THE BLOG

Federal Court: If You Buy a Girl, You're a Sex Trafficker

03/06/2014 09:42 am ET | Updated May 06, 2014

We've gotten another piece of ammunition in our fight against the trafficking of minors: A U.S. Federal Circuit Court has ruled that customers who arrange for or have sex with children under age 18 are to be considered human traffickers, and should be punished accordingly -- with sentences ranging up to life in prison.

Wow. That's a big and heavy stick we can use to protect kids who are forced into having sex for someone else's profit. It hasn't been used widely yet, but I am encouraged that, with the help of the court ruling and new proposed legislation, we may finally be able to reduce the demand for sex with children, and reduce the number of children raped and traumatized to meet that demand.

The opinion also raised the likelihood that a person who takes advantage of young people sexually because they are desperate for food or shelter could be prosecuted for the crime of trafficking as well.

For those of us who see firsthand young people who've been devastated by commercial sexual exploitation, the opinion, issued last January, is a rallying point. Known as U.S. v. Jungers, the decision reversed the acquittals of two men in Sioux Falls, SD who had arranged to pay for sex with children, an 11-year-old girl and 14-year-old twins. They were responding to ads places by undercover police officers. Juries convicted them of attempted sex trafficking of a minor under the Trafficking Victim Protection Act (TVPA), but the district court overthrew those guilty verdicts.

The Eighth Circuit Court, however, noted that the laws protecting trafficking victims apply to anyone who "knowingly ... recruits, entices, harbors, transports, provides, obtains or maintains [a child] by any means" and ruled that it "readily includes the actions of a purchaser whose sole purpose is obtaining a child for sex."

The decision cites precedents that include "barter" in the definition of trafficking ("traffic" is "the activity of exchanging commodities by bartering or buying and selling,") which will help convince people that if they make kids have sex with them in exchange for food or a safe place to sleep for the night, and not money, are also considered traffickers.

So will this help people who buy children's bodies realize the stakes are too high? Will this make them stop trying to enslave kids? Anti-trafficking advocates have long been calling for reducing the demand for the sexual services of minors. In the typical scenario, an adult in power compels them to be used for sex. And those adults in power wouldn't do that if there weren't people eager to buy girls and boys.

The Jungers decision could break new ground in reducing demand. According to the Lawyer's Manual on Human Trafficking, in a Buffalo study, more than half the johns interviewed said being arrested was their biggest fear, and in a Chicago study, 83 percent said that jail time would deter them from buying sex.

In its excellent plan for ending sex trafficking, the nonprofit group Demand Abolition described a 40 percent drop in recidivism for purchasers of sex who attended San Francisco's john school -- the lessons they learned about how sexually exploited women and children are treated helped them realize they shouldn't buy people. A broader effort to reduce prostitution in Jersey City, which included reverse stings to cut down on demand, resulted in a 75 percent reduction in prostitution, according to a 2006 report cited in Demand Forum, an online resource for combating trafficking.

We've also seen some indication that U.S. Attorneys will use the Eighth Circuit ruling to reduce demand.

"The decision provides my office additional tools to prosecute those who prey upon these victims of commercial sex trafficking," said United States Attorney Brendan V. Johnson, soon after the decision. He represented the government in the South Dakota case.

He made good on his words in August, when, with the help of local, county, state and federal offices, law enforcement officials arrested nine men attending the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota. They were charged with commercial sex trafficking after agreeing to pay for sex with minors. They face sentences of 10 years to life, and/or a $250,000 fine. Assistant U.S. Attorney Sarah Collins, in Mr. Johnson's office, is the prosecutor in the cases.

Grace M. Broughton, staff attorney with the National District Attorneys Association's National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse, also hailed the Jungers decision.

"By addressing demand the Court took a very important step towards ending the commercial sex trade of children," she wrote.

I've been a little surprised not to see more sting operations like the one in Sturgis, frankly. But Samantha Healy Vardaman and Christine Raino of the anti-trafficking advocacy group Shared Hope International, noted that some legislators worry that a differing ruling in another circuit court could confuse matters, leaving johns considered traffickers in one state, but not another. We are glad to see pending legislation in Congress, the End Sex Trafficking Act of 2013, which aims to clarify the federal law governing trafficking, to broaden the definition of traffickers to include those who "purchase and solicit" sex acts with minors.

But even when prosecutors are armed with the sturdiest laws, they need the resources to enforce them. Ms. Vardaman and Ms. Raino estimate that far too often, U.S. Attorney's Offices are declining to prosecute cases charging commercial sexual exploitation of children, because of a lack of resources, and because of the need for training and coordination with local law enforcement in investigations.

It's time for us, as a nation, to put our money, and our best energy, behind prosecuting people who buy sex with children. Actually, it's long past time. Kids are waiting for our help, and they are in danger. Right now.