Dominique left an abusive home when she was 13 certain she could make it better on her own.
But being on her own left her scared and starved for love. So these words – “we’re family” – were magic to her, even coming from a man she hardly knew in a van she’d occasionally spotted on her block.
“Family? OK. Family? All right, I’m getting in the car,” Dominique recalls several years later, her chubby cheeks and boisterous giggle a reminder of how young she still is.
It was like a dream at first. The man bought her “Blues Clues” games and spun fairy tale-like stories of the day Dominique’s mother gave birth to her, as if he were her real dad. They slept in the same bed, and he just held her.
It didn’t stay like that for long. Soon Dominique was selling sex, climbing into cars while her “father” waited to collect the cash she’d bring in. She’d sit in hotel rooms with his other girls, waiting for him to bring food, late into the night. He got her hooked on drugs.
Dominique explains how she was manipulated into a life of prostitution in “Very Young Girls,” a 2007 documentary by filmmaker David Schisgall. The film, which takes place in New York City, follows the lives of a group of young women as they try to leave prostitution with the help of the nonprofit service provider Girls Educational & Mentoring Services (GEMS).
West Side residents are invited to a free screening of the film and discussion at 5:30 p.m. today at Genesis on the Ave., 5811 W. Chicago Ave.
Prostitution is a reality that far too many Austin residents know – and one that everyone seems afraid to talk about, said Roman Morrow, an Austin resident who is planning the screening in conjunction with GEMS.
The Austin neighborhood claims the highest number of prostitution arrests in the city, followed by the Gold Coast and Humboldt Park, according to a February article by Medill Reports.
“The event is to shine the spotlight on prostitution in the Austin community,” Morrow said. “This is something we have been sweeping under the rug for quite some time.”
Screenings like this are a way for communities to raise awareness about sexual exploitation – something that happens far more often than most people want to admit, said GEMS Campaign Coordinator Jenny Park.
“It’s much more prevalent than you’d realize,” Parks said. “Runaway and homeless youth are very vulnerable because they have basic survival needs, like food and shelter. It doesn’t take much to gain their trust.”
And as the title of the film suggests, girls entering prostitution tend to be extremely young and preyed upon; the average age is 12 to 14, Parks said. Yet when they’re arrested, she said, the justice system tends to treat them as adults. (That problem was helped in Illinois last year with the passage of the Illinois Safe Children Act, which prevents the prosecution of minors accused of prostitution.)
Morrow, who unsuccessfully ran for 29th Ward alderman in February, hopes the screening will spark some interesting conversations about what the Austin community can do to stop the sexual exploitation of children.
At the same time, Morrow said, it’s important that conversation also consider the perspective of johns and pimps.
“Why do pimps degrade women like that? There’s some (reason). They’ve seen their father, nine times out of 10, do that, or they’ve seen it on TV,” he said. “You have to understand, they need help too.”
More than 30 people had RSVPed for the screening as of Tuesday, Morrow said, including mothers who are bringing their daughters – though everyone, men included, are encouraged to attend. He warns that while there is no sex in the film, there is graphic language and some may find the subject matter disturbing.
To RSVP for today’s screening, call (312) 618-5665. Refreshments will be served.