Read my January 11th Human Trafficking Awareness Day blog post for Ms. Magazine.
I am a survivor of the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC), specifically family-controlled child sex trafficking and child pornography. I am now a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, utilizing my experience to conduct gender-based, data-driven research on state-level CSEC legislation—specifically factors associated with states that decriminalize versus criminalize sex-trafficked children.
29 states currently retain the right to arrest and prosecute a children for prostitution. Even though the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) mandates that all children who are sexually exploited for commercial purposes are human trafficking victims, the majority of states criminalize them. Understanding this tension is important, because local police interact with sex-trafficked minors more often than federal officials—and they determine if sex-trafficked children are treated as criminals or victims.
State prosecutors and law enforcement often cite the need to be able to control “non-compliant” sexually exploited minors as justification for threats of arrest and prosecution, and criminal justice officials also argue that putting CSEC victims in detention “protects them” from traffickers and sex buyers. These policies ignore the likelihood that incarceration may re-traumatize sex-trafficked children, since up to 90 percent of sexually exploited minors have prior histories of child sexual abuse and neglect, and that those with histories of violence often have difficulties trusting others, especially authority figures such as police. These policies also fail to consider that sex-trafficked children may be under the psychological control of their traffickers, due to trauma bonding.
Refusing to acknowledge the numerous ways criminalization can trigger a traumatic response by CSEC victims undermines their legitimacy as victims. Legal authorities claim that they are working with “uncooperative” victims, but their policies drive those same victims—who see these procedures as an attempt to control, not protect, them—toward stress responses. I invite criminal justice agents to join with CSEC advocates and demand more resources such as safe housing and funding for support programs so that jail is not seen as the only option for “protecting” sex trafficked children. In addition to re-traumatizing victims, arresting and prosecuting them disregards the long-term implications of having a criminal record—such as impeding future housing, employment or educational opportunities.
Sex-trafficked minors are expected to make a “rational choice” of protection by authorities or cooperate with prosecutors; otherwise, they remain suspect of deviance or complicit in their exploitation. Exploited minors begin to be seen as criminals, not victims of a violent crime, if they do not choose to be “rescued” by law enforcement. For female victims, the implications are compounding: Being perceived as “out of control” is particularly problematic for sexually exploited girls, especially girls of color, for whom acting outside of racialized, feminine ideals such as purity and obedience increases their risk of being labeled “deviant.”
Historically, sexually exploited children have been labeled “bad kids” who do not deserve non-criminal protection and services. It is argued this bias occurs because they do not fit our current cultural narrative of childhood being a time of innocence. This model of purity requires that children be white and heterosexual, with little or no sexual knowledge (even if sexual knowledge has been obtained through violence). They should have access to quality education and adequate healthcare. They must live in secure housing within a heterosexual nuclear family. Sex-trafficked youth with experiences far outside of this model can be seen as “willing participants” in their exploitation who need to be controlled, not victims in need of services and support.
I was sexually abused and trafficked by an immediate family member from infancy until early adolescence; my exploiter used a CB radio to advertise me to truckers traveling along the interstate near our house. The exploitation ended once I hit puberty—my exploiters’ clientele only liked very young girls—and going to college was my ticket away from my exploiter and my family. I often wonder if I would still be getting my Ph.D. if I had been arrested or prosecuted for prostitution while being exploited. I am doubtful, because I would not have qualified for student financial aid. Therefore, I hope my research and decriminalization advocacy will “pay it forward” for fellow CSEC victims and survivors—especially those with academic dreams.