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Senate could protect girls from sexual exploitation — but will it?

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Picture a typical teenage girl, living a charmed life, one filled with friends, parties and school — until it turns into a world of blackmail, isolation and despair. This girl is Zoë, a character from Alyson Noël’s young-adult novel, “Saving Zoë.” Yet, her story is anything but fictitious. It echoes the very real tragedy that too many girls face every day in this country, as well as in the world.

It took 12 years for us to turn “Saving Zoë” into a film, and getting this story from page to screen was exceptionally difficult. Film companies were reluctant to involve themselves in the project, and what was most disconcerting was the reason why. It all came down to the subject the film was addressing: sex trafficking and sexual exploitation.

It seemed that no one wanted to make a movie that broached this topic in the slightest. It was considered too dark to discuss because young women supposedly want light, digestible content — movies about romance. Yet, women of all ages make up 94 percent of sex-trafficking victims so, clearly, this is a subject that affects them.

Trafficking for sexual exploitation is estimated to be a $99 billion industry worldwide, according to the United Nations’ International Labor Organization. The United States is one of the top source, transit and destination countries for human trafficking of both foreign nationals and U.S. citizens. Not only that, but the trafficking of children for sexual exploitation has been reported in every single state in the U.S.

We all tend to assume that we know what this kind of trafficking looks like: Kids being kidnapped from their homes, plucked off the street or funneled in from other countries, to be sold to the highest bidder. While that can happen, this assumption does not take into consideration our exposure to technology. In the internet age, sexual exploitation has become increasingly insidious. Between social media platforms, apps and online video games, the opportunities for traffickers to contact and control potential victims and engage with other perpetrators are endless.

The internet isn’t going away anytime soon, and — with the constant introduction of new technology — sex trafficking continues to evolve. The ever-changing landscape of this heinous industry makes it extremely difficult to combat, mostly because there is still so much we don’t know about it. What we do know is that 78 percent of online child sexual-exploitation victims are girls and, in 2018, 82 percent of trafficking cases reported in the U.S. involved female victims.

These statistics will not change on their own, especially if mere conversation with the demographic most likely to be targeted is a non-starter.

The recent revelations about Jeffrey Epstein unfortunately suggest that power and exploitation can go hand-in-hand. People who thrive off this kind of power don’t just survive when others protect them; they survive when the world stands by and does nothing.

Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-Calif.) is not just standing by and doing nothing. She put forth a bipartisan bill, the “Put Trafficking Victims First Act of 2019” (House Resolution 507). Now, this bill covers a lot, but here are a few bullet points:

  • Direct the attorney general to study a range of issues related to human trafficking and establish an expert working group to improve data collection and analysis, conduct surveys of survivors regarding the provision of services to them, and address the effectiveness of current policies in regard to victims’ needs;
  • Require law enforcement to set aside a portion of funds received to combat human trafficking and devote those to providing victims with support that is trauma-informed, evidence-based and survivor-centered; 
  • Facilitate access for child victims of commercial sex trafficking to the services and protections afforded to other victims of sexual violence;
  • Encourage states to improve efforts to identify and meet the needs of human-trafficking victims;
  • Ensure that law enforcement officers and prosecutors make every attempt to determine whether an individual is a victim of human trafficking before arresting and charging the individual with an offense that is a direct result of the victimization;
  • Effectively prosecute traffickers and individuals who patronize or solicit children for sex.

This bill is survivor-centered. It puts victims of this horrific crime first and it takes their needs, as well as their opinions, into account.

To truly fight something, we must first understand it — and no one understands trafficking better than those who have lived through it. One amazing organization that has spent years advocating for laws that take survivors’ voices into account is Equality Now. This organization was instrumental in introducing us to survivors who graciously educated us about the subject as well as their personal experiences.

Listening to those who have experienced sex trafficking first-hand is our best chance to start making some real change. It is our responsibility to protect survivors, learn from them and believe them. We need survivor-informed solutions, and this bill is a step toward that.

H.R. 507 passed the House of Representatives in a vote that was 414-1. In an age in which almost every political issue has created a partisan divide, it should be encouraging that this Democrat- and Republican-endorsed bill is not one of those.

However, the fight for this bill to become a law is far from over. Its fate is in the hands of the Senate — in the hands of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has referred to himself as the “grim reaper” when it comes to passing legislation. One would assume that this bill’s bipartisan support would make its passage a no-brainer; however, our experience with “Saving Zoë,” and the almost unanimous reluctance we found to discuss the subject of sex trafficking, makes us fear otherwise.

This is a subject that affects so many young women in such horrific ways, and it is a subject that should no longer be taboo to discuss. It is our deepest hope that the Senate will use its voice and its power to pass H.R. 507 — and, by doing so, prove to the world that power and exploitation don’t go hand-in-hand.

Vanessa and Laura Marano are actresses and producers who have appeared in numerous TV series and films throughout the years. Their film “Saving Zoë” was released in July.

Tags Human rights abuses Human trafficking Karen Bass Mitch McConnell sex trafficking Violence against women

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