When we talk about human trafficking, the phrase “child prostitute” will come up but these two words have created a terrible legal paradox, one that California has finally rectified.
On the one hand, you have the word “child,” which implies someone under the age of 18, but it is coupled with “prostitute,” an illegal act that also implies some act of consent — something minors cannot do in the eyes of the law. Many victims of sex trafficking find themselves imprisoned rather than given the help they need.
After a year of fighting for change, Rights4Girls executive director Yasmin Vafa announced, via The Huffington Post, announced that new policy changes in the treatment of sex trafficking victims will be implemented state-wide. SB-1322, or the “No Such Thing Bill,” will now provide young survivors of sexual exploitation access to the same kinds of resources victims of sexual abuse and violence receive.
Trafficked minors will no longer be handcuffed and children will no longer be criminally charged for prosecution. Exploiters and pimps should be held responsible, but all too often, victims end up in jail too. This is a kind of legal victim-blaming Rights4Girls wanted to stop, and they succeeded.
SB-1322 was not the only legal victory. AB-1276 allows child victims to testify through a closed circuit television so that they don’t have to face their exploiters in court. This is a huge relief for victims who may become traumatized upon seeing their abusers and more victims can now testify without fear of intimidation. AB-1761 and SB-823 now offer victims a defense for other crimes that are directly related to their time in exploitation.
This fight to change legal procedure began a year ago with a two-fold attack on the police departments arresting these victims and Associated Press, the news agency that would report on these cases.
The advocacy group partnered with the L.A. County Sherriff's County to stop arresting trafficked minors and instead take them into protective custody and treat them as victims of a sexual crime.
Withelma Ortiz Walker Pettigrew, who was a victim of sex trafficking from the ages of ten to seventeen, then filed a petition against Associated Press, causing the news organization to update their style guide to include the elimination of "child prostitute" from their reports.
As Pettigrew explains, the media's wording can mislead: “'Child prostitute' may seem clear because it conveys the fact that money is exchanged for sex, but it is also misleading because it suggests consent and criminality when none exists. Many of us are not even of legal age to consent to sex. I was 10. And girls like me are beaten, kidnapped, gang-raped, and tortured into selling our bodies to adults, every night. This is not about choice. This is about abuse and rape." Pettigrew also writes about her own story of being trafficked in the petition.
"This picture was taken around the time of my 17th birthday. What it does not tell you is that from the ages of 10 to 17 I was sexually exploited throughout the western United States, charged with solicitation and prostitution, and jailed as if I was a criminal. I was not a child prostitute or child sex worker. I was a victim and survivor of child rape."
Human trafficking is a serious issue in the United States, but there will be no justice if traumatized victims keep ending up in prison cells. Hopefully, other states will follow California's lead. Until then, the media needs to reconsider the language used when writing about the sexual exploitation of minors. Policies need to be reformed and victims should receive the proper care they deserve.
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