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Malika Saada Saar Headshot

Girl Slavery in America

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A few weeks ago in Trenton, New Jersey, five young men were charged with gang-raping a seven-year-old girl who was sold to them by her 15-year-old stepsister. These men purchased the little girl and then raped her. They will now face prosecution for aggravated sexual assault and child endangerment.

And that is what should happen in every case in which a girl is sold for sex.

Unfortunately, in both urban and rural regions of the nation, American-born girls are being trafficked and sold. An estimated 100,000-300,000 American children are at risk for becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation. According to the Department of Justice, the average age of a prostituted girl in the U.S. is 12-14 years. These sexually exploited girls are routinely raped, beaten into submission, and even tattooed like cattle by their pimps.

This is a new and emerging phenomenon. Ten years ago, there were not the same disturbing stories of traffickers seeking out and preying on girl runaways within 48 hours after they have left home. Or very young girls in rural and suburban communities being kidnapped and then sold to men for sex. In the last decade, there is even a lingo that has developed of "domestic trafficking hubs," where Ohio and Georgia are considered among the top states for the selling and purchasing of American girls.

Why is this happening? There is the Internet, which has created an easy and accessible venue for the commercial sexual exploitation of children. As a result, young girls are the new commodities that traffickers and gangs are selling. And, there isn't a culture of crime and punishment for selling girls as there is for selling illegal drugs. It is less risky, and more profitable (the girls are "reusable"), to traffic girls, instead of meth or crack.

Perversely, it is the girls -- and not the men -- who end up being criminalized. Prostitution is the leading reason for girls' involvement in the juvenile justice system. The Annie E. Casey Foundation, citing the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention statistics on juvenile arrests, reports that 63% of girls in detention are there for prostitution. Girls are put behind bars for being raped and sexually exploited by pimps and the men who purchase them for the night.

Unlike the international landscape of non-profits set up to rescue and rehabilitate victims of sex trafficking, here in the U.S., there are few such safe havens or trauma-based programs. There are presently less than 50 beds in the entire nation for American trafficked victims. Girls sold into sexual slavery in Thailand or India are perceived as victims. In the U.S., they are cast aside as "hos", "prostitutes", and "bad girls". Yet, these discarded American girls share the same experiences of victimization, poverty, and abuse endured by those who are trafficked abroad. They deserve the same support systems and chance to heal that is afforded by many worthy NGOs overseas.

But that is not enough. We must also stem the demand for buying and selling girls for sex.

Men who purchase girls for sex are committing child abuse. They are not simply paying for sex; they are instead perpetrating brutal acts of rape against vulnerable children who do not choose to sell their bodies. No child wants to be sold for sex.

It is time to prosecute those who sell and purchase girls. If they are subject to punishment for their criminal acts against children, pimps and "johns" will be less interested in the marketplace of very young girls. The laws already exist---but there is minimal political will, at the state or federal level, to prosecute them--especially the "johns". Despite all the political jingoism about being tough on crime or protecting our children, lawmakers are remarkably indifferent to prosecuting these child abusers.

How is it that in our nation, in the 21st century, any one of our daughters can be bought and sold for the purposes of sexual exploitation, and without the severe threat of punishment? What is happening that girls' lives are worth so little? In the context of a civilized society, this level of tolerated violence against girls is an irreconcilable contradiction. No girl in America should be purchased, sold, raped, abused or exploited -- and with impunity.