The myth of child prostitution

Educating Americans on human trafficking
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Story highlights

  • Malika Saada Saar: More focus needed on "buyers" in child trafficking
  • Buyers of sex with underage girls are rarely arrested, writer says

Malika Saada Saar is the executive director of Rights4Girls, a human rights organization working to eradicate child sex trafficking in the United States. The views expressed are the writer's own.

(CNN)Last week saw the premiere of "Children for Sale: The Fight to End Human Trafficking," which exposes the hidden realities of child sex trafficking in the United States. It's a powerful documentary. But there's even more to the story.

While I watched, I thought of many of the young girls I have come across through my work fighting child sex trafficking, girls who have been bought and sold for sex, and whose real names and lives remain unknown. I thought of Camille, a girl I met last week who was sold to adult men, repeatedly raped and yet arrested for prostitution at the age of 15. I thought about Michelle, whose trafficker tattooed his name onto her cheek to make it clear that she was his property.
As "Children for Sale" highlights, these children's stories of sexual violence and trafficking in America are not much different than in nations such as India, Cambodia or Nigeria. Indeed, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, there are estimated to be at least 100,000 American children trafficked for sex each year. They are abducted or lured by traffickers who prey on their trust. They are routinely raped, beaten into submission, and when they try to run away, the traffickers will often torture or gang rape them. Or both. Many of these children are supposed to be cared for in our foster care system.
    But what law enforcement, prosecutors and lawmakers are failing to address properly are the very people responsible for this heartache -- the buyers. What about those who buy our children for sex? In any other context, what a "John" does when he purchases a girl would be construed as statutory rape or sexual assault of a minor. There should be no difference between raping a child and paying to rape a child.
    And yet there is: There is a culture of impunity for raping children when someone pays for the act. Buyers of sex with underage girls are rarely arrested, and if they are arrested at all, it is typically for misdemeanor solicitation -- they generally avoid the same kind of punishment -- and disdain -- meted out to adults who molest or rape kids.
    Instead, the person who is criminalized and shamed is the girl, who will be treated as a delinquent rather than a victim -- named and arrested as a child prostitute. Disturbingly, more than 1,000 children every year are arrested for prostitution, even though many of them are not legally old enough to consent to sex.
    The arrest of children for prostitution also disproportionately affects African-Americans. According to the FBI, for prostitution arrests under the age of 18, African-American children comprise 59% of all prostitution-related arrests in the United States.
    But girls who are subject to repeated rape, abuse and exploitation are not child prostitutes -- they are victims and survivors of child rape, and they deserve all the legal protections, supports and services afforded to other child victims of abuse.
    We must, in language and law, eradicate the notion of the child prostitute -- which is why I have launched the No Such Thing campaign, which seeks to eradicate the term child prostitute from our language and public dialogue. And the law.
    We owe it to Camille and Michelle, to make clear to them that the victimization and abuse they have suffered is no different or more tolerable than other forms of child sexual abuse. We owe it to the girls still left behind, the girls who are for sale, to hold accountable those who have purchased and raped them. We must create for these girls, who are mighty and strong yet so hurt, opportunities to heal and to live out their potential.
    Put simply, there is no such thing as a child prostitute.