January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month. It would seem fitting then, that the California legislature just passed a law to decriminalize child prostitution in the state. It's important to distinguish that California didn't just "legalize" child prostitution — rather, SB 1322 is an important first step in the fight to stop human sex trafficking in the United States. Instead of arresting children in prostitution cases, they are treated as victims of sex crimes instead. What California's new law and other child prostitution laws by state reveal is that the fight to end human sex trafficking in the United States is a complicated and ongoing battle.
According to Shared Hope International — a non-profit organization dedicated to fighting human sex trafficking — as many as 100,000 children are forced into sex trafficking in the United States each year. First, a little clarity: Not all sex for money is sex trafficking, as there are many adults who become sex workers by choice. (Sex work does not include sex trafficking, which says in its definition that it is forced.) But it's important to understand too that there's really no such thing as "child prostitution" — these children are minors incapable of giving sexual consent. And that's what makes California's decriminalization of "child prostitution" such a progressive step forward, by treating these children people who have been taken advantage of.
But what about the rest of the United States?
10 States Recognize Children As Victims
In 2016, Fusion did a deep dive into child sex trafficking and prostitution in the United States. Its investigation — using data from both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Shared Hope International — revealed that just 10 states have laws that grant full prosecutorial immunity to children and minors who are found to be victims of child sex trafficking. But what about the other 40 states?
Victim Vs. Perpetrator: It's Not Just Semantics
Human Rights for Girls director Malika Saada Saar told Fusion in July, "There’s an entrenched perspective on the part of law enforcement, prosecutors, and legislators that these are bad girls making bad decisions as opposed to victims of a heinous crime." Even though the Trafficking Victims Protection Act explicitly defines minors involved in sex trafficking as victims, there are still 40 states whose state laws do not make this distinction, thus opening up the possibilities for arresting and prosecuting children in these cases.
What You Can Do
California's new law decriminalizing child sex trafficking is just one step towards a much larger goal to bring prosecutorial immunity to all child victims of sex trafficking. To that end, Polaris — a leading national non-profit fighting human trafficking in all forms — is calling on every American to contact their legislators to support the Trafficking Survivors Relief Act, a bill introduced last September that would vacate "certain convictions and expungement of certain arrests of victims of human trafficking."