The FBI ran a coordinated, nationwide sweep this weekend, picking up nearly 50 teenagers working as prostitutes across the country, some as young as 13.
The Associated Press and dozens of local papers ran the story, describing the teenagers (quite rightly) as victims of a savage commercial sex industry. And because the kids were picked up under federal law, that’s how they’ll be treated. According to the FBI, most of the teenagers have been placed with local child protection agencies, which will presumably try to get them into foster homes or residential treatment facilities.
All of this might seem pretty intuitive -- it doesn’t take a big stretch of the imagination to see a 13-year-old having sex with adults on the street as a victim. In the words of one FBI deputy: “The vast majority of these kids are what they term 'throwaway kids,' with no family support, no friends.” Most have run away from abusive homes. Once they end up on the street, they face heinous rates of violence and sexual assault, and they often end up under the control of pimps who use them as for-profit sex slaves.
But what the papers didn't point out was that, if the same teenagers had been picked up by state or local police, they’d likely have been taken to court and treated as criminals. In nearly every state, kids over the age of 12 can be prosecuted -- and punished -- for prostitution, regardless of whether they work for pimps or sex traders.
In the past, law enforcement officials have argued that the threat of being locked up is the only way to get teenagers to cooperate in police operations against the people who exploit them. But arrest and prosecution are deeply traumatizing experiences for kids who have, most likely, already been through plenty of trauma. And branding them as criminals makes them more vulnerable to violence and abuse, since it means they can’t go to the police for help.
The FBI approach, and the media coverage it generated, represent the beginning of a new, hard-won and long-overdue shift in the way the government responds to child prostitution. Last November, New York became the third state to pass a law that officially designates child prostitutes as the victims of sex crimes, rather than the perpetrators. At least three more states have similar laws in the works, and several cities have set up task forces to help make sure that kids who are arrested for prostitution end up getting diverted to social service organizations.
Advocates who work with teens in the sex trade say that the change is happening, in large part, because Americans have become more aware of international sex trafficking. "We’ve had two different belief systems in this country,” says Debra Boyer, a women’s studies professor at the University of Washington. “A 14-year-old who’s been brought into the country by international sex traffickers is regarded as a victim, whereas a 14-year-old who was born here, and is being controlled by domestic sex traffickers, is regarded as a criminal.” Looks like those belief systems are finally beginning to collide.