Solving Child Sex Trafficking Requires Addressing the Conditions of Vulnerability
By Carrie N. Baker | December 12, 2018
Child sex trafficking is among the very few issues that can win bipartisan support in today’s political climate. But the laws resulting from this political alliance offer deeply conservative, law-and-order solutions that only minimally address the social conditions that make U.S. youth vulnerable to the sex trade.
In the late 1990s, activists first started seriously pushing for a federal anti-trafficking law; the Trafficking Victims Protection Act passed in 2000 and was reauthorized and expanded by Congress in 2005, 2008, and 2013. The Act focused on criminal justice solutions by creating new federal crimes (sex trafficking) and funding federal and state law enforcement to arrest and prosecute people for these crimes.
Last April, Congress passed two bills—The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA)—aimed at bringing anti-sex trafficking into the internet age. FOSTA-SESTA allows states to criminally prosecute internet service providers that “promote or facilitate” prostitution of another person and allow individuals to sue internet service providers for civil damages for harm resulting from such actions.
FOSTA-SESTA resulted from the efforts of a politically and ideologically diverse anti-child-sex-trafficking movement that includes conservatives and liberals, feminists and evangelical Christians, and others, and it has already been credited with the high-profile (and controversial) shutdown of sites like BackPage.com.
My new book, Fighting the US Youth Sex Trade: Gender, Race, and Politics, explains how the contemporary political alliance to end child sex trafficking achieved these changes. Times of social change around sex, gender, sexuality, race, and immigration, I show, have brought spikes in concern about U.S. youth involvement in the sex trade and generated a gendered and racialized discourse of adult-youth predation that shapes policy responses. Since the 1970s, activists have framed youth involvement in the sex trade as an “urban” problem invading white, middle-class suburban and rural communities—that’s code for black men from cities luring young, innocent white girls into an urban prostitution market, and it restates a deeply-entrenched narrative about dangerous black masculinity and white feminine vulnerability. In the 19th century and early 20th century, the same narratives incited lynching and “white slavery” campaigns.
The corresponding rescue narratives shaped the solutions activists pushed for and lawmakers enacted, often focusing on protecting and rescuing (white) girls and criminally prosecuting (black) men.
Some activists, however, have focused on the sexual victimization of marginalized young people, especially low-income girls of color and LGBTQ youth, and argued that racist and homophobic stereotypes have driven both their involvement in the sex trade and their criminalization for that involvement. As the mainstream anti-trafficking movement focused on protection, rescue, and control of young people, these other groups framed the issue in terms of empowering young people and the communities in which they live by changing the social systems that make low-income black and brown youth vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
These activists recognized that sexual exploitation resulted as much from failing social systems, like schools, child welfare, health care, and the criminal justice system, as from the criminal behavior of adult exploiters. New laws have addressed some of these systemic factors.
In 2014, Congress passed the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act, which required that states develop policies and procedures to identify and assist youth in the foster care system who were victims of sex trafficking or were at risk of being trafficked. In 2015, Congress passed the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act to encourage states to adopt “safe harbor” laws, which attempt to divert youth apprehended in prostitution into social services and away from delinquency proceedings or criminal prosecution . Today, many states have adopted some form of safe harbor law. Still, the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act prioritized funding for law enforcement rather than services for youth and it expanded criminal laws against sex trafficking. Many victimized youth still end up in juvenile detention and jail.
The shift toward viewing at least some youth in the sex trade as victims rather than criminals is positive, yet services for them are still significantly lacking. Many youth, especially LGBTQ youth and youth of color, continue to be stigmatized and detained. When a disproportionate share of funding to address domestic minor sex trafficking goes toward law enforcement and criminal prosecution, it supports expansion of the prison industrial complex and erodes vulnerable communities. It means that protective policies that control youth prevail over human rights-based policies that aim to empower them.
Policymakers have not heeded activists’ calls to address the structural underpinnings of trafficking and the entrenched social conditions that make youth vulnerable to involvement in the sex trade.
The United States’ tattered social safety net and numerous and harmful biases against youth of color and sexual minorities are largely ignored in these debates, as politicians create bipartisan, publicly viable claims of action that reinforce gendered and racialized narratives of sexual predation and victimization and reinscribe the very systems that make youth vulnerable to sex trafficking in the first place.
Effective public policies must start earlier, before youth are victims and in ways that lower the likelihood that they would become entangled in involuntary sex work. High rates of child poverty due to lack of living wage jobs, the gender wage gap, lack of paid family leave, lack of high-quality, affordable child care, and inadequate affordable housing are all contributing factors in sex trafficking, as are family and societal homophobia and transphobia, racism, and mass incarceration which so often removes parents and caretakers from families and communities. Youth who flee family violence need access to social services that do not require the permission of the very parents who have victimized them, and they need access to living wage jobs and affordable housing, so they don’t have to engage in the street economy. These interconnected issues are rarely addressed in mainstream campaigns to end child sex trafficking, possibly because addressing such ugly facts quickly means taking partisan stances, but they are critical to creating safe and healthy communities that will decrease young people’s vulnerability to sex trafficking and exploitation in the sex trade.