We Have to Stop Criminalizing Sex Trafficking Victims


Over the weekend, social media erupted with a viral new “challenge.” This time, it centered around the hashtag #10YearChallenge, where people would post side by side photos from 2009 and 2019. In the wake of Surviving R. Kelly and a slew of new charges against him, the challenge inadvertently created another juxtaposition. So many women of color look young, but our society rarely recognizes them as young. In the context of the countless stories of teenage girls who have been sexually assaulted, sex trafficked, manipulated, and criminalized all before they turned 18, a 10-year challenge means looking back on innocence that was ripped from them.

For that reason, it is time that this country focuses on revisiting another hashtag challenge: #BringBackOurGirls.  

The tag became popularized around the time of the #IceBucketChallenge, and the Bring Back Our Girls campaign sought to rescue 276 Nigerian girls who were kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram. While the circumstances of these girls’ kidnappings are certainly not comparable to the kidnappings and/or arrests of young Black and brown women in the United States, there are resounding themes that indicate a global indifference to the plight of our young girls.

In the HBO documentary Stolen Daughters, which follows many of the Nigerian girls after their rescue, there was a common fear that many of the girls who returned home would be radicalized, or brainwashed, by their captors. This sentiment is not unlike what has been expressed about R.Kelly’s captives. During the Surviving R. Kelly documentary, the parents of one of the girls he’s allegedly kidnapped believe she has been brainwashed.

The parallels do not end there. In the case of the kidnapped Nigerian girls, the HBO documentary highlights the Nigerian government’s reluctance — if not complete avoidance and dismissal — to shed light on the girls being kept in captivity.

The fact that the Chibok girls were kept for three and a half years is an embarrassment to the Nigerian government,” Karen Edwards, a writer, and producer for the documentary explained. “They don’t want the world thinking too much about that or what might have happened to them.”

The United States also has a problem with not facing the facts — this time, when it comes to sex trafficking. Between 2016 and 2017, cases increased by 13 percent and in as early as 2007, sex trafficking was a $300M market (comparatively, the market for energy drinks were about $300M around that time). Yet, it has not been prioritized as a national crisis to understand why the statistics of those affected must be considered.

A recent report from the Department of Justice noted that over 40% of sex trafficking victims are Black, while about one in four is Hispanic. In 2017, the National Human Trafficking Hotline reported that Latinas were the largest group of reported trafficking victims. An overwhelming number of these victims were trafficked when they were hardly adults, still young girls, between the ages of 12 and 18.  

What’s worse? The government has gone much further than ignoring and not protecting these girls. They’ve criminalized them. According to a report by the Human Rights Project for Girls, although they are only 14% of the U.S. population, African American girls comprise 33% of the female juvenile population. The report states, “in a perverse twist of justice, many girls who experience sexual abuse are routed into the juvenile justice system because of their victimization… a particularly glaring example is when girls who are victims of sex trafficking are arrested on prostitution charges — punished as perpetrators rather than served and supported as victims and survivors.” A 2014 FBI report suggested, 52% of girls arrested for juvenile prostitution are African American.

And for many girls, that’s a best-case scenario. The case of Cyntoia Brown was popularized with the support of celebrity and broad cultural outrage, as she was only recently granted clemency (not to be confused with a government admission of a wrongful conviction) after being convicted of first-degree murder in the death of  a man who, notably, took her home and tried to have sex with her after she was forced into child prostitution when she was just sixteen-years-old. Yet, her case is not nearly the only one.

For example, in a more recent (June 2018) case, then seventeen-year-old Chrystul Kizer murdered a 34-year-old white man before setting his home on fire. While she was charged with first-degree murder, details later came out revealing that the man she murdered was under investigation for producing child pornography and sexual abuse. When asked why she killed him, Chrystul revealed she was “tired of the dude touching on me.” While the young girl reportedly had a troubled history, it was clear this was the culmination of being a victim of a wealthy, older man taking advantage of her situation.

The formula in these cases almost always has a set of circumstances. Poverty or difficult/non-existent home life, older and wealthier men, a system that ignores, shames, or punishes victims and a world that hypersexualizes Black and brown girls — stripping them of their ability to be just that, girls. Last year, Georgetown Law Center for Poverty and Inequality released a damning report that showed white people view Black girls particularly as less innocent than their white peers, especially those between ages 5 and 14. Limited research has even been done about the sexualization of young Latinas, yet there have been reports of migrant children being placed in the hands of sex traffickers by the government.   

In today’s context, the phrase #BringBackOurGirls — a rallying cry that captured Americans’ hope for the restoration of Nigerian girls — is a reflection of what we hope for black and brown girls on American soil. The victims of that hashtag no longer conjure images of enslaved girls oceans away; we are finally starting to see the situation differently, more intimately. Still, on its face, the circumstances look the same. Globally, girlhood is a privilege afforded only to certain groups, and black and brown girls in this country are too often thrust into the trauma of being viewed, baited, touched, raped, threatened, prosecuted, jailed, protected, and defended as if they were grown, women.

If there is one thing the cultural conversations have shown us, it’s that black and brown girls deserve one thing from us. We must stop getting ahead of ourselves, looking at them as anything other than the children they are, in need of protection and a system that supports them. It’s time we bring back their girlhood.   

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