Once again, R&B artist R. Kelly is in the news, this time for what the headlines are calling “child prostitution.” While the singer deserves to be brought to justice for his crimes, we should be clear about their nature. There is no such thing as a child prostitute. Anyone under the age of 18 who is sold for sex is a victim of sex trafficking — not a criminal.
This is not just my opinion; this is the law. Under the federal Trafficking Victims Prevention Act (TVPA), sex trafficking occurs when “a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.” So why is it that, in some states, a minor who is sold for sex can still be arrested and charged as a prostitute?
Laws prohibiting the criminalization of minors for prostitution currently exist in 25 states and Washington, D.C. But some of those laws apply only to children under 16; others apply only to those identified as “sexually exploited.” Mississippi and New Mexico are close to passing legislation that ensures that no minor under 18 can be charged as a prostitute. But the reality is that no state should be able to prosecute someone under 18 for prostitution.
In many of the remaining states, a child can actually be considered a victim of sex trafficking and still be charged with prostitution. And although Las Vegas is designated by the FBI as a high-intensity area for child sex trafficking, children there can be arrested as prostitutes, handcuffed, and put in jail.
If the law has decided that those under 18 aren’t mature enough to drink, smoke, or vote, they should in no way be considered mature enough to consent to sell their bodies.
Some people have the misconception that a child is not a victim of sex trafficking if he or she is not kidnapped, locked in a basement, and forced to have sex with men. Their misconception could not be further from the truth. In fact, most sex-trafficking victims don’t view themselves as such. Many teenage girls are lured in by older men who pretend to be their boyfriends; many pretend they need the girl’s help to earn money so they can run away together. In another common scenario, boys who have run away from home agree to being sexually exploited because they see it as the only way to get food or shelter.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, of the nearly 23,500 runaways reported in 2018, one in seven were likely victims of child sex trafficking. And almost 90 percent of those were in the care of social services or foster care when they went missing.
Children do not have the emotional capacity to consent to commercial sex with an adult, even if they think it’s what they want. And when children have been through the emotional turmoil of being placed in foster care, or have been in home situations traumatizing enough for to them to decide to run away, they are even more vulnerable to deception and psychological manipulation. Arresting children for prostitution not only creates a distrust in a justice system that should be helping them, it exacerbates the trauma those children have already endured.
Current state laws are riddled with problems. Maryland, for example, does not criminalize purchasing sex acts with a child — which means buyers are subject to the crime only of sexual solicitation of a minor. In Ohio, a 16- or 17-year-old must prove force, fraud, or coercion to be considered a sex-trafficking victim. In New Jersey, convicted sex-trafficking offenders are not required under state law to register as sex offenders.
As a country seeking to abolish this form of modern-day slavery, we should not rest until:
• Minors under 18 who are sold for sex cannot be arrested, detained, or charged with prostitution in any state. All states should direct these victims to specialized services, including sending them to safe homes where they can receive professional care.
• To be considered victims of sex trafficking, minors sold for sex never have to prove force, fraud, or coercion.
• Purchasing sex with a minor under 18 is considered a felony in all states.
• Those convicted of buying sex with minors are required to register as sex offenders in all states.
• The records of all those who have been formerly convicted of prostitution under the age of 18 are expunged.
• There are no statutes of limitations to the crime of child trafficking in any state. A bill proposing this is being considered in Utah right now.
We need to make it clear, both to victims and to the public, that these children are not responsible for what has happened to them. Our laws, and our tax dollars, should be directed toward providing services for sexually exploited children, not toward prosecuting them.