California Today: A Shift in the Child Sex Trafficking Trade

By Mike McPhate via California Today

Is there such a thing as a child prostitute?

Campaigners have for years tried to erase the phrase from the law, arguing that if a juvenile cannot legally consent to sex with an adult, neither can she willingly sell her body.

She is a victim of rape, they say, not a prostitute.

Last week, the movement won perhaps its biggest victory as Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation that bans law enforcement from arresting minors involved in the sex trade, except when their safety may be at risk.

Instead, they will be treated as victims, and directed toward social services.

“This is a really big deal,” said Kim Biddle, the executive director of Saving Innocence, a group that counsels sexually exploited youth.

The governor also signed a law that allows adult victims to have charges against them dropped if they can show they were coerced into selling sex.

Together, the measures represent a shift in prosecutions away from children and young women and toward the pimps and criminal enterprises running the industry.

Fifteen other states have passed similar laws that shield sexually exploited boys and girls from being charged with prostitution, according to Rights4Girls, a human rights organization that has fought for the changes.

The police and outreach groups say sex trafficking in California has grown rapidly in recent years — concentrated mostly in San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco — as websites like Backpage and Craigslist have made transactions simpler than ever.

Detective Lina Teague, a coordinator of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Human Trafficking Unit, said that many people, falsely, tend to view the sale of sex as a voluntary exchange.

“But the reality of street prostitution today is that minors and young women are being sexually exploited out of some type of duress, fear or some type of coercion,” she said.

Ms. Biddle, of Saving Innocence, cited a case in North Hollywood that involved a girl, 13, who was caught with a 47-year-old man. She was handcuffed and charged with prostitution; he got a citation, Ms. Biddle said.

“Now, we’re able to view these children correctly under the law,” she added, “as victims.”

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