One of the first things to bear in mind when learning about the perverse world of human trafficking and child sex slavery is that there really is no such thing as a child prostitute. The appropriate language, such as child sex trafficking or trafficking of minors, emphasizes that the child is a victim rather than a delinquent. Let’s explore why words are extremely important in this situation.
The label “child prostitute” carries with it a host of unhelpful implications. For one, the word prostitute sounds like a scandalous job title and indicates that the child might be a willing participant in a criminal activity. Unfortunately, the “consent” of the child is a complicated issue, because older children who are trafficked can look like they are choosing trafficking. For example, a child client in an agency I used to work for “agreed” to have “sex” with her mother’s landlord to pay for rent. This was a proposition decided upon by the mother and the landlord, and the teenager seemed to hop on board to help her mother and to feel loved by the older man. Thankfully, DCFS was involved for other issues of neglect, and the exploitation was ended. This was a person rescued from child trafficking, and I would guess most children in these situations aren’t so lucky.
What makes the issue of consent and child trafficking so difficult is that many survivors of trafficking do not view themselves as victims. They believe they chose prostitution as a lifestyle of sorts. This serves as a defense mechanism to protect them from the reality that they are in hell. Such denial can keep them alive and give the child a sense of empowerment. On the other hand, it can prevent them from healing and may put them on a trajectory of homelessness, adult prostitution, or substance abuse. They might also become perpetrators of the same awfulness they endured, not fully realizing they are wounding children in the same way they were once wounded. The lens through which they view themselves and their situation is shockingly off.
One might ask how such a thing is possible. Wouldn’t you have known if you were being coerced and raped at 15? Sadly, victims of child trafficking have a distorted sense of sex and sexuality from the start. Victims often have a history of sexual abuse and molestations from family members, school/church/medical authorities, or even their same aged peers. Victims are commonly raised in lower income situations, chaotic households, violent communities, and poorly resourced school districts. What you and I would define as sexual abuse is a “normal” experience for them and one that is unquestioned: it happens to everyone, and it isn’t defined as “wrong.” Therefore, it can seem like a decent opportunity to run away from home or a foster placement, where they feel persistently rejected, to make a living through prostitution. The beauty of sex has already been crushed and deformed into a perverse way for others to give you attention. Why not continue to get more of that deeply craved attention while also gaining status, obtaining drugs, and making a little money?
The truth is, even if these youth seem like they have decided to engage in prostitution activities, they are too young to willfully make this choice. Therefore, labeling them as prostitutes is grossly inaccurate. They are victims even if they do not believe they are. We have found that one of the primary psychological needs of trafficking survivors is to go through a process of helping them to see that what has happened to them is wrong and that they are not to blame. Learning to discern between right and wrong becomes a multi-year healing journey for trafficking survivors.
Our country’s judicial system has unfortunately played a role in perpetuating the distorted worldview of a trafficked youth. “Child prostitutes” have been mislabeled as delinquents and are therefore punished for their “crimes.” Fortunately, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 was one of the first federal programs that used language framing youth who are prostituted as victims rather than criminals. As mentioned, there is a giant shift from being a child prostitute to a child who is prostituted. Safe Harbor Laws were then born out of this act and involve “a paradigm shift from treating victims and survivors of commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors as criminals to understanding and recognizing commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors as forms of child abuse (Clayton, Krugman, and Simon, 2013:373). One of the main points of the Safe Harbor Laws was to redirect youth who are rescued from trafficking rings into resources that cater to their needs (e.g. trauma treatment, rehabilitation) rather than into your run of the mill juvenile detention center (JDC).
Unfortunately, matters remain complicated even a decade after these laws were first put into place. This is because even if a judge can recognize that the previously known “child prostitute” is actually a victim of trafficking caught in a longstanding cycle of trauma, there are not enough resources for these children. The judge then has two choices: a) send them back into foster care or to their family home where they are most at risk or b) send them to a JDC where they will at least be protected for a short while. We are seeing an increase in resources for victims of human trafficking as the legal language has changed and more groups have become aware of the horrors of trafficking in the U.S. However, most of these children are still sent to the JDC with little to no trauma treatment only to return to their trauma upon release.
One idea we have toyed around with through Grounds of Grace, a central Illinois nonprofit established to fight human trafficking, is to go into the JDCs to help identify victims of human trafficking at intake. We could then provide programing and resources for victims within the JDC. Such programs might already exist, though I am currently unaware of them. We can only beg the Holy Spirit to provide counsel and healing because the need is so great.
As a side note, many JDCs are severely understaffed at present. Granted, what agency isn’t understaffed in the COVID era? Regardless, if you have a bachelor’s degree and are looking for a rewarding, well-paying job, you might consider becoming a staff member at your local JDC. It is an undoubtedly scary position, but you could be a rare source of light to a person desperate for just that. Here is link to explore this further at the Peoria JDC: https://www.10thcircuitcourtil.org/190/Juvenile-Detention-Center
Clayton, E.W., Krugman, R.D., and Simon, P. 2013. Confronting Commercial Sexual
Exploitation and Sex Trafficking of Minors in the United States. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. Retrieved December 26, 2018, from the web: https://www.ojjdp.gov/pubs/243838.pdf