When the story broke, the tabloid headlines screamed that Hall of Fame football star, Lawrence Taylor, had been arrested on Thursday, May 6th, for having sex with a 16-year-old-prostitute. One publication referred to her as a “teen hooker.”
As the information started to come in, the public learned that Taylor was being charged with third-degree rape and soliciting prostitution – a reference to the young girl who was brought to his room at the Rockland County hotel. The accounts asserted that Taylor paid $300 for the “encounter.”
For those unfamiliar with New York State law, a Class A felony rape in the third degree occurs when an adult is over 21 years old and the minor is under 17. The man who presented the girl to Taylor, Rashee Davis, was repeatedly referred to in the press as the “girl’s pimp.”
Pimp is a term that has a specific connotation. If Davis had been characterized as a trafficker, a very different and more complete understanding of the story would have been advanced.
In March, the authorities were informed by the family that the girl was missing. The Associated Press detailed that she met Davis two to three weeks ago at a Bronx bus stop. She described to investigators how the 36-year-old man offered her a place to live and a way to earn money.
When a girl is under-age, she is automatically classified as a trafficking victim. Norma Ramos, Executive Director of Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, spoke to me about the rapidity with which traffickers “identify runaways and move in on them.” The statistics show that these children are picked up between six to eight hours after they have gone missing from their homes.
The girl’s uncle received a text message from his niece stating that she was being driven back to the Bronx. She gave him an address, where she was found with Davis. She had a black eye and facial bruising.
Most of the local news stories gave little to no insight to the aspects of human trafficking apparent in this case, nor the prevalence of this activity on New York City streets. There were, however, repeated references to Taylor’s stature as “one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history,” his past brushes with the law, and his drug and alcohol problems.
Ramos pointed to the “perceived entitlement to buy sex” and in a release written about the event stated that it was:
“yet another example of the most powerful, respected and privileged among us demonstrating the normalization of the sexual exploitation of women and girls. Mr. Taylor is part of what we in the anti-trafficking movement call the demand that fuels sex trafficking. Without the demand for commercial sexual exploitation there would be no 16-year-olds or 26-year-olds for that matter, being offered for sale, to Johns by traffickers.”
I contacted Rachel Lloyd, Executive Director of Gems, based in New York City. The organization works to get girls who are between the ages of 12-21, “who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking, to exit the commercial sex industry and to develop to their full potential.” “It’s not a unique story,” she emphasized. “It’s only unique because a celebrity is involved.” Gems has worked to bring attention to the fact that the entry point for girls into the commercial sex industry is between 12 and 14 years old. For underage girls, it is not a question of choice – as they are lured, misled, forced, and manipulated into the role. The numbers show that annually, 100,000 children in the United States are victims of trafficking. During a discussion about the media’s presentation of the story, Lloyd explained, “We don’t use the words prostitution or prostitute. We see it as commercial sexual exploitation and domestic minor trafficking.”
Bradley Myles, Executive Director and CEO of Polaris Project weighed in via e-mail writing, “It is important to highlight that cases like this happen throughout the United States, where minors are sexually exploited and bought by men every day.”
A look at the responses to one Internet report showed 3,000 views and 2,000 comments. An oft-repeated question asked, “Was he supposed to ask for the birth certificate of a prostitute?” Another recommended, “Write him a ticket and let him go.” Only a few observers engaged with the issue of human trafficking. There were numerous calls to legalize prostitution, but few reflections on where the culpability of customers and traffickers fits into the equation.
This is a conversation that goes far deeper than Lawrence Taylor’s personal actions. It’s time for the media to take responsibility for how the language used in telling such a narrative adds to the lack of awareness about the ramifications of human trafficking. In the struggle to eradicate the exploitation of girls and women, this would be an excellent first step.
This article originally appeared on the website Women Make News.