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Easy Prey
Many teen mothers are the victims of rape or incest. The social impact is immense. But no one will talk about it.
This story appears in the May 2011 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

He’s a smooth talker with a sly smile. He’s got dollars in his pocket and an apartment, maybe a car. Years out of high school, he’s been around. He knows things, he’s done things, he’s a man of the world.

She’s young and naive, 16, 15, even as young as 12 or 11. She’s turned off by the immaturity of boys at school. All her life, she’s been told to look pretty and to grow up. And now she wants to, desperately.

They hook up at a friend’s house. He eyes her up and down, tells her she’s sexy, tells her she’s hot. ‘Do you wanna party?’ he asks, and his come-on excites her. He makes her feel like a woman.

The introduction soon leads to sex, but sex on his terms – unprotected and sometimes coerced, with little of the love and romance she sees on TV. He’s older than she thought, a good 10 years older, and very controlling.

When he learns she’s pregnant, he doesn’t come around anymore, doesn’t return her texts or answer her calls. She finds out he has other girlfriends, three or four, she hears, and maybe even a wife and kids.

Suddenly she’s alone, scared, a girl momma with no help or financial support from the father of her child.

Counselors who work with teen moms have heard the story over and over. They don’t mince words when describing these men: predators, rapists, sexual deviants.

It’s a widespread problem: Older men are fathering children by Milwaukee’s most vulnerable teens – girls of color, mostly raised by single moms, living in poverty-wracked neighborhoods – and contributing to a teen birth rate that’s been among the nation’s highest.

The problem has long been put on the girls, with calls from commentators for more sex education, birth control or abstinence. But experts say many pregnancies are actually the result of rape or incest.

“There is a high correlation between child sexual abuse and teen pregnancy,” says Cathy Arney, co-chair of a subcommittee on sexual violence formed in 2007 by the United Way of Greater Milwaukee. “It’s a real hard issue to get at.” In some cases, she says, the young woman might be a willing partner. “But a 30-year-old boyfriend with a 16-year-old girl is sexual abuse. It’s statutory rape.”

“Statutory rape” is a catch-all term for sex with a minor by an adult. Under Wisconsin law, sexual contact with a teen 13-15 by an adult is a class B felony, with a punishment of up to 60 years in prison. An adult having sexual intercourse with a teen 16-18 is a class A misdemeanor and punishable by up to nine months in jail.

Despite the law’s seriousness, statutory rape is an issue often ignored or misunderstood and thus difficult to measure. It goes on outside the public eye, yet its impact – driving up teen birth rates – is shared by the entire city.

“It’s a complex issue with broad repercussions,” says Arney, vice president of clinical services at Pathfinders youth services.

Teen pregnancy is more likely to result in premature births and infant mortality. If infants survive, they are less likely to finish high school, more likely to be incarcerated (especially males), and more likely to become teen parents themselves. Teen pregnancy contributes to higher truancy rates, greater joblessness and more homes that require institutional support, perpetuating a cycle of poverty.

Milwaukee Health Commissioner Bevan Baker, the father of a teenage daughter, has been outspoken on this issue. “Nowhere on this planet is it OK to see a 13-year-old girl pregnant,” he says. “If not allowed to mature and matriculate, they don’t contribute to the community.”

A 2008 national report shows 10 percent of females had early sex with a partner at least three years their senior. The Milwaukee County district attorney’s office says six or seven underage sex cases are charged monthly, with many more reviewed but not charged.

At the Sexual Assault Treatment Center at Aurora Sinai Medical Center, nearly 100 of the approximately 275 patients under age 18 treated each year say they had sex with a man at least three years older.

Yet documenting the total number of such cases is difficult. “There’s a certain unwillingness to look at the fact that the relationship is unhealthy,” says Arney. “It’s a difficult issue to confront.”

In one of the few studies of its kind, the Wisconsin Office of Justice Assistance found there were 850 reported statutory rape victims statewide in 2009. The vast majority of them (738) were 11-15 years old. An estimated 41 were assaulted by a family member.

