"Moneymaking ho," or sex slave?

New York magazine: Why child prostitutes are prosecuted rather than protected.

Published April 3, 2007 1:38PM (EDT)

This week's New York magazine features the story of a girl named Lucilia, who by 13 years old had lived the life of at least one Dickens novel and several Lifetime movies, combined. Actually, it's all in real-life court and caseworker documents: Injured in a knife fight between her parents at age 5. Years of foster homes. Molested by an uncle at 10, told she was a whore. Raped by a half-brother; gang-raped by the guys who took her in when she ran away. Sent to a group home, threatened by a worker. Taken in by a pimp with the surreal surname of Romeo, who beat her, named her Paradise, took her money and taught her the ropes: "When a girl ... sees a pimp on the sidewalk, she has to get ... into the street, and not make eye contact with him or talk to him. Otherwise, she ... has 'caught a charge' -- that pimp has a claim on her and either her own pimp has to pay a fine or else she is now the property of the new pimp. She can also be put under 'pimp-arrest,' when a group of pimps surround a girl on the sidewalk and she has to squat, put her head down, and not speak or make eye contact until her own pimp comes to get her." (Yeah. It's hard out here.)

Where were we? Arrested at 13, sentenced in shackles, locked up in juvie. There's more -- much more -- but let's stop there. She was arrested?

"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," writes Jessica Lustig.

"In [New York 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 ... 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?"

As a side note, the legal reality helps answer the inevitable question, "Why didn't she just leave?" One: Well, because Romeo would probably kill her if she tried. Two: Stockholm syndrome. ("It's the same thing with those kids in Missouri -- people said, 'He's out there riding his bike on the street. Why doesn't he just ride away?'" said one juvenile rights attorney.) Three: Leave for where? She's a criminal. (When she went AWOL from another crappy facility, her brother told her that her mother was in the hospital. Actually, the cops were. It was a setup.)

"We're locking up girls for things that have been done to them," Rachel Lloyd, the founder of GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services), a nonprofit in Harlem led by sex-trade survivors, told New York.

The good news: Now there's a chance things will change. Democratic Assemblyman William Scarborough is sponsoring the Safe Harbor Act, drafted by the Correctional Association of New York, which would ensure that sexually exploited girls and boys are protected, not prosecuted. The AP reports that Lucilia testified in favor of the bill earlier this month. The act has strong bipartisan support; word is it's going to be fast-tracked. Even so, journalist Lustig isn't necessarily holding her breath. "The reality is that when it comes to taking a vote on anything that could be seen as being soft on crime, most politicians still jam on the brakes," she writes. Mmm-hmm. If you call "crime" what has also been called "the commercialized rape of our children." It's not clear what the situation is elsewhere in the U.S. in terms of such laws. But in a country where "protecting teens" often amounts to barring them from needed healthcare -- or even placing them right back at risk -- let's hope one state makes a move that makes sense.

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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