Discussing the social and legal importance of ending criminalization of minors for prostitution offenses.
Criminalization of juvenile sex trafficking victims is fundamentally unfair and implies that victims of sex trafficking are responsible for the severe crime committed against them. No other child sexual abuse victim faces criminalization for their own sexual abuse, yet 36 states still allow minors to be charged with prostitution simply because the abusive conduct suffered is commercialized.
As long as juvenile victims under sex trafficking laws continue to be treated as perpetrators under prostitution laws, there cannot be a true shift in cultural attitudes to stop stigmatizing juvenile victims as "child prostitutes" and start acknowledging child sex trafficking—the buying and selling of children for sex—as a serious crime against children. Treating commercially sexually exploited youth as culpable for the same transactions that victimized them goes to the heart of why this type of child abuse has been able to persist in the shadows for so long—exploitation of children through prostitution conjures a stigma that distorts the perception of the victim.
While non-criminalization is fundamental to a complete response to juvenile sex trafficking victims, it is not the only component. Without access to services, victims remain at risk of re-exploitation, and the nation is still struggling to identify the best avenues to services for this victim population. For this reason, noncriminalization may be a starting point for some states; for other states it may be a long-term goal, but regardless, policy makers, law enforcement, prosecutors, service providers and society at large will continue to confront the need to eliminate criminal liability under prostitution laws for any minor in order to consistently recognize the victimization of commercially sexually exploited youth.