In Milwaukee County, police recorded 121 cases of statutory rape, mostly in the city of Milwaukee.

These numbers are just the tip of the iceberg, experts say. Many times, girls are protective of their older “boyfriends,” deny having sex or refuse to file a complaint.

Three years ago, as part of a ramped-up campaign to curb teenage pregnancy, the Milwaukee Health Department and the United Way launched an ad campaign designed to shame sexual predators. The campaign featured provocative radio ads and bus-shelter billboards bluntly accusing these men of being rapists and “low-life scumbags.”

The ads ran for 10 weeks, largely on African-American and Spanish-speaking stations, causing a splash of media coverage and an uncomfortable stir. And then – silence. The issue dropped off the radar.

But the problem didn’t go away.

“The elephant is still in the room,” says Carmen Pitre, co-executive director of Sojourner Family Peace Center. “Sexual violence, coercion – it’s hard for us as a community to focus on it.”

“It’s taboo. It’s hard to talk about,” echoes Terence Ray, director of the Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative. Ray tells of men in their 30s or 40s “dating” girls 14 or 15.

In May, the health department and United Way kicked off round 2 of the campaign. As with the first campaign, Serve Marketing created the ads. One edgy bus-stop ad shows a young innocent sitting on the edge of her bed, all pink and perfect. Next to her sits a man much older, smiling menacingly at the girl, his arm wrapped around her shoulder. “She should be sleeping with a stuffed animal, not a real one,”reads the caption.

Bethany started having sex with a 21-year-old man as a seventh-grader. She met him through her stepsister. “She told me he was 15,” says Bethany. “When I asked him how old he was, he said 18.”

The man quickly showed a sexual interest in her, she says. “He’s like, ‘I want to be with you.’ I looked older. Everybody thinks I’m older than what I am. Older dudes like 40 or 30 years old be talking to me and then they’d be following me. And I’d say, ‘What are you following me for?’ ”

Her boyfriend was unfazed to learn her real age, says Bethany, who, like the other teens in this story, asked that her real name not be revealed. “He’d be like, ‘I love you. I don’t care how old you are.’ And I was like, ‘You shouldcare.’ I was worried about getting pregnant, about what my momma was going to think.”

Bethany was not using birth control and got pregnant. Neither adoption nor abortion was an option, she says. “My family don’t agree with abortion or adoption.”

In April 2010, Bethany gave birth by cesarean section to a boy. The baby’s father came around to see his son for the first two or three months, but then stopped. He refused to take a blood test to establish paternity and won’t pay child support, she says. “I took him to court three times. He would never show up.” Yet he was not arrested, she says.

“I just found out my baby has a 3-month-old little [half]-brother. I called my baby’s father and said, ‘How are you going to have another baby when you can’t take care of your other son?’ He got mad and hung up.”

Now an eighth-grader in Milwaukee Public Schools, Bethany wears a gold-colored stud in her lip and an earbud that’s wired constantly to a cell phone in her pocket. She smiles a lot and talks unabashedly about her dreams of the future, dreams that seem painfully unrealistic. Someday, she wants to go to college and maybe pursue a career as a judge. Or a professional basketball player.

Since getting pregnant, Bethany has been part of PEARLS for Teen Girls, a pregnancy prevention and leadership program in Milwaukee for African-American and Latina teens. She has a boyfriend, but she’s on birth control, although she says they’re not having sex. She lives with her mother, two sisters and a brother. She’s rarely seen her own father. “He just ain’t been around,” says Bethany.

She says she will do her best to raise her son. “It’s hard, but at the same time, it’s a big responsibility. You’ve got to provide for your child. You can’t always live the normal life that you want.”

A sexual relationshipbetween an underage girl and an older man is a complicated tangle of emotional dependence and sheer exploitation.

For the girl, it can start with a fantasy.

