February 28th, 2011
12:40 PM ET

Opinion: U.S. should stop criminalizing sex trafficking victims

Editor's note: Malika Saada Saar is the founder and executive director of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, a nonprofit organization that advocates for justice, dignity and policy reform for vulnerable women and girls in the United States and in Africa.

Americans are right to get angry at the violence against women and girls in developing nations: the Congo rape camps, the widespread practices of female genital mutilation in West Africa and the infanticide of females in China.

Our disgust at the violence committed against women and girls is heightened by the culture of impunity that allows the perpetrators of these crimes to go free without condemnation or punishment. That culture also turns victims into criminals, such as the girls in Thailand who are beaten and raped and then ostracized by their families and society.

But our indignation must be turned inward, too. Here in the United States, there is a similar culture of impunity when young American girls are sold for sex. There are 100,000 to 300,000 children between 11 and 14 who are vulnerable to being sold for sex by pimp-captors every year in the United States, according to government statistics.

These girls, many of whom are runaway children from fragile families or communities, are lured, tricked or coerced by pimps, who promise them love and safety.

Sometimes, these girls are snatched off the streets by pimps, leaving heartbroken parents to search websites such as backpage.com that advertise sex for sale and walk the "tracks" to try to find their daughters. Young girls are the new commodities that traffickers and gangs are selling.

Why? Because they can.

The perpetrators of this new form of modern slavery in America can sell girls for sex without fear of punishment. As incomprehensible as it seems, today trafficking girls brings in more profits and results in less prison time than dealing crack.

There is no "war on trafficking" or any similar culture of crime and punishment for selling a 12-year-old girl for sex. Perversely, it is the girls - not the men - who suffer from criminalization.

Few buyers of prostituted children are arrested or prosecuted in the United States, according to the international anti-trafficking organization Shared Hope.

But girls who've been trafficked frequently end up arrested for prostitution. It is the girl who is restrained by police after a "bust" or a "raid" on a hotel room - not her trafficker or the "john."

It is the girl, repeatedly raped by grown men, who is shackled and put behind bars. Rarely are these girls perceived as victims.

They are instead cast as "'hos," prostitutes or "bad girls." Take, for example, in a Washington-area courtroom last year, where a colleague of mine heard a prosecutor call a girl who had been arrested on charges of prostitution "a little black 'ho.'"

Rather than feeling rescued from a torturous situation and placed in safety, she was reviled and publicly humiliated in a court of law.

It is a story typical of so many girls arrested for prostitution. They are treated as criminals, not victims. This view explains why there are so few safe- haven programs for girls trafficked - or why not even one cent of federal funding for trafficked victims under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act goes to domestic victims.

And, unfortunately, it also explains why men continue to buy and sell girls without fear of legal repercussions. It is time to prosecute those who sell and purchase girls.

If they are subject to punishment for their criminal acts against children, pimps and "johns" will be less interested in the marketplace of young girls. The laws already exist - such as statutory rape and child-endangerment laws - but there is no political will at the state or federal level to prosecute the perpetrators - especially the "johns."

Despite all the political jingoism about being tough on crime or protecting our children, lawmakers are remarkably indifferent to prosecuting these child abusers and rapists.

We owe it to prostituted girls to give them freedom, refuge and safety - and harsh penalties for every entity involved in their trafficking - pimps, victimizers and enterprises that profit from these sales.

No girl in America should be purchased, sold, raped, abused or exploited - and with impunity.

- The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Malika Saada Saar. This story originally appeared on CNN.com in February 2011.


soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. Larivejd

    I agree generally. Yes, many young and also older girls (as well as boys, albeit on a smaller scale regarding this) are being naive in many cases. Nevertheless, that is no excuse for exploitations. And no one can really blame anyone for wanting a better life (than eg. having a drunk violent parent at home and not having any real prospects in place of original residence).
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n1VTcJfL7RE&w=640&h=390]
    Unfortunately, even if every trafficker and 'customer' would be busted and castrated it wouldn't get the kids off the streets and locked rooms, and if the focus would be just getting kids off the streets and locked rooms it wouldn't prevent traffickers and 'customers' from looking for new victims elsewhere.

    March 7, 2011 at 10:20 am | Reply
    • Larivejd

      Also, if professional brothels would be tolerated, or even better, looked after from side of authorities, it would probably shift many 'customers' into these establishments, albeit other 'customers' would probably still be looking for the cheapest fuck available.

