There aren’t many crimes much more appalling than domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST)—the buying and selling of sex with girls and boys under 18 years old. State governments, law enforcement agencies, and victim advocates work together to rescue and restore its victims.
For decades, advocates have been sounding the alarm about sex trafficking in the United States. In 2000, Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), signed into law that same year. The TVPA defines sex trafficking as “The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act, in which the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age.”
Law enforcement agencies at the federal, state, and local level have created task forces and participated in investigations across the country to find and rescue victims of sex trafficking, particularly victims of DMST.
One would think these efforts would not be controversial, but in an article for the April print edition of Reason magazine, Elizabeth Nolan Brown takes the FBI to task for doing just that. Brown declares the FBI’s yearly Operation Cross Country investigation expensive and ineffective and says they do not rescue a significant enough number of underage victims to justify the cost.
All Sex Is Good Sex?
Her main complaint, however, is that, in her view, the FBI is functioning as a “national vice squad,” arresting more adults on charges stemming from prostitution activities than finding underage trafficking victims. She also calls into question the TVPA, particularly the provision that considers any prostituted minor to be a trafficking victim regardless of circumstances. She states that where there is no force, fraud, or coercion, prostitution of minors should not be considered child sex trafficking but instead called “statutory sex trafficking”—a distinction that makes no sense.
Brown continues by asserting that underage youth who are not being forced by a trafficker into selling sex do not need to be rescued and should not be compelled to take advantage of the victim services available. She complains that since services are spotty and of varying quality from place to place, these underage teens should be left alone to support themselves any way they can.
What Brown doesn’t tell you is who these young victims are. Many of the children and teens being prostituted in big cities and small towns across the U.S. are runaways or homeless youth. They engage in what advocates and law enforcement call “survival sex” to meet their basic needs for food and shelter. Their age and vulnerability make them easy targets for traffickers and buyers to exploit those basic needs and coerce them into prostitution.
Many trafficking victims come from families so broken they are in the state foster care system. Some have been in the juvenile justice system through run-ins with the law or because they are child welfare cases. These young people have no one to speak for them. Their families are a mess, and their friends as powerless as they are. Victim advocates or the foster care and juvenile justice systems are sometimes the only people these kids have to speak on their behalf.
Minor Prostitutes Aren’t Exactly Thinking Clearly
Anywhere from 80 to 90 percent of trafficked youth were sexually abused before they were trafficked, and the average age of first time trafficking victims is around 13 to 14 years old. Many of these kids come from extreme poverty. Traffickers are shrewd and prey on the weak and vulnerable, looking for girls and boys who are on the margins and have low self-esteem. Some children and teens are enticed into trafficking over social media through promises of modeling or dancing careers. Some of these youth have fallen in with the wrong crowd and are recruited into “the life” by other teens.
These young teens are dolled up to look like the fantasy they are selling. In reality—and in the eyes of the law—they are kids driven to the streets by need and neglect. Yet Brown clearly sympathizes with the buyers of these underage teens and doesn’t understand the harm they do.
She says, “The ‘children’ they [buyers] ultimately agree to meet are, in their minds, teenagers well past puberty and, in many instances, past the age of sexual consent in their states. These men may be guilty of flawed judgment or questionable morals, but they’re not pedophiles, not pimps, and certainly not traffickers.” The law, however, has no sympathy for these people, and neither should the rest of us. The men are exploiting the vulnerabilities of these youth, and that makes them traffickers and criminals.
Survivors of trafficking tell of violence and threats of violence at the hands of their traffickers. Sexual assaults, beatings, and verbal abuse are common from both traffickers and buyers. Traffickers hold their victims in bondage by physical violence and fear, by the trauma bonds formed between the trafficker and victim, and by substance abuse. Leaving is hard, as this survivor tells.
Prostitution Is Not Simply ‘Sex Work’
Field research in nine countries found that prostitution in general, not just sex trafficking, is brutal and damaging to women. Researchers found 60 to 75 percent of prostitutes had been raped, and 70 to 95 percent had experienced physical assault.
Tellingly, a full 68 percent showed symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder as severe as the PTSD symptoms seen in treatment-seeking combat veterans and victims of state-sponsored torture. The U.S. Department of State declares, “Prostitution leaves women and children physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually devastated. Recovery takes years, even decades—often, the damage can never be undone.”
This makes it all the more important that communities help these victims heal. On the prevention side, communities need to address youth homelessness and underlying social and family problems that drive youth out onto the streets. Organizations such as YouthSpark in Atlanta meet these kids where they are by working closely with the Fulton County Juvenile Court, which serves the largest concentration of at-risk youth in the southeast.
Once children and teens have fallen victim to traffickers, it takes a full complement of services to restore them to health. They need counselors trained in trauma-informed care to address the traumas that are part of the trafficking experience for most victims. Many have their educations interrupted, so they need assistance to catch up and ensure they receive a high school diploma.
Job training and college prep are important as well. Sometimes victims need residential care, including care for substance abuse and addiction, and service providers must be careful to understand the parent/guardian situation to avoid sending youth back into abusive environments. In Georgia, we provide all of the above services—certainly more than the “bags of socks and snacks” Brown claims frequently constitute victim services.
How About We Focus on Victims, Not the FBI?
Unfortunately, access to services is different from state to state and city to city. It takes a community and statewide focus to build a proper safety net for victims. State and local leaders must ensure their laws fully protect trafficking victims and that appropriate services are available to victims and at-risk youth. Polaris has a list of best practices regarding state sex trafficking laws and is a good place to start to see how your state measures up.
A robust safety net should be our goal. We can argue about the accuracy of statistics and rail against the FBI for doing its job, but children and teens in at-risk and trafficking situations would be better served by our attention to programs to get them off the street and keep them off the street. I find it unconscionable that anyone would advocate abandoning youth and young adults to a life of violence and exploitation.
Each life is precious, each person deserves a life free of violence, and each rescued victim is an opportunity for a better future. We should not give up on these kids. They need our compassion, not indifference.