“It’s the fairy tale: ‘Johnny loves me. He’s going to marry me.’ That’s the magical thinking,” says Dr. Tina Mason, program director of the OB/GYN department at Aurora Sinai Medical Center. “What they don’t know is Johnny has two or three other girlfriends he’s made the same promise to.”

There’s an allure to an older man. Girls may actually put down their peers because they are not dating an older guy, says Michelle Brock, a PEARLS program coordinator. “The girls think they’re more mature than they really are,” she says.

“We explain that there’s a power differential [when girls date older men],” says Kelly Hennessy, also with PEARLS. “We tell them, ‘You know they’re just using you, right?’ ”

But the relationship can initially provide status – a huge ego boost to an impressionable teen in an impoverished household. “It’s about walking down the street with this older guy,” says Jane Foley, a victim advocate in the Milwaukee County district attorney’s sensitive crimes unit. “When you’re 14 years old and someone 19 or 20 is giving you some attention, that’s pretty important.”

Javier Acevedo, a youth facilitator at the Latina Resource Center at UMOS, a South Side nonprofit, leads sexual violence programs in Milwaukee schools. He points to the absence of a father as a factor: “You see a lot of 15-year-old girls who are dating 19-, 20-, 25-, even 30-year-old men for the simple reason they never had a father figure when they were growing up.”

There is little stigma to the relationship or even to getting pregnant. “Girls with bellies, it’s almost normal,” Hennessy says. TV shows like “Teen Mom,” “16 and Pregnant” and MTV’s “Skins” reinforce the idea. That Milwaukee is one of the nation’s leaders in teen pregnancy makes it all the more acceptable. Says Hennessy, “It’s almost looked at like, ‘You don’t have any kids and you’re 17?’ ”

The negative side of the relationship only later becomes clear. It’s very much based on sex, yet there’s usually very little intimacy, with young women serving as “semen receptacles,” as one advocate puts it.

“The younger they are, the less the interaction, other than placing a penis in a vagina,” Foley says. Girls say there’s not much kissing, not much of a loving relationship. “That is upsetting to them. They are often expecting something more, like something on TV.

“If there’s no sex, it’s over,” Foley continues. Like classic domestic violence cases – though absent the violence – the offender wants control over the teen and will keep her isolated, usually keeping his other relationships secret. If and when police are notified, the men deny having sex with the teens and say they have another girlfriend – of legal age. “That’s hard for the girls to hear,” Foley says.

The girls are at a vulnerable time in their lives, says Vanessa Key, chief executive officer of New Concept Self Development Center, an agency that works with teens. An older man is sometimes seen by the girl and her family as a positive influence, buying gifts and nice clothes for the girl, groceries for her family. “A 15-year-old is going to think a lot of someone who’s offering her a new cellphone,” agrees Acevedo.

“It opens up a can of worms,” says Key. The clothes and groceries make it harder for the girl or her mom to report the relationship as a crime, causing more pressure on the girl to keep having what advocates call “survival sex.”

It’s easy for the girls to make the wrong decisions. “There’s so many things they are not thinking about, and no one puts them on the right track,” says Mason, once an associate public health commissioner in New York City. “And that’s why they get pregnant more than once, because there is no future. Ten years ago, poor black and Hispanic males growing up in violent neighborhoods were saying, ‘Oh, what’s the good of a high school diploma? I won’t be alive at 25 anyway.’ Now girls say, ‘I don’t have to worry about graduating high school because I’m just gonna get pregnant again.’ ”

In 1993, the birth rate in Milwaukee for girls 15-17 was nearly 90 births per thousand, far above the national average of about 39 per thousand.

Ten years later, teen births declined significantly across the country. In Milwaukee, they dropped to 57 births per thousand – a huge improvement, yet still one of the highest rates among major American cities.

In 2008, the city of Milwaukee Health Department teamed with the United Way on a campaign to lower the teen birth rate to 30 births per thousand by 2015. The educational campaign targeted students as young as 10 years old. By 2009, the most recent data available, the rate had dropped to just under 45 births per thousand.