      March 7, 2011 at 10:25 am | Reply
  2. T Glass

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/Wellspring-Living/91669196665

    March 7, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Reply
  3. candy

    i totally agree that it needs to be adressed but dont forget there are also boys that are being exploitated
    it juz sickens me to think of these children and young adults who are kidnapped and abused
    i thank GOD my everyday for my chilldren and continue to pray for those in peril

    March 8, 2011 at 7:37 am | Reply
  4. Chiri

    SUPPORT LOVE 146 AT:
    love146.org
    at Love 146, there are people fighting to stop human trafficking, particularly child sex slavery and exploitation. 
    the co-founders' story is on their website but i wil post it here as well (i acknowledge that this story is not my property but should be shared with people who may be interested in participating in the fight against human trafficking):

    "We found ourselves standing shoulder to shoulder with predators in a small room, looking at little girls through a pane of glass. All of the girls wore red dresses with a number pinned to their dress for identification. They sat, blankly watching cartoons on TV. They were vacant, shells of what a child should be. There was no light in their eyes, no life left. Their light had been taken from them.  These children...raped each night... seven, ten, fifteen times every night. They were so young. Thirteen, eleven… it was hard to tell.  Sorrow covered their faces with nothingness. Except one girl. One girl who wouldn’t watch the cartoons. Her number was 146. She was looking beyond the glass. She was staring out at us, with a piercing gaze. There was still fight left in her eyes. There was still life left in this girl...
     
    "...All of these emotions begin to wreck you. Break you. It is agony. It is aching. It is grief. It is sorrow. The reaction is intuitive, instinctive. It is visceral. It releases a wailing cry inside of you. It elicits gut-level indignation. It is unbearable. I remember wanting to break through the glass. To take her away from that place. To scoop up as many of them as I could into my arms. To take all of them away. I wanted to break through the glass to tell her to keep fighting. To not give up. To tell her that we were coming for her…"

    “Because we went in as part of an ongoing, undercover investigation on this particular brothel, we were unable to immediately respond. Evidence had to be collected in order to bring about a raid, and eventually justice on those running the brothel.  It is an immensely difficult problem when an immediate response cannot address an emergency.  Some time later, there was a raid on this brothel and children were rescued.  But the girl who wore #146 was no longer there.  We do not know what happened to her, but we will never forget her.  She changed the course of all of our lives." -Rob Morris, President and Co-founder

    March 10, 2011 at 11:26 am | Reply
  5. chris

    According to the media hype There was supposed to be hundreds of thousands of under age child sex slaves kidnapped and forced to have sex with super bowl fans. At the Dallas Super Bowl 2011. WHAT HAPPENED TO ALL OF THEM????????????
    Well, as I predicted it was all a big lie told by various anti-prostitution groups and the Dallas Women’s Foundation which is a anti-prostitution group that lies in order to get grant money from the government and charities to pay their high salaries. As proved in the link below:
    Top FBI agent in Dallas (Robert Casey Jr.) sees no evidence of expected spike in child sex trafficking:
    “Among those preparations was an initiative to prevent an expected rise in sex trafficking and child prostitution surrounding the Super Bowl. But Robert Casey Jr., special agent in charge of the FBI’s Dallas office, said he saw no evidence that the increase would happen, nor that it did.
    “In my opinion, the Super Bowl does not create a spike in those crimes,” he said. “The discussion gets very vague and general. People mixed up child prostitution with the term human trafficking, which are different things, and then there is just plain old prostitution.”
    http://www.dallasnews.com/sports/super-bowl/local/20110302-top-fbi-agent-in-dallas-praises-super-bowl-security-effort-sees-no-evidence-of-expected-spike-in-child-sex-trafficking.ece
    This myth of thousands or millions of underage sex slaves tries to make every sports fan a sex criminal. No matter what the sport is, or in what country it is in.
    Brian McCarthy isn't happy. He's a spokesman for the NFL. Every year he's forced to hear why his customers are adulterers and child molesters. Brian McCarthy says the sport/super bowl sex slave story is a urban legend, with no truth at all.
    I do not like the idea of people getting the wrong information and believing lies, no matter what the topic is. The Sex trafficking, slavery issue is one of the biggest lies being told today. It is amazing to me how people will believe such lies so easily. The media is to blame for this. I wonder why they feel such a need to report wrong stats, numbers and information about this topic without doing proper research.
    While this may happen in very rare limited situations, the media will say that millions of people are sex slaves without doing any real research on the topic. Only taking the word of special interest anti-prostitution groups which need to generate money in the form of huge government grants from taxpayers, and charities. These "non profit" group's employees make huge salaries, therefore they need to lobby the government, and inflate and invent victims in order to get more money into their organizations. If you look into how many real kidnapped forced against their will sex slaves there are, and not just take the anti-prostitution groups word for it. You will be very surprised.
    Where are all the forced sex slaves? I would like to meet the millions of slaves and see for myself if they were kidnapped and forced against their will.
    These groups lobby the government in a big way, getting Politicians to truly believe their lies.
    This is an attempt to over inflate an issue in order to get more government money to these organizations. As a tax payer, voter, and resident I don’t want the government to mislead me.

