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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Law's Changing View of the Prostitution of Children

The change in the legal treatment of minors in the commercial sex industry has been rapid and quite amazing.  For decades, centuries really, the victimization of children bought for sex was ignored, and the inconsistencies with statutory rape and other laws overlooked.  Yet in the last five years, the recognition that these children--for they are children, with the average age of entry into prostitution being 12 to 14--are victims rather than offenders has influenced both federal and state law, as well as police and prosecutor practices.  Last week's news alone details an Atlanta court's sentencing a pimp to life for abusing and coercing a 14 year old runaway into prostitution, and a California county's changed approach to treat, rather than arrest, these children.

This change demonstrates how a committed group of advocates can bring  a social problem to light and revolutionize how we approach it.  Although there are many advocates for commercially sexually exploited children (CSEC), a good amount of credit goes to some of my former colleagues at the Legal Aid Society in NYC, as well as to the inspirational founder and director of the advocacy group GEMS, Rachel Lloyd.  (Full disclosure: I am a board member of GEMS).  A survivor herself, Rachel is an eloquent and dogged spokesperson for the hundreds of thousands of CSEC in the U.S.  (Her autobiographical account, Girls Like Us, published last year is amazing--see Nicholas Kristof's review here).  Rachel and others challenged the prosecution of children for prostitution and successfully advocated for the country's first "Safe Harbor" law in New York state, decriminalizing juvenile prostitution (with some exceptions).  (I wrote an oped supporting the law, available here).  Close to 10 states have passed similar laws, and prosecutors are using state and federal trafficking laws to go after pimps who exploit children, whether they are American-born or brought from another country.  Scholars are paying more attention to this topic as well.  Tamar Birckhead wrote a great piece on this last year, The Youngest Profession: Consent, Autonomy, and Prostituted Children, and I am currently working on one, Punishment as Protection, to be out next spring.  Reflective of the sea change in the view of prostituted children as victims, not offenders, the Department of Justice now recommends the use of the term CSEC.

Nonetheless, there are not enough services, particularly safe housing, to enable children to escape even in states with Safe Harbor laws.  Police, courts and others continue to judge these children, as having chosen this life, despite the family violence and homelessness which often drive these children to the streets.  Unfortunately typical are the Washington police officer who called a teenaged girl arrested for prostitution a "felony-making machine" as he sought a one-year prison sentence for her, or the New York court which recently adjudicated a 15 year old runaway delinquent for prostitution, opining that she had "chosen to engage in the street life."  And far too many boys and girls are still routinely arrested, prosecuted, and jailed on prostitution and related charges. 

Posted by Cynthia Godsoe on August 21, 2012 at 02:44 PM | Permalink


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