That’s further progress. But births to underage teens remain highest among Hispanics (64 births per thousand) and African-Americans (51 births per thousand) compared to whites (13 births per thousand).

“Girls of color are significantly impacted,” says Nicole Angresano, vice president of community impact at the United Way. “But poverty is more clearly aligned than race.”

In fact, studies show teen birth rates here are highest in the nine ZIP codes with the highest level of poverty.

As a black man and father of four daughters, including two stepdaughters, Milwaukee talk radio host Homer Blow has made statutory rape a personal crusade. “A lot of these men – I don’t even like to call them men. They’re sexual deviants. They prey on women,” he says. “You can’t sugarcoat it, because the problem is so widespread.”

Blow aired public service ads and phone-in discussions about statutory rape when he was program director of black talk radio station WNOV-AM. The exposure generated tremendous feedback, nearly all of it positive, he says. He now runs an online talk radio program, blowradio.com, and has hosted several shows, frank and uncut, on the topic.

Blow blames the problem on the breakdown of communication within families and the vanishing role of fathers.

“Unfortunately, in the black community, there’s a high rate of young women raising these girls,” says Blow. “If the girl doesn’t get along with her mother, the older guy comes along and he says, ‘I’ll take care of you.’ She says, ‘He loves me. He’s right there.’ These girls are easily influenced, and that man is almost like a father they didn’t have.

“It leaves a gateway for these predators to manipulate the young mindset of these girls,” Blow continues. “A lot of these girls have such a sick attachment to this guy, they don’t want him to go to prison or jail. They don’t want police involved.”

Blow sees a generational cycle as well: Mothers who became pregnant as a teen by an older man now see their own daughters reliving the same relationship.

“It’s a messed-up cycle,” he says. “I look at it like we’re in an epidemic. Back in the day, it wasn’t as rampant.”

More urgency is needed in addressing the problem, Blow says.

“We talk about it in our community, but we don’t turn it into action. ... These girls got to understand there is support, there are people who do love them. To break the cycle, it’s all about the community truly being able to communicate: ‘You are not the problem. The problem is the person manipulating you. You can stand up, you can speak out about this.’ ”

The dynamicsof the problem within the Hispanic community are different. Family and religious values are crucial. There are still old-fashioned and strict gender roles for girls and boys, says Mariana Rodriguez, program manager of the Latina Resource Center at UMOS.

A girl’s virginity is highly valued within the Hispanic culture, particularly in Mexican families, she says. “Sex is seen as a gift that you bring into the relationship, when sanctioned by marriage. A good girl waits.”

Teenage boys, on the other hand, are congratulated when they lose their virginity. It’s celebrated as a rite of passage.

There’s a tradition in Hispanic cultures of women marrying early, says Rodriguez. A girl’s mother may be 10, 20 years younger than the girl’s father. “It goes back to the messages that are provided to young girls: ‘Your first relationship will be your last relationship,’ ” 
she says.

A Latina who’s sexually active with an older man will keep the relationship secretive. But if found out by her family, the parents may be conflicted. “They think, ‘He’s got a job, he’s mature, he will provide for our daughter,’ ” 
Rodriguez says. “Sometimes it’s something that’s encouraged.”

It may be an illegal relationship, but if it leads to marriage, that would be culturally acceptable for many Hispanic families.

“A lot of our families really don’t understand how that is a crime, that there are legal consequences,” Rodriguez says. “The parents are not going to pursue charges, especially if the girl consents to that relationship.”

In late February, in a Milwaukee courtroom, what seemed like a love affair came to a brutal legal conclusion.

Kevin and Anne (not their real names) had met online through a social media website in 2009, according to police records. He lived in Milwaukee; she was from West Bend. He was 24; she was 14, a high school freshman.

