Is an underage girl arrested for selling sex a criminal—or a victim of trafficking? Outraged activists want to send such girls to safe harbors, not jail.
BY CARRIE BAKER
B.W. was 13 years old when she was offered to perform oral sex for $20 on an undercover officer in Texas. The officer arrested her and booked her as an adult. Despite evidence that B.W. had a history of sexual and physical abuse, was living with a 32-year-old “boyfriend” and under Texas law was considered incapable of consenting to sex because she was under 14, the county DA charged her with prostitution and obtained a conviction.
Is a 13-year-old girl selling sex on the streets a criminal? This question is now being asked around the nation, generating vigorous debate and concrete action. In April, New York became the first state to enact a policy against prosecuting girls under age 18 for prostitution, with its groundbreaking Safe Harbor for Exploited Children Act. The act also provides support and services to sexually exploited youth under 16.
Similarly, Connecticut, Illinois and Washington recently passed laws that decriminalize prostituted children. The Illinois law, which awaited the governor’s signature at press time, exempts adolescents through age 17 from prosecution for prostitution. The activists behind these laws all argue the same thing: that prostituted girls are victims of sex trafficking.
At this point, “sex trafficking” tends to conjure images of girls in Southeast Asian brothels or women from former Soviet bloc states. Rarely do we think of U.S. girls as trafficked. Only this year, for the first time, did the U.S. State Department include this country in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report.
“As a nation, we’ve graded and rated other countries on how they address trafficking within their borders and yet have effectively ignored the sale of our own children within our own borders,” said Rachel Lloyd of the New York-based anti-trafficking organization Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS), in recent testimony before Congress. “Katya from the Ukraine will be seen as a real victim, and provided with services and support, but Keisha from the Bronx will be seen as a ‘willing participant,’ someone who is out there because she ‘likes it’ and who is criminalized and thrown in detention or jail.” The idea that the commercial sexual exploitation of girls is sex trafficking has, in fact, been established in U.S. federal law since the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) went on the books in 2000, defining sex trafficking to include the commercial sexual exploitation of youth under 18, whether by consent or not. At the federal level, this policy has been enforced: The FBI’s Innocence Lost National Initiative has removed more than 1,000 children from prostitution and convicted more than 570 pimps since 2003. However, the federal directive has been slow to take hold on the state and local levels: Police officers across the country still arrest sexually exploited girls and treat them as criminals. And studies show there are plenty of girls out there to arrest.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that 100,000 U.S. children each year are victims of commercial sexual exploitation within our borders. The Justice Department’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section estimates that nearly 300,000 U.S. youth are currently at risk of becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation because they are runaways, throwaways, homeless or in other circumstances that make them particularly vulnerable to exploitation. In fact, according to 2009 figures from the Bureau of Justice, a third of sex-trafficking allegations in the United States involved minors, mostly girls. The median age of entry into prostitution in the United States is shockingly young: 12 to 14 years old for girls.
Despite these statistics, activists in this country have had to fight hard to get people to recognize and care about the situation. New York’s safe-harbor act is revolutionary in stating that sexually exploited girls under 18 are to be considered sex-trafficking victims, not criminals. Yet the state of Georgia recently rejected a similar safe-harbor law that would have exempted minor girls from prosecution for prostitution.
And who opposed it? The Georgia Christian Coalition, the Georgia Baptist Convention and other conservative organizations staged protests and letter-writing campaigns, claiming the law would legalize child prostitution. They argued that arresting girls was the best way to get them off the streets and out of the hands of pimps. Wrote Sue Ella Deadwyler, a conservative Christian activist, in her newsletter Georgia insight, “Some boys and girls know the law, defy the law and decide to choose prostitution as a way to make money.” So Georgia continues to criminalize prostituted girls—even though, under Georgia’s statutory rape law, a girl under 16 is not considered capable of consenting to sex.
The decision to prosecute these girls rather than provide a safe harbor only makes them more vulnerable, and more numerous. A 2010 study shows that 500 girls aged 17 and under are sold for sex each month in Georgia, with 7,200 men paying for sex with adolescent females (whether they know their age or not). Meanwhile, as in Texas, the considerably older pimps and buyers almost always avoid arrest.
Nonetheless, activists in Atlanta are continuing their fight to change the situation. Almost a decade ago, a diverse coalition of women leaders in Georgia’s largest city started agitating around this issue: They include the first woman to be a Fulton County commissioner, Nancy Boxill; Atlanta Women’s Foundation founder Stephanie Davis; Women’s Funding Network executive Deborah Richardson; and juvenile court judges Nina Hickson and Glenda Hatchett, who had noticed increasing numbers of young girls coming through their courts on prostitution charges. The coalition sought to increase public awareness, reform the law and raise money for a treatment facility for girls coming out of commercial sexual exploitation—and they fulfilled all three goals. In 2001, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran a series of articles entitled, “Selling Atlanta’s Children”; that same year the Georgia Legislature made pimping a child a felony (it had formerly been a misdemeanor), and private donations led to the creation of a shelter for trafficked girls, Angela’s House, which was one of the first of its kind in the U.S.
Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, who took office in 2002, emerged as a courageous voice against the commercial sexual exploitation of girls. Her Atlanta Women’s Agenda, an initiative to give voice to women’s issues in the city, conducted a groundbreaking study in 2005 called “Hidden in Plain View: The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Girls in Atlanta.” It discovered extensive child prostitution in Atlanta’s thriving “adult entertainment” industry. The next year, Mayor Franklin ran a “Dear John” media campaign imploring men to stop buying Atlanta’s children (see page 27). In the press conference for the campaign, Franklin revealed that she herself was sexually abused at the hands of a friend’s father when she was 9 years old. In telling her own story, she wanted to show that “bad things happen to good people” and that “young women and girls who are exploited didn’t do anything to deserve this.”
In 2007, several local groups, including the Atlanta Women’s Foundation, launched the “A Future. Not A Past.” (AFNAP) campaign to stop child prostitution in Georgia. AFNAP helped establish the Georgia Care Connection, which provides services to sex-trafficked children and educates police not to arrest girls but to direct them to services.
A grassroots initiative to combat commercial sexual exploitation of girls emerged in New York nearly a decade earlier. Rachel Lloyd, herself a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation, founded GEMS as a “survivor-informed, survivor-led” organization that offers “gender responsive services…within a social-justice framework.” It’s now one of the largest providers of services to commercially sexually exploited girls in the country. To raise awareness, GEMS produced a compelling film in 2007, Very Young Girls, featuring the stories of girls who were controlled and exploited by much-older pimps. Lloyd and many of the young women who have come through GEMS have testified at the local, state and national level on behalf of better laws and services to protect and empower trafficked girls, including New York’s safe-harbor act. The effort for the latter began with a case very similar to the Texas case of B.W.: 12-year-old Nicolette R. offered to perform oral sex on an undercover officer in the Bronx for $40, and he arrested her for prostitution. She was later convicted. Legal-aid attorney Katherine Mullen appealed her case, but a Bronx County Family Court judge dismissed the appeal, saying that the girl needed to learn “proper moral principles.” Mullen and Lloyd then began a four-and-a-half-year effort to change the law. A primary motivation was the double standard in which, as Lloyd describes it, “One child is a victim of statutory rape and another child is considered a willing participant because money was exchanged.” Passing the nation’s first safeharbor act, says Lloyd, showed girls who have felt powerless how to “recognize the power of their voice, the power of their story, the power of their advocacy efforts.”
Lloyd and Mayor Franklin, along with other activists around the country, have also taken on the website Craigslist, which has become a major venue for pimps to sell young girls. In 2007, Franklin called on the site to remove ads selling underage girls. Attorneys general from several states, including Illinois, Connecticut and Missouri, demanded that Craigslist crack down on prostitution ads. In May of 2009, Craigslist did eliminate the “erotic services” section of its website, replacing it with “adult services” and requiring those posting ads to pay a fee. The website also promised to review each posting to this category.
But many of the same ads selling young girls still appear, and Lloyd continues to apply pressure. She recently published an open letter to Craigslist CEO Jim Buckmaster in a Change.org blog post, asking him to stop facilitating the commercial sexual exploitation of girls, and Change.org has started a petition campaign at humantrafficking. change.org. The Women’s Funding Network and AFNAP also took on Craigslist by commissioning a 2010 study of adolescent girls commercially exploited for sex in Georgia, showing that sex ads placed on Craigslist received three times as many responses as identical ads placed on its closest competitor’s website.
In response, on June 7, Craigslist issued a cease-and-desist to WFN, alleging defamation and distributing false information. “We stand by our study,” says WFN’s chief program officer Deborah Richardson, who contends that addressing demand is critical to ending the commercial sexual exploitation of girls. “Our first step is to make the public aware of how the exploitation industry has shifted, with so much of it taking place on the Internet now because it provides practically a no-risk situation for both the johns and the traffickers.”
But one can’t just blame the Internet for the increasing numbers of girls sold for sex in the U.S.; it’s a deeper societal issue. Observers have noted the increasing sexualization of young girls in our culture, which helps normalize men’s demands for younger and younger sexual partners and teaches girls that to be acceptable they have to be sexual. Lloyd argues that “corporate-sponsored pimping” plays a role in sex trafficking of girls by glamorizing prostitution. For example, Reebok awarded a multi-million-dollar five-year contract for two shoe lines to rapper 50 Cent, whose album “Get Rich or Die Tryin’” (with the hit single “P.I.M.P.”) went platinum. Rapper Snoop Dogg, who showed up at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards with two women on dog leashes and who was described on the December 2006 cover of Rolling Stone as “America’s Most Lovable Pimp,” has received endorsement deals from Orbit gum and Chrysler. The mostly white leaders these corporations thus profit from these race-stereotyped images of black men, and care little about the effects these images may have on communities.
