This blog is written by Jennifer Hollinger from The Human Trafficking Project
In the second article of a two article series, Ian Urbina of the New York Times explored the growing number of teen runaways on US streets as a result of the recession. In this excellent article, Urbina discusses how teens survive a harsh life on the streets. For many teens, this means resorting to survival sex. According to the article, nearly 1/3 of runaway children engage in survival sex for food, drugs, or a place to stay. I suspect that the actual number of runaways who engage in survival sex is far higher.
I was immediately struck by how similar the situation of the teen runaways was to that of someone trafficked for sexual exploitation and how easily these two phenomena could intertwine. Pimps used the same methods a trafficker would to coerce women into working for them; seducing the women and girls, convincing them they were “in love,” initiating a sexual relationship and then demanding that they do them a favor by having sex with friends or simply forcing them to have sex for money. Take, for example, the story of 17-year-old Nicole, who ran away from home in Medford, OR. “I didn’t know the town, and the police would just send me back to the group home,’ Nicole said, explaining why she did not cut off the relationship once her first boyfriend became a pimp and why she did not flee prostitution when she had the chance. ‘I’d also fallen for the guy. I felt trapped in a way I can’t really explain.’In addition to runaways, over a dozen convicted pimps were interviewed by the New York Times. According to Urbina, incarcerated pimps described the complicated roles they played as father figure, landlord, boss and boyfriend to the girls who worked for them. They said they went after girls with low self-esteem, prior sexual experience and a lack of options. Again, the overlap with the conditions leading to human trafficking was alarming. Those who wish to exploit vulnerable people have a common vocabulary of abuse, manipulation and deceit.
While there are those who seek to exploit young runaways, there are others who are doing their best to help, including anti-trafficking units in metropolitan police departments and the FBI. A poignant interview with a 16-year-old runaway who was forced into prostitution highlighted the fine line that the FBI prosecutor had to walk in this so-called flip interview. In essence, he had to persuade her to leave her pimp without actually admitting that she had one while simultaneously convincing her to testify against him, or flip on him. The irony of this situation is that, were this same girl 16-year-old girl to have sex with a male over the age of 18, he would end up in jail but, because money changed hands, he would simply be fined and she would be arrested for solicitation. If a 16-year-old child is too young to legally consent to sex, how can we simultaneously consider her old enough to sell it?
Overall, this two article series was highly informative and gave some good insights into the phenomenon of survival sex by teen runaways and the systematic abuse they face at the hands of their pimps. The article effectively highlights one of the fundamental flaws in the US legal system. We criminalize prostitutes, even those who are under 18, but we let off the johns with barely a slap on the wrist. The people who pay for sex promulgate this system of abuse and yet they suffer little fear of punishment from the legal system.
While much was done well in this article, more of a connection could have been made between human trafficking and teen prostitution, especially considering that Urbina quotes the head of a Boston anti-trafficking task force in the piece. The methods of exploitation employed by a pimp and a trafficker share many similarities and addressing the criminalization of prostitutes could do much to aid both trafficking survivors and teen runaways who are forced into survival sex.