After they swapped text messages, Kevin drove to West Bend one day and took Anne back to his apartment. After a couple months, they began having intercourse, not coerced but “cooperative” sex, as prosecutors term it. They’d meet after she got off work and go to his apartment. They never used birth control.

The last time they had sex was in spring 2010, said Anne, a day after her 15th birthday. Two months later, the bomb dropped. Anne had missed her period. She bought a home pregnancy test and the results showed she was pregnant. Anne went to her high school counselor, who called Anne’s mother and reported the situation to child protection services. Kevin was arrested for sexual assault of a child. He told police Anne said she was 18.

Anne gave birth late last year. At first, Kevin denied the baby was his. But a DNA sample proved he was the father.

In January, Kevin pleaded guilty to Wisconsin Statute 948.025, “Engaging in repeated acts of sexual assault of the same child,” a class C felony punishable by up to 40 years in prison. His name will be listed on the state’s Sex Offender Registry for the rest of his life.

In her victim impact statement, Anne told the court she suffered “trust issues” and “much tension” with her mother. At first, she didn’t want to get Kevin into trouble. But when she found out he was married to a 19-year-old woman and had fathered another child, born two months before her baby, Anne was less forgiving. She asked the judge to give Kevin the maximum sentence.

In a February sentencing hearing, Kevin’s mother presented a letter to the judge, pleading to spare her son from prison: “I do believe [Kevin] can do more outside to take care of his children than inside.”

Kevin also begged for leniency, telling the judge he wanted to be a father to his two children. “My father wasn’t there for me,” he said.

Weighing the case carefully, Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Conen sentenced Kevin to seven years in prison and ordered him to have no contact with Anne or her family. But Conen stayed the prison time on the condition that Kevin find and hold a job and make regular child support payments. If he misses a payment, he will go to prison.

“The judge did a good job trying to balance punishment of the offender with the needs of the mom and the kid,” says Assistant District Attorney Paul Tiffin.

Deciding whether to prosecute an 18-year-old man for having sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend is a tough call. But a 24-year-old with a 14-year-old girl – “We’re talking about a completely different dynamic,” says the sensitive crimes unit’s Foley. “This is sexual abuse. A lot of people don’t know that.”

State law requires “mandated reporters” – doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers – to notify police or child protection services if they suspect a minor is being abused. But getting victims to come forward is a big hurdle for police and prosecutors.

“Going through a sexual assault trial is really difficult for the victim,” Foley says.

According to the 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey done by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 14 percent of all high school girls in Wisconsin said they were forced, either verbally or physically, to take part in a sexual activity.

For decades,Lady Pitts School Age Parent Program was a Milwaukee public high school that specialized in educating teen mothers. “A lot of time, incest is a factor in the pregnancy,” says Lottie Smith, a former principal at the school. “I had a young lady tell me she didn’t know if it was her brother’s child or cousin’s child. Then she said she was glad her cousin was sleeping with her because her brother was leaving her alone.”

Nearly 90 percent of teenage girls 12-17 who have been raped said they knew the identity of the perpetrators, according to a 2006 survey by the National Institute of Justice. In one out of five cases, the girls said the perpetrator was a relative.

Sexual violence experts say a high percentage of teens in relationships with older men were sexually abused as children. “Part of what you learn in a violent home is a devaluation of other lives,” says Sojourner’s Pitre.

Men who were abused as kids rarely disclose this, but they’re more prone to mistreat their sexual partners, say advocates. Abused girls, by comparison, equate sexual abuse with acceptance and affection. “They don’t see what’s healthy,” Pitre says. “Love and sex and violence get all involved in this complicated experience. If you don’t weed it out, they will live it in some way.” They end up in abusive relationships because that is all they know.

Incest can be very divisive to a family. Parents often refuse to believe a victimized teen, and the assault goes unreported, leaving the victim with few good choices: Either endure the assault or leave home. Victims won’t come forward and family members won’t report offenders, knowing the perpetrator – a cousin, an uncle, a father – could go to prison and be registered for life as a sex offender.

