Ending sex trafficking tomorrow requires preventing child abuse today

Ending sex trafficking tomorrow requires preventing child abuse today
© Getty

Congress and Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanGraham calls handling of Kavanaugh allegations 'a drive-by shooting' Overnight Health Care: Senators target surprise medical bills | Group looks to allow Medicaid funds for substance abuse programs | FDA launches anti-vaping campaign for teens Bipartisan group wants to lift Medicaid restriction on substance abuse treatment MORE (R-Ohio), in particular, want to make it easier to go after human traffickers who engage in illegal activities online using the “ruthless efficiency of the internet.” Sen. Portman is rightfully addressing the current crisis of online sex trafficking, and that’s an important move in the right direction. But until we address the root cause, the legislation signed into law Wednesday is simply a small step in protecting women and children.

ADVERTISEMENT
Sen. Portman’s Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) aims to revoke immunity currently granted to online websites such as Backpage.com where human trafficking allegedly takes place. Backpage.com was seized last week by federal authorizes, but immunity for these sites is protected under the Communications Decency Act (CDA). Congress was urged to amend the CDA when a California court dismissed pimping charges against Backpage.com in a case just last year. Sen. Portman’s bill, now law, seeks to do just that to, in his words, “fix this injustice.”

It’s lunacy that our legal system allows the predators who operate these sites to hide behind this law as a shield from prosecution. We owe it to children to do everything we can to hold these criminals accountable and bring them to justice. And lawmakers were right to support this legislation, so that we can remove these prosecutorial impediments and take human traffickers off the streets.

But this law alone won’t stop human trafficking from happening. To cauterize it, we must establish a culture of prevention to disrupt the cycle of abuse and exploitation. And it’s our responsibility to do it.

Statistics show that many of those who are trafficked experienced a difficult childhood, where there was little constructive adult engagement in their lives.  Where no one looked out for them, watched over them, made sure they attended school, completed their homework, went to bed on time, ate regularly, participated in after-school activities, or simply communicated with them to learn what was happening in their lives.

Many who are trafficked are also sexually abused as children. In most cases, by a direct relative or close family friend, where the shame associated with abuse combines with low self-worth and conditions them to a life that allows others to control and manipulate their futures. If we ignore or convince ourselves that child sexual abuse isn’t pervasive, think again; 1-in-10 children around the world will be abused by their 18th birthday.

But child sexual abuse and human trafficking are preventable. It’s our collective responsibility as adults to protect children and create meaningful relationships that instill a sense of safety and purpose at a young age.  It demands that we engage and invest in the well being of male and female children, so that they may become strong, confident and self-empowered young adults. And it requires that we place a high value our children, so that they will value themselves as they grow older in life.

It also calls on us to destroy the stigma of child sexual abuse that too often prevents us from being able to comfortably discuss the topic in public.  We must run toward this problem, as it’s the only way we can begin to understand what we can do to stop it. Child sexual abuse is a form of domestic violence, and we must view it this way.

Those who are abused at a young age are at a much higher risk of being exploited in adulthood. Which means the prevention of child sexual abuse can ultimately aid the prevention of human trafficking. There are steps we can take — training and education — to recognize the warning signs of abuse and neglect, so that we may take action to intervene before it takes place.  

And those actions could very well save someone’s life down the road.

The law crafted by Sen. Portman is vitally important as it will give prosecutors the requisite ability to incarcerate the monsters who prey on innocent children. But ending human trafficking begins with all of us. It demands that we make youth wellness in America a priority by creating a national action plan to prevent all forms of violence against children. And establishing a culture of prevention today is the only way we can stop the cycle of violence against children who are susceptible of becoming tomorrow’s targets of trafficking’s unspeakable horror.

Lyndon Haviland, MPH, DrPH, is an advocate for public health and is the former CEO of Darkness to Light, a nonprofit that aims to prevent child sexual abuse.