Professor Jeffrey Sacha
SOC 301: Social Problems
Social Problems: Policy Analysis Midterm
Imagine a child being forced to have sex up to twenty times a night by a trusted friend or significant other. This is a very typical situation for thousands of children being sex trafficked on a daily basis throughout California. Now imagine the police interrupt one of these encounters, only to arrest the child as a prostitute. Instead of taking them to safety, the police force them into the criminal “justice” industrial complex where their record will be tarnished, and they will face a lifetime of stigmatization and systemic punishment on top of the trauma and tragedy they faced as a victim of sex trafficking. Until earlier this year, this situation was actually standard practice and fully validated by California state policy. Following claimsmaking work by human trafficking nonprofits working with state senator Holly Mitchell and state assembly persons Christina Garcia, Tom Lackey, and Bob Wieckowski, a child safety bill was put forward to change this unjust policy. The new law says that children (who are unable to give consent for sex) cannot be held liable for prostitution, and that the police should be focusing on the people exploiting them rather than unjustly punishing the victims of these terrible crimes.
According to WEAVE, “Sex trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery. Sex traffickers frequently groom victims and then use violence, threats, lies, false promises, debt bondage, or other forms of control and manipulation to prevent victims from leaving.“ Prostitution, conversely, is defined under California Penal Code 647(b), “[To] Pay or accept money or other consideration in exchange for a sexual act.” The situation of being forced into sex, which countless children face, is certainly a troubling social condition, but it may surprise the reader to learn that while a significant number of people in California agree with claims made by human trafficking nonprofits that prosecuting trafficked minors as prostitutes is wrong, some on the right argue that this new child safety law is wrong. In an op-ed published on the East Coast, California Republican Assemblyman Travis Allen wrote, “Beginning on Jan. 1, prostitution by minors will be legal in California…. So teenage girls (and boys) in California will soon be free to have sex in exchange for money without fear of arrest or prosecution.” (Ortiz) In an interview with KCRA news, the bill’s primary author Senator Mitchell responded to these misrepresentations from the right, “Children who are under the age of eighteen and cannot give consent should be treated like the victims of other crimes.”
For more than a century, the law throughout the western world has clearly established that children cannot give consent for sex. Despite that fact, it has become standard practice to hold children liable as prostitutes when they are forced by traffickers to have sex for money. This may sound like an edge case, but in fact it is quite ubiquitous. There are over a thousand cases of child sex trafficking throughout California each year, and the vast majority of the female youth in juvenile detention have been sex trafficked without any cases ever being filed. (California Child Welfare Council). According to Sacramento human trafficking non-profit WEAVE, “The average age of a young woman first being trafficked is 12-14 years old.” (WEAVE).
The standard practice in California and elsewhere has been to imprison and punish victims of child sex trafficking and not to press any kind of charges against the traffickers who perpetrate these crimes on children, while occasionally pressing charges against the people purchasing the children for sex. This law corrects this unjust practice by requiring police to focus on the perpetrators instead of unjustly attacking the victims.
In the future, I see this as becoming a valence issue. The conclusions proposed by the nonprofits fighting human trafficking are very reasonable and well thought-out. The opposition is absurd, catastrophizing, and just plain wrong even from their own standpoint. In the words of WEAVE CEO Beth Hassett, “There is no such thing as a child prostitute since children cannot give consent.” Any sex which involves a child is fundamentally non-consensual by definition. This law should not have been necessary because these truths are self-evident. The Republican claim that “prostitution by minors will be legal in California” is absurd. A minor cannot have consensual sex. A minor does not have agency to commit prostitution. Especially when those children are being forced into it, holding them as somehow responsible is just wrong no matter what perspective you hold.
In the current political climate where presidents openly boast about sexually assaulting people, and child rapists run for Republican house seats, it’s not hard to see why this issue is enduring unwarranted discussion. The biggest obstacle that claimsmakers face on issues like this is the ignorance of a determined and low-information opposition. I think the best solution to this claimsmaking problem would be building coalitions like the Prop 8 lawsuit did. The most famous conservative lawyer in the country sided publicly with the gays, forcing those on the right who were looking for any reason to disagree to instead take a second critical look at the issue.
California Child Welfare Council. Published 2013. Accessed 2018-12-11. Prevalence of commercially sexually exploited children. http://www.chhs.ca.gov/CWCDOC/CSEC%20Fact%20Sheet %20-%201.pdf
Nichols, Chris. Politifact. “Pants On Fire for claim California legalized child prostitution.” Accessed 2018-12-11. Published 2017-01-04. https://www.politifact.com/california/ statements/2017/jan/04/travis-allen/lawmakers-claim-about-california-legalizing-child-/
Ortiz, Erik. NBC News. “New California Law Does Not Legalize Child Prostitution.” Accessed 2018-12-11. Published 2016-12-30.
WEAVE. “Sex Trafficking.” Accessed 2018-12-11. https://www.weaveinc.org/sex-trafficking