Fake news struck again last week, as California State Assemblyman Travis Allen penned an op-ed in a conservative-leaning news website claiming that California had legalized child prostitution. Senate Bill 1322, which went into effect on Jan. 1, actually only made certain sections of the penal code inapplicable to minors. And decriminalizing child prostitution is crucial to stopping trafficking. This is actually a really good thing.
First of all, there's a world of difference between legalizing and decriminalizing an act. Legalizing child prostitution would involve legislating it, for example making laws about how it should be carried out. Obviously, that's not what's been done here; that's absurd. SB 1322 means that children will no longer be penalized when they are forced into sex slavery. The adults who force them into it will absolutely still be punished. They're just not arresting kids for getting raped by adults. Pretty reasonable. Allen argued that "teenage girls (and boys) in California will soon be free to have sex in exchange for money without fear of arrest or prosecution," according to NBC News. But what the bill really does is make teens and younger kids free to report the adults who have exploited them without fear of arrest.
Sex trafficking is widely underreported because traffickers routinely tell their victims that they'll be arrested if they go to the police. According to The Atlantic, some traffickers even go so far as to threaten to report their victims to the police in order to ensure compliance. California law enforcement will no longer arrest child sex trafficking victims, but will instead remove them from unsafe situations. Children are unable to legally consent to sex, and as such, children trafficked for sex are victims, not prostitutes or sex workers (and what they're doing is not a form of sex work). The new amendment to the penal code simply makes it the law to treat them that way.
Some also believe that decriminalizing sex work for adults may be best. In 1999, Sweden decriminalized the selling of oneself for sex, while still keeping it illegal to sell another person, or to pay for sex, essentially putting the burden where it belongs, on the traffickers and their customers. As then-Ministry of Industry, Employment, and Communications employee Gunilla Ekberg explained in a 2004 paper on the legislation, "In Sweden, prostitution is officially acknowledged as a form of male sexual violence against women and children." In 2008, an inquiry by the Swedish government found that since the law was enacted, not only had sex work not increased, as some detractors had feared, but street sex work had been cut in half.
The Swedish model has been adopted by other countries, but it's not without its critics. Some argue that it robs willing sex workers of their autonomy, or that the law has only driven sex workers further underground, into more dangerous situations. Some even call for prostitution to be decriminalized, or even legalized, across the board. In 2003, New Zealand did just that, and supporters of the move claim that sex workers now enjoy better pay and safer working conditions as a result. And international trafficking is less of a concern because of New Zealand's isolated geography.
Whether decriminalization or legalization of sex work for adults will ultimately keep them safer is still a widely-debated topic, though sex workers stress that they are safer when their work is legalized (and they'd be the ones to know, right?). But one thing is for certain: no child should ever be punished for their own rape, and that's just what charging a minor with prostitution does. California child sex trafficking victims now have a better chance of escaping their captors, and nobody can argue against that.