Not too long ago, when a man hit his wife, it was considered a private matter. But, because of the domestic violence movement, the hidden, normalized ways in which women were abused in their homes got challenged. Indeed, the movement named these acts committed in the personal realm of marriage, intimacy, and home as violence -- and violence that needed to be subject to the rule of law.
Today, there is another form of violence that must be named. It is time to name what child prostitution really is. It is not vice or prostitution. It is an act of rape and sexual violence against a child.
Unfortunately, like acts of domestic violence committed decades ago, "child prostitution" is tolerated. And it is the child who is criminalized, not her abusers. Last week, survivor leader Withelma "T" Ortiz Walker Pettigrew testified before the U.S. House of Representative's Committee on the Judiciary about her own experience of being jailed, and not helped or protected, for the repeated rape she suffered:
"Suffering, isolated, tired and helpless at the age of 15, the concrete box that represented my cell in Zenoff hall, the girls section -- the largest of the juvenile facility in Las Vegas, Nevada, seemed no less invasive than the horror of the streets. As much of a real physical confinement It was, it wasn't all too different from the mental confinement I endured from my pimp. I was interrogated for hours on end, reminded that my opinions didn't matter and locked in, like a dog in a kennel. Unless I was saying the answers to the questions that they wanted to hear, My Voice was irrelevant. Skip ahead a few years later, I endured it again in California, only that time experiencing my 17 birthday within the juvenile walls. Both times I was faced with charges of Solicitation and/or Prostitution, a crime that as a minor who wasn't of legal age to consent to sex, couldn't seriously be charged to commit. But yet, there I was, facing them."
In her testimony, Ms. Walker Pettigrew also points to the other side of what happens when these crimes against children are construed through the lens of prostitution. The buyer is exempted. However, if the act of child prostitution is reframed as child rape, then the buyer must be named as an assailant. That means such persons are not charged with solicitation, but statutory rape, child endangerment and/or sexual assault of a minor. As Ms. Walker Pettigrew points out:
"...more must be done to focus on the root cause of the issue -- that people are buying children for sexual purposes. This is not prostitution -- this is child rape. And those who purchase these children for sex should be viewed and punished as child rapists. Buyers should not get away with it, but as of now they do everyday. Just as it is expressed that it is not ok to sell children in our country -- we need to make clear that it is not ok to buy them either."
Another powerful part of Walker Pettigrew's testimony regarding the buyers deserves closer attention. She spoke to the racial differences in who is arrested and prosecuted: "It seemed like they always wanted to detain me and my pimp, both people of color, instead of focusing on the buyers who were adults -- and primarily white -- no one seemed to care about them!"
Indeed, traffickers are generally the black and brown men we already incarcerate. Buyers tend to be educated white professionals. There are undeniable racial implications in focusing on the culpability of the trafficker, at the exclusion of the buyer.
It is therefore critical that the anti-trafficking movement, which takes so much of its language from the anti-slavery, abolitionist movement, and holds up African-American heroes like Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman, steer away from perpetrating racial disparities in how we discuss who is to be criminalized. As a human rights movement, the anti-trafficking movement must urge for laws, policies, and practices that hold both the trafficker and the buyer accountable for their crimes.
As I listened to Ms. Walker Pettigrew's fierce, brilliant testimony before the U.S. Congress, I gave thanks for her and other young women and girls like her, who are demanding that they be recognized as victims and survivors of sexual violence, and that those who hurt them be held accountable. Because there's no such thing as a child prostitute.