THE BLOG

Going After the Buyers in Commercial Sex Trafficking

05/04/2015 12:12 pm ET | Updated May 01, 2016

It has been called a "victimless crime" and "the world's oldest profession." But the reality is that yesterday's prostitution has morphed into a multi-billion international industry increasingly run by street gangs and cyber criminals that treat women and children as chattel. It is nothing short of modern day slavery.

This is a demand-driven industry fueled by adults (mostly men) who buy sex from women and children. Getting adults to stop buying sex from children is a difficult and challenging task and one that is inexorably linked to the adult sex industry itself. As advocates have noted: where there is an adult sex business, the children are on the side, being groomed and recruited. Nobody wakes up at 21 and suddenly decides to become a sex worker--the average age of entry into the trade is actually 12.

Here in Los Angeles County, our efforts and programs are recognized nationwide. In fact, since last year in Compton, Long Beach and Lynwood, children are no longer arrested for "prostitution," but treated as victims and given the services and the support they require. We plan to expand that program countywide. But we still need to do more.

In April, our delegation from Los Angeles County addressed the issue of sex trafficking with members of Congress. I was struck by the universal acknowledgement from all of our elected officials that commercial sex trafficking is an international problem that deserves our attention. I was particularly impressed by Senator Diane Feinstein's knowledge and commitment to eradicate this scourge in our midst.

Our time coincided with the Senate's passage of the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015 (Senate bill 178), which included key provisions from a bill introduced by Senator Feinstein and Senator Rob Portman of Ohio. When it passes Congress and is signed by the President, it will undoubtedly help us in local government to make it more difficult for the buyers.

Through this bill, the people who fuel this demand-driven industry will be held accountable. Buyers who "solicit" and "patronize" commercial sex with a child will be committing the crime of sex trafficking. It will increase the investigative tools for state and local law enforcement officers so they can work together to arrest and prosecute those who solicit children for sex. It will increase funding for victim support services while also deterring and punishing child predators.

But we still have a long way to go. Incredibly, in California soliciting sex from a minor is only a misdemeanor - not the felony I believe it should be. This slap on the wrist is not a deterrent and I believe it must be re-examined by our state legislature. While the Justice for Victims bill will go far towards bringing some true consequences for the so-called Johns, I would also like to see every law enforcement agency in Los Angeles County go after the buyers, fine them heavily and require that they perform long community service hours to understand the suffering they cause.

We need to re-frame the issue of prostitution. Society at large needs to view these children and young women as victims, not as prostitutes. Indeed, there is no such thing as a child prostitute. They are victims and survivors of statutory rape and should not be arrested and re-victimized.

Our law enforcement efforts should focus on the adults soliciting or selling children. I am pleased to unite with our partners in DC to send the message: Buyers beware, you cannot hide and you will now face the consequences.