Very Young Girls. Directed by David Schisgall, Priya Swaminathan, and Nina Alvarez. New York: Swinging T Productions, 2007.

Bangkok Girl. Directed by Jordan Clark. Victoria, Canada: High Banks Entertainment Ltd., 2005.

Reviewed by Allison Attenello

The two films discussed here focus on the commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) of girls: Very Young Girls explores the sex industry in New York City, while Bangkok Girl focuses on sex tourism in Bangkok, Thailand. Despite their shared theme, the two films stand in stark contrast to one another. Very Young Girls challenges longstanding ideas about prostitution and the sex industry without objectifying and exploiting CSE survivors in the process. In contrast, but in keeping with many mainstream films about sexual exploitation, prostitution, and trafficking, Bangkok Girl objectifies its subject and fails to question or challenge the factors that perpetuate sexual exploitation.

Very Young Girls provides a uniquely comprehensive analysis of CSE by exposing the social and legal structures that perpetuate this exploitation, by creating a space for CSE survivors to analyze their own experiences and pose questions that reflect the complexity of their situations, and by highlighting the work of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS), a nonprofit organization in New York that provides services to girls who have been exploited in the commercial sex industry.

A large portion of the documentary features interviews with CSE survivors who participate in GEMS programs. During these interviews the girls discuss how factors such as abuse and neglect in their homes made them vulnerable to sexual exploitation, and many of them state that they entered the sex industry as young as fourteen years old. The girls describe the relationships they had (and in some cases maintain) with their pimps, share their experiences with violence, and express their struggles to gain and sustain emotional and economic independence from their pimps and prostitution. During their interviews, the girls also use their experiences to highlight how complex and dangerous it is to escape from the commercial sex industry. Describing an attempt to escape from her pimp, Kim states,

I packed up my suitcase and said, “I’m gonna leave” and he threw my suitcase at me and told me the next time I tried to leave, he was gonna put me in a suitcase. If I leave he’s gonna kill me. And like, if I leave, where am I gonna go? Especially if you have no family and no friends, like, where are you gonna go? If the life is all you know then what are you gonna do?

Because the viewer does not see or hear the interviewer, Kim's questions, and those that other girls pose, force the viewer to engage in the conversation taking place between subject and interviewer. As a result, when a girl asks a question it is the viewer who feels responsible for answering her. In this way, Very Young Girls challenges its audience to do more than just observe the girls; instead, the film demands that its audience engage with the problems that the girls expose.

The film mixes interviews with footage from inside a Brooklyn police precinct, the Brooklyn John’s School run by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, the Supreme and Family Court of Brooklyn, as well as the home of one CSE survivor and counseling sessions at GEMS. By weaving together personal interviews with footage from these institutions, Very Young Girls encourages its audience to think beyond the realm of personal experience and victim-based analysis toward a more comprehensive critique of both the roles social and legal institutions play in perpetuating the commercial sexual exploitation of girls, as well as the need for service providers to support and empower CSE survivors.

In contrast to the broad scope of Very Young Girls, Bangkok Girl has a more singular focus: the relationship between the filmmaker, Jordan Clark, and the subject of his film, a nineteen-year-old woman named Pla who works as a bargirl in Bangkok. Though the film claims to critically examine the sex tourism industry in Thailand, in fact it focuses more on the filmmaker’s observations and speculations about his subject. Speaking about Pla, Clark states, “As I listened and watched I couldn’t help but reflect how Pla’s innocence belied her six years experience as a Bangkok bargirl.” Similarly he states, “But then sometimes I have to wonder if she’s being totally honest. She seems to be more familiar with the game than she’s letting on.” Clark fails to see beyond Pla’s work as a bargirl and instead defines her by this work and the sex industry to which it is connected. Though Pla does not work as a prostitute, Clark repeatedly questions her honesty and insinuates that it is only a matter of time before she begins working as a prostitute. Clark’s persistent objectification of Pla overshadows the few times he discusses the relationship between the sex industry and corruption, poverty, and unbalanced laws that favor sex tourists.

Despite the distinctions between Very Young Girls and Bangkok Girl, both films point out the inherent contradiction in laws that criminalize the selling of sex but permit (either by law or by lack of enforcement) the purchasing of sex. The issue of a legal double-standard is one that must be discussed as a key factor that perpetuates the commercial sexual exploitation of girls. Though Bangkok Girll fails to offer a new or challenging critique of the sex industry, Very Young Girls provides an honest and critical look at this industry by pushing new boundaries and prompting viewers to interrogate systems rather than individuals. Very Young Girls helps audiences recognize the value of girls’ experiences for policy reform and improved service provision, and it sets a new standard for films that claim to engage critically with the commercial sex industry.

Allison Attenello is currently the Program Director at Girls Learn International®, Inc. in New York City. She spent several years working for the University for Peace in Costa Rica developing graduate-level peace studies curricula, and holds a BA in Women’s and Gender Studies and an MS in Global Affairs from Rutgers University.