There is No Such thing as a Child Prostitute
Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell announced this week that the police force would stop arresting minors for prostitution-related crimes, joining a growing list of U.S. cities and states that treat children as sex trafficking victims instead of criminals. When new cases of child sex trafficking are uncovered, the LA police will connect the minors with social services. Unfortunately such policies have yet to be applied to adults forced into prostitution.
The Sheriff’s announcement follows the October 20th LA County Board of Supervisors’ unanimous motion declaring that “there is no such thing as a ‘child prostitute,’” and that “commercially sexually exploited children should not be treated as anything other than victims of child sex abuse.” In keeping with that motion, McDonnell instructed his department to stop using the terms “child prostitute” and “underage prostitution.”
“We have both local and state laws that ban prostitution,” children’s rights advocate Yasmin Vafa explained to Al Jazeera America. “The problem is, we’re having these laws applied to children who in many cases aren’t even old enough to consent to sex in the first place. So we have this contradiction.”
Most cities in the United States have similar policies, or are moving toward them. And most states have passed “Safe Harbor” laws decriminalizing commercial sex for individuals under the age of consent. In some states, teenagers between 16 and 18 are afforded less protection than those 15 and under. Under federal law, anyone under the age of 18 is automatically presumed to be a victim of sex trafficking.
Granting immunity to all minors is crucial for ensuring that exploited children are able to access much needed services and, in the future, obtain employment without the burden of a criminal record. When these children are treated as victims of a crime, the police can focus on pursuing “Johns,” or sex buyers, for the crime of child sexual abuse and going after pimps for child trafficking.
Safe Harbor laws and no-arrest policies do not currently extend to adult trafficking victims who were forced into prostitution through force, fraud or coercion. Prosecutors may use their discretion to grant immunity to suspected prostitutes who claim that they were forced into commercial sex work. If a prosecutor chooses to press charges against a trafficking victim, his or her only recourse is to try to have the conviction retroactively “vacated.” This can be a long and difficult process, which usually requires the assistance of an attorney. Unfortunately, this option can only be pursued in states that have ”vacatur” laws for trafficking victims, and many do not.
While jurisdictions like LA have made tremendous progress towards eliminating the concept of the “child prostitute,” adult victims of forced prostitution are not yet viewed with the same presumption of innocence, despite the fact that many are recruited into sex work as children.