Go after the 'johns'

We are at an important bipartisan moment in the fight to stop child sex trafficking. Despite their differences on almost every other policy issue, Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate have rallied together to put forward legislation that will reframe how we approach the crisis of child trafficking. These bipartisan bills not only target those who enslave and traffic innocent children but also  those who are generating the demand, those sick humans who “buy” children.

The House this week unanimously passed the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, co-sponsored by Reps. Poe (R-Texas), Maloney (D-N.Y.), Nolan (D-Minn.), Miller (R-Mich.), and Granger (R-Texas). There is a companion bill in the Senate co-sponsored by Sens. Cornyn (R-Texas), Wyden (D-Ore.), Kirk (R-Ill.), Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and Rubio (R-Fla.). The legislation clarifies the language of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) to remove all doubt as to its criminal applicability to buyers of child sex. Moreover, the Act requires anti-human trafficking task forces throughout the U.S. to increase the investigative capabilities of state and local law enforcement to go after buyers.

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Last year, a group of girls from Los Angeles met with me. They were all survivors of child trafficking here in the United States. The girls wanted to share their thoughts on what needed to happen in Congress to help other children who were still being trafficked every day, and without the hope or promise of freedom. The girls made clear to me that Congress needed to focus on demand: the unrestrained and constant demand for sex with underage girls like them.

To emphasize their point, they first told me about their friend, a 15-year-old trafficked girl who pleaded with every “john” who purchased her to take her to the police. Not one did. They ignored her pleas, forced her to perform sexual acts, and then returned her to the pimp because they had already "paid for her."

Then there was the story of the girl who was burned to death. She had tried to run away from the control of her pimp/trafficker. To make an example of any girl who dares to escape, the pimp burned her alive on "the track" in front of the other children and youth under his control.

The girls said that as long as johns could buy 14- and 15-year-olds without fear or consequence, more girls would be coerced into exploitation and trafficking -- and tortured if they tried to escape. 

In recent years, there has been significant progress in arresting and prosecuting traffickers for their egregious acts of selling children for sex. But, there has not been a focus on the (politely termed) johns. Even though most girls purchased for sex are not even of the legal age to consent. In any other context, what happens to these girls would be construed as sexual assault of a minor or statutory rape. 

However, in the marketplace of child trafficking, there is a culture of impunity. Buyers are rarely arrested or prosecuted for purchasing sex with a minor. As if when the act of child rape is purchased, it is somehow less an act of rape or violence. The result is that individuals can confidently buy children for sex, without fear of punishment (which is one reason why many gangs have started selling girls instead of drugs: the “buyers” are not afraid of getting arrested).

In fact, there are even "John Boards" where buyers openly discuss the different girls they have bought for sex and rate them. They exchange tips on which sites are the best to go to make a purchase of girls. And they shamelessly share with one another the experience of the purchase.

In any other illicit network, like child sexual abuse imagery, the focus is on both supply and demand. But not when children are trafficked. There are anti-trafficking task forces across the nation and none are tasked with the goal of going after buyers. Recently, the FBI announced a series of raids in over 70 cities in which more than 100 sex trafficked children were rescued -- but only the pimps, and not the buyers, were subject to arrest. 

Hopefully, all of that is about to change. If we are really serious about protecting our most vulnerable children and youth from modern-day slavery, then those responsible for the purchase of the enslaved child must be held accountable. As the child survivors of these terrible crimes have already pointed out, it is time to end the culture of impunity for this type of child abuse. We call on Congress to join onto bi-partisan bills being promoted by Sen. Cornyn and Rep. Poe and come together to crack down on the buyers on sex trafficked children.

Saar is executive director of the Human Rights Project for Girls.