When a young woman in Atlanta tried to escape her pimp in April 2010, his retaliation was swift and brutal. He ordered four other sex workers to beat the runaway until her eyes swelled shut and a bottle pierced her head.
Then the pimp locked the 21-year-old woman in a 3-by-5 foot dog cage overnight, bragging about her debasement by texting photos of the caged woman to other pimps. Police, tipped off by someone horrified by the photos, found the woman alive in a hotel and arrested the pimp and prostitutes.
A new law aimed at helping protect victims of sexual trafficking, will likely change the way such a case is handled.
Georgia legislators in April set higher fines and longer sentences on pimps, with a 25-year minimum prison sentence for coercing sex from anyone under 18. If a victim is under 16, those convicted of keeping a place of prostitution will be sentenced (PDF) to between 10 and 30 years. The new statutes (PDF) also protect adult women who were coerced into prostitution from being prosecuted.
An estimated 250 to 300 underage teens and girls are sexually exploited each month in Georgia, says Kaffie McCullough, campaign director of A Future. Not a Past, a campaign to reduce juvenile prostitution in Georgia. Yet many Georgians associate child sex trafficking with foreign countries and aren’t aware that it’s happening in their own state, she says.
Malika Saada Saar is founder of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, a group based in Washington, D.C., that works to prevent violence and exploitation of women. She echoes McCullough’s complaint that U.S. child exploitation gets ignored:
[There's support for] girls in India or Thailand, girls from fractured families who have endured abuse, who are very vulnerable, who have been lured or kidnapped into being trafficked for sex. But girls from those same situations from American circumstances are not recognized as victims; they are cast down as bad girls making bad decisions.
McCullough says the new law also allows prosecutors to seize the illegally gained assets of pimps and to use them for law enforcement, and to provide minors with victim compensation funds to provide counseling and residential treatment.
Kirsten Widner, director of policy and advocacy at the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Atlanta’s Emory Law School, helped draft the new Georgia law, which provides ways for prostituted adults and children to escape criminal charges if they can demonstrate they were coerced into sexual servitude. Forms of coercion include threats and providing drugs or shelter in exchange for sex. Like the privacy provisions of a rape shield law, this aspect of the law prevents prosecutors from using the sexual history of an exploited girl or woman against her in a criminal trial.
Georgia State Sen. Renee Unterman, a Republican, has championed the latest Georgia law, along with previous laws against child trafficking. A Democrat wouldn’t have gotten far in the Republican-controlled Atlanta legislature, says Unterman, and even she had to work hard to persuade her conservative colleagues that girls were being victimized in the state.
New laws on domestic sex trafficking are bringing the problem to light, says Samantha Vardaman, senior director of Shared Hope International in Washington, D.C., which is compiling a report card of such laws. But the nation, she says, “has a long way to go.”