When many Americans think about sex trafficking, they often envision brothels in foreign cities or girls being smuggled across far away borders. But what many may not realize is that this isn't just happening a world away, it's happening right in our own backyard. Over 80 percent of sex trafficking victims in America are actually U.S. citizens. And shockingly, the average age of a child when she first becomes a victim is just 13 years old. Not even old enough to drive a car or go to her high school prom.
We need to look at sex trafficking as part of a larger issue on how we treat women in our country and how we portray ourselves internationally to the rest of the world. If the U.S. is going to lead the world in promoting women's rights, then we have to show the world that we're making the fight against sex trafficking a top priority and tackling it head-on in our own country, and then help these countries do the same. We must take a stand against this modern-day slavery and lift up the status of women and girls across the world.
We need to be doing everything we can to fight this heinous crime and support these victims. But right now, minors who are sold for sex can be prosecuted as criminals in many states. This is downright wrong. These young children need our support, not to be locked up in jail.
That's why we have introduced the bipartisan Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking (SETT) Act that would incentivize states to adopt "safe harbor" laws that ensure kids sold for sex aren't prosecuted as defendants, but rather are treated as victims. Minnesota and fourteen other states already have laws like these on the books -- now we need to make it national.
This fight is a team effort. That is why our bill also would help law enforcement officers, prosecutors, officials and advocates get on the same page by creating a National Strategy to Combat Human Trafficking to help coordinate their efforts across the country and by strengthening the National Human Trafficking Hotline that helps connect victims with services and passes on crime tips to law enforcement.
In addition to keeping victims out of jail, we also must do everything we can to keep them from being swallowed back into the dark world of the sex trade. We must support victims as they rebuild their lives to help them permanently escape the cycle of violence and abuse. That is why we have introduced a bill called the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act (JVTA) that would bring greater restitution and enhanced services for victims while helping law enforcement to crack down on sex trafficking across the country. By increasing the fees and fines on perpetrators, the bill is expected to bring in about $30 million each year to help pay for shelters and other services for victims.
We must take action to combat sex trafficking all around the world. But we must first start in our own backyard. Whether it's ensuring the 12-year old sold for sex in Houston is treated as the victim that she is or cracking down on the pimp who seeks out vulnerable young people in downtown Minneapolis, we must do everything we can to stop this heinous crime.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Rights4Girls in conjunction with The McCain Institute. Join us in our campaign No Such Thing--that there is no such thing as child prostitute, only victims and survivors or child rape. For more information on No SuchThing, read here.