Did you know that a type of slavery still exists in the United States today? It's called human trafficking, which is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as "the organized criminal activity in which human beings are treated as possessions to be controlled and exploited (as by being forced into prostitution or involuntary labor)."
THAT is our modern slavery. However, this month is Human Trafficking Awareness Month and I want to draw your attention to a specific facet that is happening to some of the most vulnerable citizens in our society: kids, who are being exploited and sold for sex.
Picture this: A 13-year-old girl is befriended by a guy on social media. After getting to know him online, she decides to meet him in person. He kidnaps her; drugs her; and then sells her for sex. (And yes, this actually happened.)
Later, a patrol officer sees something fishy going on at a hotel. He interrupts a sexual act in progress between a man in his 50s and the 13-year-old girl with whom he had "purchased" time.
What happens next is unbelievable.
The officer handcuffs and arrests the 13-year-old girl -- a CHILD -- for prostitution. Meanwhile, the "buyer" -- the CHILD RAPIST -- is free to go with just a citation to appear in "John school," which is about as serious as online traffic school. At John school, all he'll have to do is sit in a room for a few hours with other unseemly men and learn about why prostitution or solicitation is bad for his health and society. (Yes, it is horrifying and disappointing, to say the least.)
Why does something so wrong just continue to occur? Well, there is a big misconception in our society that victims of sex trafficking are "prostitutes" because money has exchanged hands for sexual acts. (Major missing point being the lack of power of choice by the child in the situation.) Even those in law enforcement sometimes treat child sex trafficking victims like delinquents who did something wrong or broke the law, which is a glaringly WRONG OBSERVATION.
Let's make one thing clear: There is no such thing as a child prostitute.
The word "prostitute" denotes choice and responsibility, to say nothing of the horrible stigma that label has in our society. These children are victims of rape, bullying and domination; they are not criminals. They need society to say, "We will protect you. This is not okay." And THAT is done by education and by reframing our thinking, which needs to be done by the public, the court, and by law enforcement.
These child victims are members of our communities with hopes and dreams and great potential for the future. Current legislation aimed at curbing child sex trafficking is insufficient. More needs to be done in that sector -- clearly.
In fact, it wasn't until just 2012 that we passed Prop 35 in California, which defines trafficking under state law. In addition to increasing penalties for traffickers, the bill says victims cannot be punished or criminalized for their victimization (even though this is still happening in California and across the country).
But there's an elephant in the room: which is that 50-year-old man who purchased sex with a 13-year-old girl. Remember: if there are no customers, there is no business -- and then there will be no child sex trafficking.
Little attention has been paid to the BUYERS -- the "Johns" -- who are getting off with only a citation. And one can suppose that is probably for a lot of cultural reasons -- gender discrimination, being one, and the tendency to blame victims, especially victims of sexual assault. (There are other reasons, too, but let's just take one thing at a time.)
I drive around L.A. and see billboards that say, "Don't drink and drive; $10,000 fine." Meanwhile, a child rapist who buys a minor for intercourse gets a few hundred dollar fine and walks free.
Crossing the U.S. border into another country to purchase a child for sex carries with it serious, automatic federal penalties. So why, why, why do we not treat this crime the same way for our children here at home? Massive change in policy and legislation and the actual ENFORCEMENT of the policy and legislation is needed.
So what can we do? One way is to push for and support laws that carry appropriate, commensurate penalty for the buyers. Another way is when those laws get passed, help make sure that they are actually implemented and regularly enforced. Also, report suspicious behavior. We can stop this from happening in our own "backyards." It's our duty to do so.
If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1 (888) 373-7888. Learn more here: http://www.traffickingresourcecenter.org/
Learn more about Saving Innocence, whose mission is to rescue and restore child victims of sex trafficking through strategic partnerships with local law enforcement, social service providers, and schools, while mobilizing communities to prevent abuse and increase neighborhood safety, at www.savinginnocence.org www.savinginnocence.org
For more information about Fahren Feingold, the illustrator featured in this blog, visit fahrenfeingold.prosite.com.