Despite strides in US sex trafficking laws, no justice for child victims
(MintPress)-“As a child I wanted to be a lawyer,” said Honesty Avidan, survivor of prostitution and sex trafficking. By the age of 14, Avidan had been sexually abused for four years. With a mother working as a prostitute and several family members working as pimps, Avidan followed the example set by her family and started her own escort service at 15 years-old. “If it was good enough for my mom, I thought it must be good enough for me,” Avidan told MintPress.
After begging for help on national television and entering an unsuccessful rehabilitation program at 17, Avidan was back in the commercial sex industry and facing her first encounter with police. Avidan recounted, “No one asked me what I was running from…we are not sexually promiscuous for no reason…no one cared that I was raped.”
Over 1.2 million children are sexually trafficked every year throughout the world. Human trafficking is the largest growing industry in the world, second largest behind the illegal drug trade. In the United States alone, as many as 300,000 children are victims of sex trafficking each year, not including the tens of thousands of women and girls trafficked into the United States annually from other countries.
“Prostitution is violence against women and girls,” says Vednita Carter, founder and executive director of Breaking Free, an organization providing services to women and girls, including Avidan, who have been victims of abuse and commercial sexual exploitation. Carter believes prostitution and sex trafficking are one in the same, saying, “It is about somebody buying, selling, and trading an individual whether it is in China or here in America…and it is wrong.”
Yet, despite widespread acknowledgment that sex trafficking is modern-day slavery, individuals under the age of 18 continue to be prosecuted for prostitution while “johns” who purchase young girls for sex receive minimal punishments and small fines. In the state of Minnesota, the maximum penalty for “johns” is only $750.
The average age of entrance into the commercial sex industry in the United States is 12-14 years-old for girls and 11-13 years-old for boys. A 2008 study by the Center for Court Innovation and John Jay College of Criminal Justice found the size of the population of commercially sexually exploited children in New York City alone to be an estimated 3,769 – which is believed to be an underestimation.
The average age of death for a woman involved in prostitution is 34, and the “workplace homicide rate” of prostitution is 51% higher than the next most dangerous occupation.
An internal study by Breaking Free found that 85% of women and girls in the program were victims of rape/molestation before the age of 18, 85% are victims of assault with a deadly weapon, and 57% have been kidnapped at some point in their lives.
State Rankings and Safe Harbor Laws
Under the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), a person under the age of 18 who is induced by force, fraud, or coercion to perform commercial sex acts is considered a victim of severe forms of trafficking. The term “commercial sex act” means any sex act on account of which anything of value is given to or received by any person
Yet, under state statutes, a person under the age of 18 who is engaging in commercial sex acts is viewed as a juvenile delinquent, punishable by law. States have been criticized for hypocritical policies that say children may be prosecuted for prostitution while simultaneously claiming that youth are too young to consent to sex.
Robin Phillips, executive director of the Advocates for Human Rights, explains that if a 25 year-old has sex with a 15 year-old, it is rape – the rapist is the perpetrator punishable by law. However, if the same 25 year-old has sex with the same 15 year-old, but money is exchanged, even if through a third party pimp, then the 15 year-old becomes the criminal in the eyes of state laws.
According to End Child Prostitution Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes (ECPAT), even if law enforcement identifies a person as under 18, officers often follow state statutes and treat her/him as a juvenile offender due to a lack of training, lack of alternative resources for victims, and misperceptions about what child victims experience.
There has been some progress by states to pass legislation to protect child victims of sexual exploitation. According to the 2011 annual state ratings on human trafficking legislation by the Polaris Project, a grassroots approach to combating modern-day slavery, nearly a dozen states have comprehensive human trafficking laws in place.
California tops the list of 11 states with the highest rankings. Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, New York, and Texas also made the list. Six of the top 11 states passed new statutes on human trafficking in 2011.
Minnesota, ranked sixth in the nation for anti-trafficking legislation, passed the Safe Harbors Law in 2011, which will take effect in 2014 by decriminalizing prostitution among youth under 16 years-old and paving a way for the establishment of protective services for child victims. At the time the bill was passed, only four other states had passed similar safe harbor laws.
In Texas, ranked ninth, the Supreme Court issued a decision in 2010 on the case of a 13 year-old commercially sexually exploited child who was prosecuted for prostitution. The court found that a child under the age of 14 cannot be prosecuted for prostitution due to the obvious conflict with consent laws.
An examination of 10 categories of state statutes that Polaris Project believes are critical to effectively combating human trafficking showed that while 27 states rated in the top two categories, 24 states remain in the bottom two categories, meeting less than four of the recommended statutes.
Nine states received a ranking of 0-2 statutes addressing human trafficking in 2011: Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Massachusetts, Montana, South Carolina, South Dakota, West Virginia, and Wyoming.
Kentucky, currently ranked in the bottom two categories, is expected to discuss passing a safe harbor law in early 2012.
Gaps in Existing Law
The Polaris Project documents laws on the books to motivate legislators and policy advocates in order to focus attention on states that still need to pass legislation to create a strong anti-trafficking legal framework. However, the project fails to assess the effectiveness or implementation of these laws, nor the work of task forces, law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, service providers, and advocates within the state.
There is no guarantee that passing legislation will solve issues of sex trafficking if not properly implemented. In the past decade, human trafficking cases have only been prosecuted under state statutes in 18 states, including only one state human trafficking conviction ever in the state of Wisconsin.
Additionally, Safe Harbor bills only apply to youth, despite the fact that most adults in the commercial sex industry were still trafficked between 12 and 14 years-old. A 19 year-old sex slave who entered the industry at age 15 is not able to come forward for help without facing prosecution for prostitution.
“There isn’t an age where someone trafficked at 14 year-old turns into a consenting adult, and the laws need to acknowledge that,” says Phillips. Carter of Breaking Free agrees. “Sex trafficking is slavery,” Carter told MintPress, and regardless of age, “slavery is not about consent.”
Phillips and Carter believe Safe Harbor bills are a step in the right direction, “but we need to acknowledge what is happening to all women, not just youth,” said Phillips. Phillips also believes in the need to fight the myths of the entertainment industry that normalize the sex trade and do little to reduce demand for commercial sex services.
Individuals who wish to leave the commercial sex industry face housing challenges, physical and mental health issues, and chemical dependency obstacles. Breaking Free is one of the few programs providing transitional housing, education and health services for women, and community awareness programs perpetrators to help stop commercial sexual exploitation.
According to Avidan, “The last thing we [victims of prostitution and sexual trafficking] need is more sympathy. We need jobs, food, homes, education, and we need your voice.” Avidan has been out of the commercial sex life for over 16 years and now volunteers with Demand the Change for Children, a program working directly with children to prevent youth from becoming victims of prostitution.
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