    I would like to see a news organization do a full report on the lies, myths and exaggerated numbers being told about sex trafficking slaves. The articles about the super bowl sex slaves, has been proved wrong many times, but news organizations still report about it, as if it were fact.

    There is a lot of controversy over the numbers of adult woman who are forced sex slaves. The real factual answer is that no one knows. There is hard evidence that the sex slavery/sex trafficking issue continues to report false information and is greatly exaggerated by politicians, the media, and aid groups, feminist and religious organizations that receive funds from the government, The estimate of adult women who become new sex slaves ranges anywhere from 40 million a year to 5,000 per year all of which appear to be much too high. They have no evidence to back up these numbers, and no one questions them about it. Their sources have no sources, and are made up numbers. In fact if some of these numbers are to believed which have either not changed or have been increased each year for the past twenty years, all woman on earth would currently be sex slaves. Yet, very few real forced against their will sex slaves have been found.

    It is not easy for criminals to engage in this activity:
    Sex trafficking is illegal and the pentities are very severe. It is very difficult to force someone to be a sex slave, they would have to have 24 hour guards posted and be watched 365 days a year, 24 hours per day. Have the threat of violence if they refused, and have no one notice and complain to the authorities or police. They would need to hide from the general public yet still manage to see customers from the general public and not have the customers turn the traffickers in to the police. They would need to provide them with medical care, food, shelter, and have all their basic needs met. They would need to have the sex slaves put on a fake front that they enjoyed what they were doing, act flirtatious and do their job well.
    They would have to deal with the authorities looking for the missing women, and hide any money they may make, since it comes from illegal activity. They must do all of this while constantly trying to prevent the sex slaves from escaping and reporting them to the police. They would need to prevent the general public from reporting them into the police.
    This is extremely difficult to do, which makes this activity rare. These criminals would be breaking dozens of major laws not just one. Kidnapping itself is a serious crime. There are many laws against sex trafficking, sex slavery, kidnapping, sex abuse, rape, sexual harassment etc. If someone is behind it, they will be breaking many serious laws, be in big trouble, and will go to jail for many long years. And do you actually think that there is a long line of people who want to have a career as a sex slave kidnapping pimp?

    While there are some women who may be true victims. And it is possible for this to happen in rare situations. This is a small rare group of people and that the numbers and scale of this crime is exaggerated. The very nature of someone pulling off a kidnapping and forced sex for profit appears to be very difficult. Since it would be difficult this makes this crime rare. Not impossible, but extremely rare. And do you really think that millions of people are lining up to make a career out of being a illegal violent sex slave kidnapping pimp?

    A key point is that on the sidelines the adult prostitutes themselves are not being listened to. They oppose laws against prostitution. But no one wants to listen to the prostitutes themselves. Only to the self appointed experts that make up numbers and stories many of which have never met a real forced sex slave or if they did it was only a few. The media and government never ask the prostitutes themselves what would help them in terms of laws.
    Many women in the sex business are independent workers. They don’t have a pimp.
    They work for themselves, advertise themselves, and keep all the money for themselves. No one forces them, because there isn’t anyone to force them. They go out and find their own customers, set their own prices, and arrange everything by themselves. Sometimes they may employ others to help them, but these are not pimps. If for example, she hires an internet web design company to make a website for her, does that make the web design company a pimp? If she pays a phone company for a phone to do business, does this make the phone company a pimp? If she puts an ad in the paper, does this make the editor a pimp? If she puts the money she makes into a bank account does this make the bank a pimp?
    A lot of anti prostitution groups would say yes. Everyone and everybody is a pimp.
    These groups make up lies, and false statistics that no one bothers to check. A big reason they do this is because it provides high paying jobs for them. They get big donations, and grants from the government, charity, churches, etc. to have these groups, and pay these high salaries of the anti prostitution workers.

