Nicholas Kristof recently published this op-ed piece in the NY Times that prompted me to launch this post on domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST). I generally like Kristof’s pieces – he brings a solid perspective and thinking to the table when it comes to women’s issues. In his most recent essay, Kristof writes about a Chinese woman who was trafficked to the States to work as prostitute.
Although he is not necessarily pushing this perspective, I don’t want Americans to get a distorted perspective about what a sex slave in the United States looks like. The most common sex slave is an American, not a foreigner trafficked here from abroad. This of course happens much more than it should, but we also need to regard our own domestic trafficking problem. He does mention that many cases of forced prostitution involve American teens. Do you realize just how many of our own children are involved? Estimates vary: as many as 100,000-300,000 American teens are caught up in sex slavery on American soil.
He calls on us to “wipe out the remnants of slavery in this country”. One of the ways we can start to do this is to change the way we view the prostitute. Teen or not, poor choices were of course made along the way. It doesn’t even matter if a fully consented choice was made to enter the flesh trade. This choice is all too easily turned against the person and he or she ends up enslaved. I have yet to meet someone who would have made the same choice twice.
Also, notice that I’m remaining gender-neutral. While the most common victim of sex slavery is a female, there are still quite a few males who are in the same trouble. It is more difficult to see, document, and count them, but that just makes them more invisible, not more irrelevant. Until we also see boys as potentially vulnerable, we won’t see them hurting, we won’t see them at all.
One of the obstacles to getting to the bottom of sex slavery is the treatment of prostitutes as criminals. In many states, even minors are arrested for prostitution instead of being treated as victims, they are treated as criminals. I’m sorry, but a 15 year old arrested for prostitution needs help, not handcuffs.
Before you get your panties in a wad, I’m not even remotely suggesting legalization of prostitution. Prostitution is not right. Ever. Legalizing it only legitimizes the john and does nothing for the woman. Legalization does not reduce violence to women and does not reduce sex trafficking. There is research to prove it.
An example of what can be done exists in Sweden, which has passed a very progressive law making it illegal to buy sex, not sell it – recognizing the inequality of this kind of “business transaction”. Data shows that sex trafficking actually decreased in that country, unlike in The Netherlands where it has actually increased even though prostitution was legalized in order to make the environment safer for sex workers. Your mom always said two wrongs don’t make a right.
“Safe Harbor” laws that protect teens from prosecution and provide for their care and safety are being passed in States around the country and are one example of how we are starting to address the issue. However, the safe harbors open for them to go are not nearly enough. Gracehaven, a facility that ministers to victims of sex trafficking is one of just a few places open to minors.
Another way to protect our teens is to prevent them from being caught up in it in the first place. Being better parents, being a better community is one way. Reaching out and providing safety, grace, and love before they are in trouble seems to be a no-brainer. Studies show that 1 in 3 teenage runaways are prostituted within 48 hours and that at least 70% of DMST victims were sexually abused in the home. The pimps and traffickers know where to look and how to talk to them better than we do. Go figure.
I’ve painted this picture quite broadly, but the solutions are far from simple. Let’s say you are not a congressperson, or independently wealthy, or have loads of time, but you can still do something about this. Learning more about this issue and what is going on in your neck of the woods is a good start. For example, Our Mother’s House in Portland, OR (a project of Global Health Promise) reaches out to prostituted women and their children to try to break the cycle of slavery. I’m not going to repeat all the information that is out there. You can begin by looking at Polaris Project, ECPAT USA, and Shared Hope International to help you learn about initiatives, laws, complications, and issues unique to your area.
For my part, I continue to work on the health and wholeness part and will start to formalize trainings specifically designed for health care providers on human trafficking and how the health care community can intersect and intervene.