Corporations also act the pimp by pervasively selling young girls’ sexualized bodies, such as Miley Cyrus’ pole dancing performance on the Teen Choice Awards. Then of course, there are the highly sexualized Bratz dolls marketed to girls.
The American Psychological Association’s Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls recently published a report describing how the “proliferation of sexualized images of girls and young women in advertising, merchandising and media is harming girls’ self-image and healthy development.” Psychologists have further identified a process of self-objectification, in which girls treat their own bodies only as objects of others’ desires (see “Out of Body Image” in Ms., Spring 2008). This process doesn’t just negatively affect the sexual and physical health of developing girls, but can affect their mental health, cognitive functioning and even motor skills.
Other reasons for the increasing involvement of girls in commercial sexual exploitation are the soaring rates of child poverty in the U.S.—currently 19 percent—and the lack of social support services for girls in poverty and homeless youth. In Atlanta, the numbers are even higher: 32 percent of youth under 18 live in poverty, with 18 percent living in extreme poverty. Similarly, in New York City, 38 percent of children in the Bronx and 34 percent of those in Brooklyn live in poverty.
The spike in girls showing up before juvenile courts on charges of prostitution that was noticed by Judge Hickson in Atlanta occurred shortly after the substantial weakening of the social safety net in our country with the passage of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. After this law went into effect, the number of children receiving government support went down significantly, but not the number of children in poverty. Girls are also propelled into the streets by high rates of physical and sexual abuse in their homes. Recent studies show that 71 to 95 percent of prostituted youths have previously been sexually or physically abused. High rates of poverty and abuse—in combination with the pressures of American materialism and consumerism that equate personal happiness and value with the products you possess—create a dangerous environment for young girls.
Arresting sexually exploited girls for prostitution is an egregious form of blaming the victim. Society’s treatment of these girls is rife with double standards: We care about abused girls abroad but not at home, we prosecute underage girls but not the adult men buying and pimping them, and we charge some young girls with prostitution while protecting others with statutory rape laws. Lloyd attributes the lack of concern for the girls being prostituted to the fact that “the young people who are impacted by this in this country…are young people who live in poverty, they are young people who are in the child welfare system or the juvenile justice system, and they are just not highly valued by society on many levels.” The buyers, however, are “regular men” from all parts of society—our legislatures, law enforcement, media and the justice system, as well as teachers and clergy—“folks in power” who don’t want change. According to Stephanie Davis, “This country continues to demonize women and girls and so, therefore, makes them the ones who are responsible for this.”
Rather than blaming the victims, advocates around the country are calling on governments to stop arresting these girls and instead provide them with the social services they need, reserving criminal prosecution for the perpetrators—the pimps and johns. Campaigns for safe-harbor laws are underway in Florida, California, Minnesota, Texas, Maryland and Pennsylvania. But these laws depend on funding to provide services for girls. In New York, funding for services critical to the success of the safe-harbor law have not yet been allocated because of the budget deficit. Across the country, funding for victims of domestic sex trafficking of minors is very limited; fewer than 50 beds are available to address the needs of the 100,000 children victimized, according to a recent statement by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (DN.Y.).
In response to the need, Maloney, co-chair of the House Human Trafficking Caucus and a leader in the fight against trafficking, has introduced the Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Deterrence and Victim Support Act. (Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has sponsored the companion bill in the Senate, S.B. 2925.) According to Maloney, “Lack of appropriate shelters often force law enforcement to send the victims to juvenile detention facilities, where there is no access to services, or release them knowing they are likely to end up back in the hands of their pimps.” The act would provide $50 million over three years to develop shelters and services for youth escaping sexual exploitation. The act will also attack the demand component of the problem by funding prevention programs aimed at potential buyers, and it will provide resources for law enforcement and prosecutors to go after pimps and buyers.
Meanwhile, back in Texas, attorneys for B.W. appealed her case—and the Texas Supreme Court reversed the conviction on June 18. “Children are the victims, not the perpetrators, of child prostitution,” said the court. “In the last year or two,” says attorney Karen Harpold of Houston-based Children at Risk, “there has been so much more awareness about human trafficking and these problems. I think it’s changing, and I think there’s definitely that critical mass of people who are working on it to make real changes.” “In ten years,” adds Rachel Lloyd of GEMS, “we will look back and consider it ludicrous that we ever prosecuted children for prostitution.”
CARRIE BAKER is a professor of sociology, anthropology and women’s studies at Berry College in Rome, Georgia. She is author of The Women’s Movement Against Sexual Harassment (Cambridge University Press, 2007).
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