    Sex Trafficking/Slavery is used by many groups as a attempt to outlaw all prostitution around the world by saying that all women are victims even if they do it willing. This hurts any real victims because it labels all sex workers as victims.
    This is done by the media, aid groups, NGO’s, feminists, politicians, and religious organizations that receive funds from the government. There are very strong groups who promote that all adult women who have sex are victims even if they are willing, enjoy it and go out of there way to get it. These groups try to get the public to believe that no adult women in their right mind would ever go into the sex business unless she was forced to do so, weather she knew it or not. They say that 100% of all sex workers are trafficking victims.
    They do this in order to label all men as sex offenders and wipe out all consensual prostitution. Which is what their real goal is. There is almost no one who challenges or questions them about their false beliefs. Therefore, the only voices you hear are of these extreme groups. These groups want to label all men as terrible sex offenders for seeing a willing adult sex worker. No one stands up to say this is foolish, the passive public says nothing.
    These groups even say that all men who marry foreign women are terrible sex predators who take advange of these "helpless foreign women wives".
    These groups believe that two adults having consensual sex in private should be outlawed. Since they believe that it is impossible for a man to have sex with a woman without abusing the woman in the process.
    This is an example of feminists and other groups exploiting the suffering of a small minority of vulnerable and abused women in order to further their own collective interests. For example, getting money from the government and Charity into their organizations. Rather than wanting to find the truth.
    = In the USA ==
    On August 5, 2008
    U.S. Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine uncovered discrepancies in a program dedicated to cracking down on human trafficking, McClatchy Newspapers report. Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales spent millions of dollars on combating the international trafficking of indentured servants and sex slaves, including by creating task forces across the U.S. that identified and helped victims. Over four years, the department paid $50 million to the task forces and other groups. Conservative groups, who pressured the administration to go after sex trafficking more aggressively, applauded his efforts.
    Critics have questioned whether the problem was being hyped. Fine found in an audit issued that the task forces and other groups set up to help were 'significantly' overstating the number of victims they served. By examining a sampling of cases, Fine found the task forces had exaggerated by as much as 165 percent. Making matters worse, the inflated numbers were included in annual reports to Congress.
    == In the United Kingdom ==
    In October, 2009 – The biggest ever investigation of sex trafficking failed to find a single person who had forced anybody into prostitution in spite of hundreds of raids on sex workers in a six-month campaign by government departments, specialist agencies and every police force in the country. The failure has been disclosed by a Guardian investigation which also suggests that the scale of and nature of sex trafficking into the UK has been exaggerated by politicians and media.
    Nick Davis of the Guardian newspaper writes:
    Current and former ministers have claimed that thousands of women have been imported into the UK and forced to work as sex slaves, but most of these statements were either based on distortions of quoted sources or fabrications without any source at all.
    ===In India and Nepal===
    If media reports are to be believed, there would be no young girls left in Nepal. Oft-quoted figures such as 5,000-7,000 Nepali girls being trafficked across the border to India every year and 150,000-200,000 Nepali women and girls being trapped in brothels in various Indian cities, were first disseminated in 1986, and have remained unaltered over the next two decades. The report that first quoted these statistics was from the Indian Health Association, Mumbai, written by AIDS Society of India secretary general, Dr. I S Gilada, and presented in a workshop in 1986. Subsequently, a version of this report was published as an article in The Times of India on January 2, 1989. To date, the source of this figure remains a mystery. Unfortunately, such a lack of clarity is more the norm than the exception when it comes to reporting on trafficking in women and girls.
    There needs to be a distinct separation of
    1. Child sex trafficking
    2. Adult sex Trafficking
    3. Adult consensual
    prostitution.
    4. Sex Slavery
    They are not the same. Adult Women are NOT children.
    Media coverage of trafficking and adult women's migration and sex work is confused and inaccurate. The media wrongly uses the terms 'sex work' and 'trafficking' and adult sex work and child sex trafficking synonymously, perpetuating stereotypes and stigmatization, and contributing to the violation of women's right to free movement and livelihood options. They assume that if any woman moves from place to place for sex work that they are being trafficking. The media, politicians, aid groups, feminist, and religious organizations does not take into account that she may do this of her own free will. Too often women are treated like children. Adult women are not children.
    http://www.dallasobserver.com/2011-01-27/news/the-super-bowl-prostitute-myth-100-000-hookers-won-t-be-showing-up-in-dallas/
    http://sextraffickingtruths.blogspot.com/
    http://bebopper76.wordpress.com/2010/11/09/sex-trafficking-lies-myths/

    News night BBC video:
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PtaEdI3aiwg&w=640&h=390]

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6rvA60zdkD8&w=640&h=390]

    March 11, 2011 at 11:55 am | Reply
    • Zack

      Nikki – This is so incredible. I apcrepiate reading the stories and your experience here. My attention was piqued a while back about this area and human trafficking. I hope some day to be an active part of the cause to stop the madness.

      April 8, 2012 at 1:09 am | Reply
  6. Gamer Girls

    I don't disagree with this blog post.

    December 8, 2011 at 2:45 am | Reply

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