The Politics of Fighting Child Sex Trafficking in the U.S.

Earlier this year, Congress passed two laws—the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, known as SESTA-FOSTA—that allow states to criminally prosecute internet service providers who “promote or facilitate” prostitution of another person and allow individuals to sue internet service providers for civil damages for harm resulting from such actions.

Very few issues win bipartisan support in today’s political climate, but child sex trafficking is one. These laws resulted from the efforts of a politically and ideologically diverse anti-child-sex-trafficking movement that included conservatives and liberals, feminists, evangelical Christians and others. But despite the broad-based, bi-partisan support for these laws, the politics behind them are complicated.

The United States has a long history of arresting and prosecuting young people involved in prostitution. But by 2015, youth in the sex trade came to be considered by many as victims of “domestic minor sex trafficking” rather than perpetrators of crime or delinquent youth. On February 12, 2015, the United States Senate passed a resolution stating that “there is no such thing as a ‘child prostitute.’” The resolution insisted that “children trafficked for sex in the United States should not be treated or regarded as child prostitutes” but rather as “victims or survivors of rape and sex trafficking.” The resolution emphatically concluded: “children in the United States are not for sale.”

This shift in understanding has been accompanied by shifts in public policy and an increase in services available to youth survivors of prostitution. As of 2015, 34 states had passed “safe harbor” laws that divert youth apprehended in prostitution into social services and away from delinquency proceedings or criminal prosecution. That same year, Congress passed a law encouraging all states to adopt safe harbor laws; by its end, there were at least 74 state and local task forces and working groups fighting against “domestic minor sex trafficking” around the country.

These complicated politics are the focus of my new book, Fighting the U.S. Youth Sex Trade: Gender, Race and Politics, which tells the story of how the contemporary movement to end child sex trafficking achieved these changes.

I first place this movement in a broad historical context—going back to the “white slave” trade campaigns of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the 1970s campaigns against juvenile prostitution. I argue that concern about youth in the sex trade has surged during times of social change relating to sex, gender, sexuality, race and immigration in the United States, and that a gendered and racialized discourse of adult-youth predation fueled this concern and shaped policy responses to the issue.

Since the 1970s, activists have often framed youth involvement in the sex trade as an “urban” problem that was invading white middle-class communities in suburban and rural areas—black men from cities luring young, innocent and naive white girls to the city and then forcing them to become prostitutes. This latter framing echoed a deeply-entrenched historical narrative of dangerous black masculinity and white female vulnerability, one that had fueled lynching in the nineteenth century and the “white slavery” campaigns of the early twentieth century. These racialized and gendered rescue narratives shaped the solutions activists pushed and lawmakers enacted, often focusing on protecting and rescuing (white) girls and criminally prosecuting (black) men.

In contrast to this mainstream framing of the issue, some activists focused on the sexual victimization of marginalized youth, especially poor black girls and LGBTQ youth, and argued that racist and homophobic stereotypes have driven both the involvement of these youth in the sex trade and their criminalization for it. Whereas many in the mainstream movement focused on protection, rescue and control of young people, others framed the issue in terms of empowerment of youths and the communities in which they live by focusing on the social systems that make poor girls of color vulnerable to sexual exploitation. These activists portrayed the issue as much more complicated than did the mainstream movement and resulting as much from failing social systems—like schools, child welfare, health care and law enforcement—as from criminal behavior of adult exploiters.

I tell the history of these varying strains of activism against the U.S. youth trade from the 1970s to the present. In my conclusion, I assess the impacts and implications of this movement.

While there has been a shift toward viewing some youth in the sex trades as victims rather than criminals, services are still significantly lacking and youth are still often stigmatized and detained—especially youth of color and LGBTQ youth. A disproportionate share of funding to address domestic minor sex trafficking goes toward law enforcement and criminal prosecution, thereby fueling the buildup of the prison industrial complex which erodes the communities where the most vulnerable youth live. Meanwhile, protective policies that control youth have prevailed over human rights-based policies that empower them.

Policymakers have not heeded calls to address the social conditions that make youth vulnerable to involvement in the sex trade. Neoliberal policies enacted to fight the youth sex trade have prioritized criminal justice approaches to the issue over addressing the tattered social safety net or societal biases against youth of color and sexual minorities. In fact, the movement’s dominant framing of the issue has often reinforced racialized and gendered narratives of sexual predation and victimization that reinforce the very systems that make youth vulnerable to sex trafficking in the first place.

As a result, this movement has led to simple solutions that are unlikely to solve the complex problem of youth involvement in the U.S. sex trade. I hope that by placing this issue in a larger historical and political context, this book will help activists and lawmakers rethink their agenda and pursue policies that are more likely to empower youth involved in the U.S. sex trade.

This post originally appeared on the Cambridge Core Blog. Republished with author permission.


Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman professor of American Studies and the chair of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.