When police came upon a 13-year-old girl selling sex in North Hollywood, they promptly handcuffed her, arrested her and hauled her off to detention. As is the case in many states, juvenile prostitution carries a sentence of up to two years in California, according to The Washington Post.
While the fallout for this case might seem to have followed a perfectly apt protocol, the girl never should have seen the inside of a cell, just as much as a victim of rape never would.
According to federal law, any individual under 18 who performs a commercial sex act in exchange for compensation is by definition a victim of sex trafficking, not a prostitute. Yet, these young victims are labeled as “child prostitutes” in the media and are often treated as criminals before the law.
More than 1,000 children every year are arrested for prostitution, even though most of them aren’t of age to consent to sex at all.
Child welfare agencies often don’t get involved with such crimes, because the perpetrators usually aren’t parents or caregivers, Malika Saada Saar, director of Rights4Girls, wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post last year. These groups turn the cases over to law enforcement officials who typically view the children as prostitutes, and therefore the victims aren’t interviewed by sexual violence experts, nor are they provided with the legal protections that are afforded to sexually assaulted minors.
Instead of getting sent to rehabilitation centers, they’re often sent off to jail.
“‘Child prostitute’ suggests consent or agency, when, in this case, there really is none,” Saada Saar and Cindy McCain, trafficking advocates, wrote in a HuffPost blog. “Moreover, the term ‘child prostitute’ has the effect of dismissing the victimization and abuse that has been committed against the child, and makes it somehow different or more tolerable from other forms of rape or sexual abuse of minors.”
More than 90% of children who are commercially sexually exploited were sexually abused earlier in their lives.
This emphasizes the need for prevention. Imagine how many children we could save if we only made the choice to arm ourselves with knowledge – knowledge of the issue, knowledge of the signs of abuse, knowledge of how to prevent and stop abuse from happening. Imagine if every community made the proactive decision to protect its children.
We should never mistake or mislabel “child prostitution” – it is, quite simply, child sexual abuse.
Whether children are under the control of a trafficker, or pimp, or whether they are exchanging sex for food, a place to sleep, or even illegal substances, they are victims. By labeling them as prostitutes, we normalize the issue and imply that these children are willing and able to consent to sexual acts. They are not.
Bottom line – these are children.
These are the children of our communities. They are daughters, sons, nieces, nephews, sisters, brothers. They need help, not harmful labels or jail time.