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Malika Saada Saar Headshot

Demand for Child Sex Trafficking in the U.S.

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A few months ago a group of girls from Los Angeles came to visit me in D.C. They were all girls who survived being trafficked and exploited for sex. They were also clearly very young girls: petite, not yet fully developed, and with adolescent voices that sounded tentative and still afraid. They talked about Disney princesses and could tick off the name of every one.

The girls wanted to help my advocacy efforts on their behalf--and to do their own advocacy for the girls still left behind-- trafficked and exploited every day, and without the hope or promise of freedom. The girls made clear to me that what I needed to focus on, and what they wanted to talk to their lawmakers about, was demand. The unrestrained and constant demand for sex with underage girls like them.

Like all the best advocates, they had the necessary points and stories to make it clear to me why demand had to be the driving advocacy objective.

First they shared with me the story of "Tami":

Tami was kidnapped by a pimp, while walking home from school. He kept her captive for six months, raping, beating, and starving her. And selling her for sex with men every night. Tami thought she could escape her hell by telling the "Johns" that she was only a kid. And so every night, for six months, Tami told the men who purchased her, "I'm only 15. Can you please take me to a police station?" But not one buyer did. According to Tami, they ignored her pleas, forced her to perform sexual acts, and then returned her to the pimp because they had already "paid for her."

And 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 girls 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. And yet, what about the (politely termed) "Johns" who shamelessly purchase girls like Tami? The girls from LA are right -- these persons are rarely subject to arrest and prosecution.

We live against the backdrop of a culture that hyper-sexualizes very young girls (thongs for tweens, Victoria Secret's PINK campaign that aggressively targets teens), and signals to men that underage girls are to be desired. Websites like Backpage.com profit off the significant demand for underage girls by providing a platform where "Johns" can purchase a girl for sex at the click of a mouse, with full anonymity and discretion.

In fact, there are even "John Boards" where buyers 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.

There is a culture of impunity that allows "Johns" to buy girls, without consequence or fear of punishment. It is not a legal issue mind you, that prevents "Johns" from being punished because all the necessary laws exist to arrest and prosecute individuals who purchase underage girls. These buyers can be arrested and prosecuted for child endangerment, statutory rape, or sexual assault of a minor. There is simply not the political will, on the part of law enforcement, the courts, and politicians to hold buyers accountable for their crimes against children and youth.

Interestingly, in any other illicit network like drug or gun trafficking, 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. In fact, this week 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 "Johns," were reportedly subject to arrest. Similarly, the Obama Administration's recently released Federal Strategic Action Plan to address human trafficking overlooks the issue of demand.

Perhaps there is discomfort in going after the buyers because of who they are. It is far easier to target and demonize the traffickers -- men who are disproportionately black and brown, under-educated and from economically marginalized communities. The buyers however tend to be middle-class and married professionals. Are we uncomfortable going after buyers because they do not adhere to our constructs of who is a criminal?

I want to believe that is not the reason. These individuals commit crimes against our most vulnerable children and must be treated accordingly by law enforcement and the courts.

There is hope though. Last week, in a bipartisan effort, Representatives Poe (R-TX), Maloney (D-NY), Nolan (D-MN), and Granger (R-TX) and Senators Cornyn (R-TX) and Klobuchar (D-MN) introduced The End Sex Trafficking Act of 2013, to finally address the culture of impunity for those who buy children for sex. 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.

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 finally be held accountable for their crimes. 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.