I was 12 years old the first time I was propositioned for sex by a grown man. He was an old man to me, maybe 60. I was with a couple of my girlfriends who were the same age. We had walked to get burgers and grab a taste of the independence all preteens crave.
I sat stuffing fries in my face and laughing with my girls when Carl approached in his uniform with his name embroidered on the shirt pocket. He asked my name and I blurted out some fake name. He complimented me and my friends. We politely but begrudgingly accepted his compliments. We just wanted to eat, laugh and feel like big girls.
“How’s $200 sound?” Carl asked. “Huh?” I replied. “We can meet up later for two hundred,” he said. Understanding what he meant, I told him how old I was. “Girl, you look at least 15,” he said. “I don’t do that,” I said, my voice ripe with equal parts fear and annoyance. He spent several minutes hovering over my friends and me, trying to convince me that he wanted nothing more than to meet up with me to talk. He was even considerate enough to offer me excuses to give my parents so they’d let me out of the house.
I can’t imagine nearly every woman, particularly any Black woman who grew up in the inner city like I did, doesn’t have a similar story of their induction into the infamous club of girls violated by grown men. I saw Carl again a couple of years later. He didn’t remember me, but he made the same offer. This time, he rode up beside me while I was walking down the street. I tried to ignore him and keep walking, but he parked his car and jumped out. I had to take his number, promising to call him, before he would get back in his car and drive away.
I never told my parents about Carl. In fact, I never mentioned to my parents any of the times — and I confidently estimate at least 20 — I was cornered by grown men who, if conditions permitted, could and would have kidnapped me. It’s not because I feared my parents retribution. I feared what they’d do to protect me.
But even as a girl, who somehow fended off advances from men old enough to be father or his father, and even having parents who I knew would kill and die to keep me safe from those kinds of predators, I knew that if one of those men had seized the opportunity to abduct men, resigning me to a fate too horrible to type, the only people who would never stop searching for me, would be my parents who loved me, a few relatives and few other loved ones. I knew a Black girl didn’t matter enough to be plastered all over the news for months. I had been learning this for years.
I knew Polly Klaas ‘ name and story before the first time Carl approached me. The media made sure of that, as they did later with Elizabeth Smart. And as they did again with Natalee Holloway. And as they’re doing now with Elizabeth Thomas. When white children go missing, the world takes notice, but when white girls go missing, the world takes action.
I can’t tell you how many of my friends, Black girls the same age as Polly or Elizabeth or Natalee went missing. But what I can tell you is that more than one of my friends turned up days or even weeks later and told me what they refused to tell the police and their parents: They had been with grown men. That their bodies had been used and violated (though they never realized it). That they had been gifted sneakers or given $40 or $50, and then ordered to tell their parents and authorities some story about running away.
That’s often what sex trafficking looks like for Black girls. It doesn’t always look like being sold off into an underworld where she’s kept secluded, chained to a bed and raped by men day in and day out. It often looks like men propositioning girls in broad daylight, targeting them because they know they’re in neighborhoods crippled by poverty. It looks like men offering these girls a ride. It looks like them gifting the girls with cell phones and lunch money in exchange for sex in the back of cars. It looks like a girl meeting a man online who picks her up from school and passes her around from man to man for nearly a week.
It’s easier to believe Black girls run away from home, rather than that they are kidnapped by or cajoled into going with grown men who intend to use them for sex and more often than not, turn them out. Believing Black girls are runaways only feeds the narrative that they are the hyper sexual, “fast ass” girls everyone tells them they are. It’s always easier to blame the victim than it is to confront the victimizer.
And that’s the line we’re being fed. More than a dozen Black girls are missing in D.C., and we’re being told that the best solution to keep our girls safe is for them to “just stay home.” Yes, instead of law enforcement hunting the predators who make a practice of raping girls and holding them hostage, they’re instructing teenagers to just stay home. Not just teen girls, though, Black teen girls.
Imagine a white girl coming up missing and the police publicly declaring that she should’ve just stayed home. Imagine law enforcement making an assessment of whether a missing white girl was worthy of their attention based on whether they believed she just ran away or not. Imagine 12 white girls coming up missing in the same city without a national outcry. I know. You can’t.
As a woman who was a girl raised in the same D.C. streets these missing girls were, I can tell you that no one gives a fuck about Black girls. No one cared when Black and brown girls were turning up missing in the Bronx. No one gives a damn about the missing Black girl from Chicago. No one gives a damn what happened to Relisha Rudd.
Instead, the media would much rather devote pen and camera to updates about what may or may not have happened to Amelia Earhart 80 years ago. Producers are preoccupied with interviewing anybody remotely connected to JonBenet Ramsey’s murder. And the Federal Bureau of Investigation is all tied up with locating sports memorabilia.
After all, there are so many more important things than dozens of missing Black girls.