Now More than Ever, We Must Declare that There is No Such Thing as a Child Prostitute
It has been nearly seven years since the first time the President of the United States declared January National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. Since then, every January advocates, survivors, policymakers, and concerned individuals have come together to increase awareness about the global scale of human trafficking. These efforts have resulted in increased detection and identification of victims, improved federal and state legislation to support survivors, and a shift in the public understanding about who we mean when we discuss victims of human trafficking. But our work is not over.
A decade ago, if you asked an average citizen who they envision as victims of human trafficking, they might describe individuals trafficked across national borders for labor or sex, and they would be right. More than likely, they would not have included U.S. citizens—and in particular, U.S. born children—who are trafficked within our borders every day. According to the FBI, in recent years, 83 percent of sex trafficking victims in the U.S. were U.S. born citizens. Federal law has long held that any person under the age of 18 who was commercially sexually exploited was a victim of child sex trafficking. Despite this fact, in too many states around the country, children who experience domestic child sex trafficking are not understood as victims.
Instead of being recognized as survivors of child sexual abuse, U.S. born children who experience child sex trafficking are called “child prostitutes,” “teen prostitutes,” or “underage sex-workers.” What’s worse, they are arrested and charged with prostitution even though they are too young to legally consent to sexual acts. In fact, there are only fifteen states and the District of Columbia that provide minors immunity from prosecution for prostitution. Because these children are not seen as victims, the individuals who pay to engage in acts of child sexual abuse with these children—the buyers—are not held accountable for that violence.
To be clear—this type of exploitation overwhelmingly impacts marginalized children. Studies estimate that at least 60 percent of victims of child sex trafficking come from the child welfare system, and the majority of them have extensive histories of sexual and physical abuse prior to ever being trafficked. Seventy-eight percent of all prostitution arrests are girls, and 52 percent of all juvenile arrests for prostitution are African-American girls. Instead of being recognized as victims of crime and given the services and support necessary to heal from their trauma, these children are neglected, dismissed, ignored, and—in the worst cases—criminalized.
Clearly we need to broaden our conception of who is actually impacted by human trafficking. During a congressional hearing on the link between child welfare involvement and child sex trafficking, award-winning survivor advocate and policy consultant Withelma “T” Ortiz Walker Pettigrew testified, “There is no such thing as a child prostitute”—instead there are only victims of child rape. In January of 2015, Rights4Girls partnered with her to launch the No Such Thing campaign, which seeks to eradicate the term “child prostitute” in language and in law.
The No Such Thing campaign has used the power of public education to shift the way that the press reports about child trafficking, and more importantly, to push for recognition that these children should not just be written about with dignity and compassion, but actually treated with dignity and compassion. Since our campaign launch, the Associated Press has changed its style guide to dissuade writers from using the term “child prostitute” when reporting on child sex trafficking. Around the country, states and local jurisdictions have been able to leverage this success and use the framing of the No Such Thing campaign to encourage their lawmakers to pass legislation that ensures victims of child sex trafficking receive treatment as victims of child abuse rather than being blamed and prosecuted for their own victimization.
Over the past five years, Congress has been a leader in the movement to end child sex trafficking. We have been proud to work with House and Senate leaders to pass strong bipartisan measures such as The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act of 2014 and the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015—laws that ensure survivors of domestic child sex trafficking are understood as victims of child abuse who deserve treatment and response by the child welfare system, and that there are dedicated funding streams to support this necessary work.
Our progress has been truly incredible, but our work is nowhere near finished. Now more than ever, in a time when public awareness around human trafficking is at its height, we must ensure that all victims are met with compassion and support. We must continue to drive resources towards our most vulnerable, support prevention and intervention programs, and ensure that survivors have access to long-term support because we know that the trauma survivors experience can last well beyond their eighteenth birthday.
As we embark on a new year, we encourage you to join us in our efforts to create a world where there truly is no such thing as a child a prostitute.