Gerry Howze, director of program services for PEARLS for Teen Girls, calls the incidence of incest a pandemic.

“As mandated reporters, we report the assault, the parents find out, they snatch the girl from our group, and we never see her again,” Howze says. “It can be an awful lot for these children to process.”

The Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative was started in 2005 as part of a nationwide drive to encourage fathers to remain active in their children’s lives. The group’s director and visionary, Terence Ray, started the program with the help of Mayor Tom Barrett. Ray, 49, is an African-American and father of two teen daughters who fervently believes in the group’s mission.

“The child is not created solely by the mother,” he says. “You need both to have a healthy child. When you have an involved, responsible and committed father, you can’t nothave a successful child.”

The Fatherhood Initiative is a resource center and advocacy group for dads from all backgrounds. Each fall, it holds a four-day summit to celebrate fatherhood, introduce positive role models, and help bridge the gap between absent fathers and their children.

Last fall, the group teamed with Serve Marketing on a video contest called “Get At You.” Nearly 200 unscripted videos were shot of Milwaukee men telling what it means to be a responsible adult. One of the five winners was a middle-aged African-American named Aubrey who, in his video, scolds men for not “standing by their seed.”

I hate to see a man bragging about five or six baby mommas and they don’t take care of not a one. That’s disrespectful. That’s not being a man.

Another contest winner, a young man called “Ishmael B,” raps about older guys with teenage girls:

This is Izzy, and I’m gettin’ at you…

Older guys, younger chicks? You grown men, ya’ll need to split.

That could be my baby sister. Matter of fact, yours. That’s one thing you wish you woulda known.

How could you impregnate a young girl then leave her? You shoulda thought about that underage girl. Now you’re screwing over two lives – both of them, even the one in the womb, and yours more or less old enough to be your 

Being able to game some young girl into sex. That’s what makes you a real man? Never...

In its literature, the Fatherhood Initiative notes this woeful statistic from the U.S. Census Bureau: Nearly 2 in 3 African-American children, 1 in 3 Hispanic children and 1 in 4 white children live in father-absent homes.

“Particularly in the black community, the matriarchal role is so prominent – paramount, even,” Ray says.

According to a survey taken at a 2006 Fatherhood Summit, the overwhelming number of men said they’d grown up in homes headed by women. “Eighty-five percent said they got information on how to be a better father by their mother or other women in their lives,” says Ray.

“The role of the black male has been so demonized,” Ray notes, that black men have lost much of their one-time influence, “even within our own culture.” The absent male figure has now become the norm.

Ray points to the neighborhood barber shop: Once you saw fathers and sons getting haircuts on Saturdays. It was a ritual for boys, a way to bond with fathers. Now, Ray says, it’s mostly mothers taking their sons for haircuts.

“Most of the time, the young fathers don’t want to get involved because their dad wasn’t involved,” Ray says. “But, look man, you dropped the seed. Now you have to be responsible.”

Ray has little sympathy for older men who sleep with underage girls. “Some things I won’t compromise on. My belief is strengthened by the fact I have daughters myself.”

As the role of the father has been diminished, there’s a lower expectation that he become involved with a child’s upbringing. “We’ve been used to having single mothers as the heads of households in Milwaukee for a long time,” says Danae Davis, chief executive officer of PEARLS for Teen Girls. “The tragedy is, the absence of fathers has a spillover, not only on boys but on girls, too, because they don’t know what it is to have a positive, loving relationship with an older male.”

Then along comes the neighborhood predator, who promises to fill the void for a young girl: I’m going to take you out of here, I’m going to give you everything you need.

But it seldom works that way. In 2008, according to paternity records logged by the Milwaukee Health Department, 62 percent of the children born to mothers ages 15-17 had “no father on record.”

