucrative business. Atlanta stands as one of the sex trafficking capitals of the world, with an estimated $290 million illegal sex industry.
And the people who are hurt the most by the criminal justice system are not the traffickers or the Johns, but people like Jasmine.
Research shows that most adult prostitutes were sexually abused as children and entered “the life” between the ages of 12 and 14. When their criminal records are already tarnished during their teenage years, many trafficking victims may continue to use sex work as a means of survival since securing other forms of employment becomes exceedingly difficult.
By decree of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, all children under eighteen who are sold for sex are victims of trafficking, regardless of the tactics used to lure them into the trafficking industry. However, many states choose not to comply with federal law and criminalize these girls just like adults, and are not required to do so unless a state policy violates our Constitution. (Only ten states have laws to protect children from being prosecuted for prostitution, but even in these states minors can still be arrested.) Because of this, police are able to arrest children for “prostitution,” and many do so gladly.
This is a system that punishes victims. Criminalizing, arresting, prosecuting, and incarcerating children who are victims of systematic sexual violence both re-traumatizes and re-victimizes them, and is as much of a human rights violations as sex trafficking itself.
Malika Saada Saar is the founder and executive director of a nonprofit organization that advocates for justice, dignity, and policy reform for vulnerable women and girls. The Rebecca Project for Human Rights works to help women and girls in the U.S. as well as Africa. She has observed that law enforcement and the criminal justice system have a poor attitude towards child trafficking victims. Saar writes:
“They are instead cast as ‘hos,’ prostitutes or ‘bad girls.’ Take, for example, in a Washington-area courtroom last year, where a colleague of mine heard a prosecutor call a girl who had been arrested on charges of prostitution ‘a little black ‘ho.'”
The single most illuminating and devastating question that I have ever been asked came from a grad school professor and mentor. She asked, “What do we have to forget in order to make it through the day?”
Think about the memories that we have to suppress, the knowledge that we have to push out of our minds, and the traumas that we have to swallow, just to be able to make it through the day without breaking down under the weight of it all.
I didn’t say or write very much about the sex trafficking and targeting of Black girls in the DC/Maryland area last year. I was physically and emotionally unable to talk about it in any real capacity. I have to force myself to forget about it just to make it through the day. Even writing this hurts.
RELATED: Cyntoia Brown is being failed by the justice system because she’s a black woman
Jasmine Bromelle’s story was yet another reminder of how little the world cares about Black girls and women and the racialized sexual violence that we experience.
As if I needed a reminder when 60% of Black girls are molested or sexually abused before the age of eighteen. I don’t need a reminder that people don’t give a shit when I know that Eldridge Cleaver fully admitted to raping Black women in the hood as practice before he set out to do the same to white women in affluent communities as “an insurrectionary act.” And when I know how Daniel Holtzclaw deliberately and successfully preyed upon poor Black girls and women for the same reasons that Cleaver was able to get away with it and then “disappeared” in the prison system once he was convicted.
I don’t need any more reminders that people don’t fucking care about us, but I am so grateful that Jasmine’s story was told. Black girls and women are continually forced to be our own saviors. Black girls and women are rallying and doing the work that others refuse to do. It was Black girls who brought Kennedi High home last year, though that fact doesn’t seem to show up at all in any of the media reports about her ordeal. After the sixteen year-old went missing, authorities insisted that she was a runaway, but her friends were brave enough to name her disappearance for what it was: sex trafficking. It was Black girls who got shit done, as always.
We are constantly saving ourselves, protecting ourselves, loving ourselves, mothering ourselves, and trying to heal ourselves, just like Annalise did for Jasmine Bromelle.
If you haven’t already joined or need more tools to assist us in doing this work, here are five ways that you can help stop child sex trafficking, and here is some information on what kind of support child sex trafficking victims need after being rescued. If you believe that someone is being trafficked or is in danger of being trafficked, please call the 24-hour National Human Trafficking Resource Center line at 1-888-373-7888.