How Changing Views Of Sexual Assault Affect Trafficking Victims Like Cyntoia Brown

How Changing Views Of Sexual Assault Affect Trafficking Victims Like Cyntoia Brown

Heightened public opinion on sexual assault may be helping high-profile advocates speak out about an imprisoned woman who killed her sex trafficker.
Mary Rose Somarriba
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Have you seen the hashtag #FreeCyntoiaBrown lately on your social media feeds? It’s a growing campaign to grant parole and freedom to Cyntoia Brown, a 29-year-old woman who has served 13 years in prison for killing the man who sex-trafficked her. In 2004, when she was only 16, Brown was convicted of prostitution and murder, and given a life sentence without eligibility for parole until 2059.

Celebrities such as Rihanna and LeBron James have taken to social media to speak out against the verdict and call for legal action: “Imagine at the age of 16 being sex-trafficked by a pimp named ‘cut throat.’ After days of being repeatedly drugged and raped by different men you were purchased by a 43 year old child predator who took you to his home to use you for sex. You end up finding enough courage to fight back and shoot and kill him. You’re arrested as a result tried and convicted as an adult and sentenced to life in prison. This is the story of Cyntoia Brown. She will be eligible for parole when she is 69 years old. #FreeCyntoiaBrown”

This is the text that appeared on the image Rihanna shared on Instagram, alongside her exclamation: “Something is horribly wrong when the system enables these rapists and the victim is thrown away for life!” Champion basketball player LeBron James chimed in with outrage as well: “Guess she didn’t have the RIGHT to finally defend herself huh?!? … Cyntoia should be getting a award, medal of courage of sort instead of being locked up.” Reality TV star Kim Kardashian West, model and actor Cara Delevingne, and rap singer Snoop Dogg have used their social-media platforms to bring attention to the cause as well.

Talk About Blaming the Victim

Brown’s case certainly does seem like an unfair sentence. But the way her jury and judge viewed it in 2004 was the way many trafficked minors’ cases have been until now—treating the minor not as a victim but as a criminal. I think this is because our culture is finally starting to see sexual crimes against women for what they are, and we’re less compelled by narratives that would blame women for attracting men.

In her trial, Brown was wrongfully painted as a juvenile delinquent, committing crimes of prostitution and murder that made her worthy of being tried as an adult. In reality, Brown was repeatedly sexually assaulted, kidnapped, sex-trafficked, and forced into sex that since she was 16 would be statutory rape even if it had been consensual—it was not—and she acted in self-defense to kill one of her traffickers.

The two versions of this story are so starkly different it reminds me of the impressive 2013 film “Lovelace,” in which Amanda Seyfried depicts the story of porn star Linda Lovelace’s life as we were told it in the media versus how Lovelace told it in her memoir “Ordeal.” Media portrayed Lovelace as the first adult celebrity in America living a wealthy and glamorous life, while her memoir portrayed an abused and penniless woman sex-trafficked by her pimp Chuck Traynor.

For a long time, one of these narratives was more acceptable than the other. Lovelace died in 2002 with no one believing her. Brown has sat in prison for 13 years, because others preferred to see her as a freely acting adult rather than as a minor who was coerced into committing acts she never would have dreamed of doing on her own.

The Culture Is Shifting on Sexual Assault

I think our culture is shifting, and we have the anti-sexual assault movement in part to thank for it. The scales have been falling from our eyes since Bill Cosby’s assault allegations made headlines in 2014. Brock Turner, Dr. Luke, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and others followed, bringing us to the present fall of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., and Matt Lauer. More keep coming every day, and unfortunately, I expect they’ll keep coming.

This is likely because, somewhere along the way, we started to see new perspectives on assault, and we’re giving allegations more of a hearing. We heard Cosby’s alleged victims come forward with their testimonies that were eerily similar and no longer possible to overlook; we started to see the wrongfulness of assailants like Turner when we read his victim’s court statement that went public.

These women may not have been winning fair hearings or decisions in the justice system, but their voices have begun penetrating Americans’ hearts and minds. As a result, we’re starting to see things that the legal system appeared to be failing to. Public understanding of how sexual abuse affects women has only continued to grow, and I believe that’s what’s helping us to see Brown’s case for what it is.

Trafficked Women and Girls Are Not Criminals

Brown’s is not an isolated case. Not all sex-trafficked girls have succeeded in self-defense as Brown did. Many have watched their abusive and manipulative traffickers go free, while they’ve prosecuted for the crime of prostitution. More than 1,000 victims of child sex-trafficking are arrested and charged with prostitution each year in the United States, the advocacy group Rights4Girls states on its site: “Despite the fact that these children are too young to consent to any sexual activity, and the fact that federal law defines them as victims of human trafficking, they are not contemplated as victims.”

Instead many are arrested and prosecuted as child prostitutes, adding to their trauma. “There’s no such thing as a child prostitute,” Rights4Girls emphatically states, since prostitute implies the person is guilty of a crime.

The anti-trafficking group Shared Hope International too emphasizes how trafficking victims, at the young ages of 14 to 16 are too young and naive to know what’s happening when they’re lured into prostitution, even if they think they’re choosing it. “Society may call it prostitution but federal law calls it sex trafficking,” their site states. Shared Hope helps educate state and local law enforcement on how to correctly identify victims, and they’ve found that formerly trafficked women are the experts at seeing the signs where no one else sees them.

What influenced us as a society to be so quick to view poor girls like Brown as perpetrators instead of victims? Whatever it was, many of us have been guilty of very mistaken views regarding who’s responsible for many sexual crimes. With greater understanding of the harms of sexual assault having a cultural moment right now, one can only hope this turning tide will help cleanse us of misunderstanding sex-trafficked women as well.

Mary Rose Somarriba, who completed a 2012 Robert Novak journalism fellowship on the connections between pornography and sex trafficking, is a contributing editor for Verily Magazine.

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