After school on a Wednesday, 14 high school girls – ninth- and 10th-graders – gather at the Northside YMCA to give their opinions about a whole range of contentious subjects, from condom use to the number of baby mommas to dating older men. The discussion is freewheeling and uncensored.

The group is one of 24 that meet weekly in schools, churches and community centers across town. The meetings are led by PEARLS for Teen Girls, a North Side nonprofit that targets young girls and women (ages 10-19) from Milwaukee’s most impoverished ZIP codes. Started in 1993, PEARLS, at its core, is a pregnancy prevention program. By teaching participating teens the qualities that are spelled out in its acronym – Personal Responsibility, Empathy, Awareness, Respect, Leadership and Support – PEARLS has scored a laudable track record. In 2010, not one of the 791 girls enrolled in PEARLS became pregnant. Since 2007, just six participating young women have gotten pregnant.

The girls in the Wednesday group don't hold back. When asked if there are pregnant teens at their school, all but two say yes. “At my school, it’s like a pregnant girl in every one of my classes. It’s just ridiculous,” says one girl. “People don’t even talk about it. It’s like you see them all over.”

“Fact is, some people want to get pregnant, to feel completed or something,” says another girl.

“People should be accepting,” adds another.

The conversation shifts to dating older men. Is it OK for a freshman or sophomore to go out with a boy 18 and still in school? Most say yes. “It’s only a number,” says one. “You’ve got the choice to say no to sex.”

But another says no. “You don’t know what’s going on in a boy’s mind. All they think about is getting booty.”

To the question, though, “Is it OK for a 14- or 15-year-old girl to have sex with a 19- or 20-year-old?” the girls answer with a resounding “no.” A clear dividing line has been drawn.

“That’s not cool because some girls get raped and sexually harassed,” says one young woman. “Girls that age should not have sex – period,” says another.

“I knew an older boy who lied about his age,” a girl says. “He said he was 17. He was 23. I found out he had other little girls he was dating.”

The discussion takes a sharp turn to the question of how teenage girls dress and how they get blamed for trying to look older than they are. That strikes a nerve and everyone talks at once. No, it is not to deliberately tempt the boys, says one teen. It’s more of a practical issue. “At 12, I couldn’t fit in girls’ clothes anymore,” she says, so she had to start shopping in the women’s department.

“You can’t help it if your body develops at a certain age,” says another girl.

The fashion industry is a factor, some note. “You can’t wear baggy pants, you gotta wear skinny jeans,” complains a young woman. “They even make bikinis for little girls. It’s inappropriate.”

Another teen nods, then offers her own advice: “If you’re trying to impress boys, don’t let them see what’s on the outside. Let them see what’s on the inside.” She smiles proudly and wins a chorus of affirmation – and a round of fist bumps from her peers.

The members of United Way’s sexual violence subcommittee have gathered to consider proposed ads from Serve Marketing.

“The message has got to be new and bold, but informative,” says committee member Vanessa Key. “And it has to stay out there or they’re going to continue to prey.

“Some people don’t want to hear it,” she adds. “But we have to let them know what’s healthy and what’s not. It’s got to feel unnatural for the community to know something like this is happening.”

Milwaukee Health Commissioner Baker, who works with the subcommittee, puts it this way: “Sometimes you have to air your dirty linen to make it clean.”

Among the new outdoor ads going up is a cartoon poster of a black Cinderella princess. She’s wearing a tiara and smiling her prettiest someday-my-prince-will-come smile. But her words, printed in florid script across the poster board, undercut the fairy tale: “One day,” Cinderella says, “the man of my dreams will sweep me off my feet and rape me.”

Another ad shows a man, especially loathsome, standing before a girl’s frilly bed. “Don’t worry,” says the caption.“He’ll be done with your daughter before you know it.”

The ads catch members by surprise. They’re shocked, disgusted, creeped out.

Just the kind of reaction they want from the public.

The ads are approved unanimously. 

Kurt Chandler is a senior editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Write to him at kurt.chandler@milwaukeemag.com.

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