05/02/2011 03:18 pm ET | Updated Jul 02, 2011

The Traffic's Bad in L.A.

As a woman, I feel lucky to live in the United States. We may not be treated as perfect equals, and our government may refuse to ratify CEDAW, the international women's rights treaty, but at least we aren't subject to the suffering of women in other countries who are forced into sexual slavery.

Well, maybe I'm not, and maybe you're not, but plenty of girls (and boys) right in our backyards are. The FBI estimates 100,000 children are sold for sex in the United States each year. I'm not talking about girls from Thailand or Pakistan who end up here -- I'm talking about girls from right here in California who are forced into prostitution. Nicholas Kristof wrote an alarming op-ed column in the New York Times last week about how American girls are victims of sex trafficking more than we'd like to acknowledge.

The United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons defines "trafficking" as:

the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.

Trafficking is not only about kidnapping children and sending them overseas, as we might imagine; it can include recruiting girls into prostitution, and abusing their vulnerability to prevent them from leaving.

It's difficult to address trafficking appropriately when part of the problem is our approach of blaming the victim. When a teenager in Nepal sells sex, we all accept that she must have had no choice. But when a sixteen-year-old in New York solicits on a street corner, we often treat her as a juvenile delinquent. Why? Maybe we assume that in a rich country like America, everyone has options. We overlook that the girl may have left a home where she was being abused before she was "rescued" off the street by a pimp offering food and shelter. This girl may not be aware of any way out -- or might be afraid for her life if she tries to leave. So what choice does she really have?

We assume that our child welfare and justice systems work well enough to protect at-risk kids -- if not from being targeted by predators, at least from being forced to stay under the dominion of one. They don't. And some of that is our fault, for failing to understand the complexities of teenage prostitution.

Kristof was moved by Girls Like Us, a new book by Rachel Lloyd. Ms. Lloyd writes from her own experience as a trafficking survivor. She loved her pimp, even as he terrorized her. For a girl who has always known abuse, love can be inseparable from pain. The dynamic of intimate violence is hard enough for adult women to break, let alone young girls. We have a responsibility to protect these kids, but in order to do that, we have to be aware that they need protecting. We have to acknowledge abuse as abuse, even when it may look consensual.

Ms. Lloyd will read from her memoir at an upcoming fundraiser for Human Rights Watch, Cries from the Heart. The event will take place on May 9th in Santa Monica. Attending this event is a great way to support the crucial work of Human Rights Watch -- and to have our eyes opened a bit about something we have trouble seeing.