Bob Herbert today comments on the deplorable situation of a 13-year-old girl who was actually purchased--an investment on $500--to be pimped out to johns at parties. More disturbing still, one of the pimps was actually a New York City police detective.
Sexual slavery is alive and well in America, in case you weren't aware. The "world's oldest profession" lurks everywhere, and while the methods of sex trafficking have evolved over time, the laws have not caught up. And much of the law bows to the "Virgin or Whore" dichotomy, instead of actually looking at the systems of exploitation that has sprung up in this country.
In Sin and the Second City, Karen Abbott explains much about the outcries against "white slavery" in America at the turn of the 20th Century. At the time, reforming crusaders pushed hard for laws to protect poor innocent girls who were lured to the big cities with promises of work and disappeared into brothels and dance halls, to be violated by paying johns. This led to the Mann Act, which prohibited "white slavery" and interstate transport of "females for immoral purposes." A law like this depended on the image of women as pure, delicate, virgins, and saw them as victims of sex crimes.
Flash forward to current times, and you'll find that the laws treat women engaging in prostitution as the criminals, and not the pimps and johns necessarily. As Herbert writes:
Nowhere is this strange "blame the victim" prerogative of the law on display as in the case of Lucilia, kidnapped into the world of prostitution at the tender age of 13.
But law enforcement does not always respond in a positive or constructive way. It is common across the country for under-age girls engaged in prostitution to be arrested, which is bizarre when you consider that it is a serious crime — statutory rape — for an adult to have sex with a minor.
If no money is involved, the youngster is considered a victim. But if the man pays for the sex — even if the money is going to the pimp, which is so often the case — the child is considered a prostitute and thus subject in many venues to arrest and incarceration.
“We often see the girls arrested and the pimps and the johns go free,” said Carol Smolenski, the head of Ecpat-USA, a group that fights the sexual exploitation of children. “One of the big problems is that there is this whole set of child sex exploiters who are not targeted as exceptionally bad guys.”
If Lucilia were a 13-year-old Chinese girl smuggled to New York and made to work in a Queens brothel, she would not be seen, in the eyes of the authorities, as a prostitute at all. She would be a sex slave, a victim of human trafficking, and if she had the good fortune to be discovered by the police, she would be given federal protection and shielded by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. But she’s not.
In this city, a U.S. citizen like Lucilia is seen by the law as a prostitute. The federal law technically applies, but local law- enforcement follows state law. And according to state law, she is a victim, yes—of statutory rape, since the legal age of consent in New York is 17. But since the rapist paid money for the privilege, she’s also a criminal, subject to arrest, prosecution, and incarceration, no matter how young she is. And the prostitutes are getting younger. The consensus among the police officers, juvenile-rights lawyers, and prosecutors on the front lines is that more and more are entering the life as young as 12 years old. So how do we as a society deal with a girl like Lucilia? The contradiction between the state and federal legislation has created a crisis in policy and law enforcement. Is she a “moneymaking ho,” as her pimp called her, who should be prosecuted as a criminal—or is she just like the girls brought here from China, Colombia, or Belarus, a trafficking victim who should be equally protected under the law?
Prostitution is not a career choice; it is a vortex that sucks in women, either out of desperation, or force from a pimp. And yet the prevailing theory allows that if a woman is caught engaging in prostitution, she and she alone is responsible to the law. This sort of blame-focused punishment derives from the ideas of neo-conservatives who view sex as a crime to be punished. For them, sex is a sin with its own wages: STDs, pregnancy, and the stain of immorality on the soul.
I hope that the next leader of our country will look at these issues. With Las Vegas' mayor fantasizing of legalizing prostitution within the city, building "magnificent brothels" as a "boon to the local economy," how can anyone have faith in the current legal system to protect women?