There is No Such Thing as a ‘Child Prostitute’

January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, a chance for all of us who work to improve the lives of young people to reflect on the realities of child sex trafficking in America. While sex trafficking is often thought about in connection with foreign countries, the truth is that it is happening all throughout the United States. Instances of child sex trafficking have been reported throughout rural, urban, and even tribal regions of our country—but unlike other forms of violence, child sex trafficking is too often hidden in plain view.

There are a number of federal and state laws in the U.S. that protect minors exploited in the commercial sex trade. Despite these protections, each year more than 700 children are arrested for prostitution in the United States. Think about that. Federal law defines these children as victims of human trafficking, and most are too young to even consent to sex, but instead of being treated as victims, these children are often arrested and prosecuted as ‘child prostitutes.’

In any other instance what happens to these youth would be considered statutory rape or sexual assault of a minor, landing their abusers behind bars. But because their abuse is paid for, it is the child who ends up in handcuffs and detention instead of their exploiters, making this the only form of child abuse where our response is to criminalize the abused child.

So who are these children? Data shows that the majority of trafficked youth are girls and that many have suffered childhood sexual abuse and trauma. Many trafficking victims come from foster care or group homes, making them ideal targets for traffickers who prey on their vulnerability.  Girls of color—particularly African American and Native American girls—are more likely to be trafficked and exploited for sex, and more likely to be criminalized for their exploitation. According to the FBI, African-American children comprise 52 percent of all juvenile prostitution arrests— which is more than any other racial group.

Gender and racial inequities render girls of color more susceptible to being blamed for their own victimization. These girls experience the “sexual abuse to prison pipeline” where they are punished and ultimately criminalized for being victims of crime. All too often, our efforts to end human trafficking fail to contemplate these exceptionally vulnerable children.

At Rights4Girls we believe that there should be no difference between abusing a child and paying to abuse a child. That’s why we are committed to spreading the message that there is no such thing as a ‘child prostitute’—only victims and survivors of child rape. That is why we partner with the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges on the National Judicial Institute on Domestic Child Sex Trafficking to help exercise judicial leadership within the court and community to improve outcomes for victims and children at risk of sex trafficking.

This January, we must commit ourselves to instituting practical and thoughtful measures to ensure that we treat survivors with dignity and respect, rather than re-victimization. Just as we did with the domestic violence movement decades ago, we must collaborate across systems and disciplines to create effective policies that promote the detection, protection, and treatment of survivors and their families. It is up to all of us to create this necessary change. 

Yasmin Vafa, JD
Executive Director, Rights4Girls