I’m not in Tennessee, but I’ve been seeing the articles and posts about sex trafficking. Cyntoia Brown’s case has gotten a lot of attention.
The sex trafficking and murder happened in 2004. Recently, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled on her case and Kim Kardashian, Rihanna, and Cara Delevingne took it up on social media. There’s now a strong clemency campaign underway.
What’s up with this case and how can we talk about sex trafficking with our kids?
Sex Trafficking Facts**
In September, I attended the 2018 conference on human trafficking in San Francisco. The problem is deep and wide.
First, some quick facts about trafficking victims:
- Young women of color and homeless LGBTQIA youth are at an increased risk of being trafficked
- The common age range of youth being exploited through human trafficking is 12-14 years old
- 1 in 6 runaway children were likely sex trafficking victims
- Most sex trafficking victims have been in foster care or other social services
- Many sex trafficking victims report that pornography was made of them while they were in bondage
- The psychological manipulation is so extensive that many victims return to their captors rather than taking advantage of opportunities to escape or get help
Quick facts about traffickers (aka pimps or controllers):
- 88% witnessed domestic violence as children
- They target victims via social networking websites, shopping malls, schools, and bus stations
- They groom their victims extensively, providing gifts and shelter and love, before revealing their true intent
- They advertise for buyers on the internet, using photos of more mature women to conceal the fact that they are offering young girls for sale
Quick facts about men who buy sex from traffickers (aka johns):
- They have a preference for impersonal sex, a fear of rejection by women, and a history of having committed sexually aggressive acts
- They view prostitutes as intrinsically different from other women
- They’re aware the girls and women have been coerced, tricked, and trafficked
- Many view pornography, then seek a prostitute to recreate the sex acts they found arousing
In other words, it’s a myth that prostitution is a job and sex buyers are simply sexually frustrated nice guys.** Research supports the view that prostitution is more like sexual abuse, and johns are more like abusers. Many johns are abusers in training.
Pornography, sex trafficking, and prostitution are not separate issues. They are inextricably intertwined.**
Knowing all that, what do you think of a 16 year old girl who murders a john in his sleep and returns to her pimp?
My guess is that she’s deeply traumatized, highly vulnerable, and not a threat to society. What’s best for her and us is probably shelter and treatment, not prison.
There are those who don’t take a rehabilitative view of justice, however, and think of it more punitively. If a perpetrator must pay a debt to society (rather than receive help), and must express remorse, and the murdered person’s family demands that the perpetrator “pay” for their crime, then what?
Is the context of sex trafficking enough to forgive the crime of first degree murder?
In general, we tend to believe that women are victims of men, that women are not aggressive or violent except in self-defense. I believe this idea is BOTH a harmful stereotype AND often true. Women are quite capable of aggression and violence (though we have been taught to think of women as weak and caregiving). Girls and women are also disproportionately victimized.
I struggle with that Both/And. I hate that Cyntoia was tried as an adult, that it’s even an option to prosecute a teen as an adult. I am outraged that our justice system gives harsher sentences to people of color. I desperately hope that the prison is providing the shelter and treatment she deserves.
Talking with kids
If your child is small, don’t talk about this. Instead, focus on their boundaries skills, teach them what sex is, and start talking about media messages. Prepare them for the day they’ll need to defend their boundaries, reach out to a trusted adult, and be savvy about the internet.
Older children however, may be ready to hear about the world’s ills. Most middle schoolers are ready, and it’s protective for them to understand what sex trafficking is and how it happens.
Moreover, middle schoolers are accessing pornography and feeding into this cycle of violence. Let’s help our children understand that prostitution and sex trafficking are more similar than different, and both are predatory crimes against marginalized girls and women.
If this case comes up in conversation, don’t shy away. If your adolescent is a fan or follower of Kim Kardashian or Rihanna, assume they’re already somewhat informed and wrestling with these issues. I give you the green light to bring it up, and see what your teen has to say.
Ultimately, what we need to do is address demand. If we can raise boys and men who don’t consume pornography and who won’t buy sex, the global sex industry withers and dies.
It’s a tall order, but I’m a passionate optimist. If we each take responsibility for guiding our children, for having these conversations, together we can shift this culture. It’s slow work to the tipping point, but then suddenly, the day will come.
I hope your holiday conversations are merry and bright, but in case Cyntoia comes up, there you are, you’re informed!
May the next few weeks bring you joy, relaxation and delight!
In support of you,
P.S. This is the last post of 2018. I’ll be back in your inbox in January, with all sorts of opportunities. For 2019, we’re working on a mother-daughter retreat, an online course on teaching boundaries and consent, the next group coaching program, and guest webinars on juicy topics. Stay tuned!
Trigger Warning: Readers may find this content to be graphic and/or disturbing.
**Addendum – Sex work vs. Sex Trafficking – It’s complicated!
Sex trafficking is one end of a spectrum of sex work, the particularly horrifying form of sex work, especially when it involves minors. I am not speaking to other forms of sex work here, and especially not to commercial relationships entered into by adults with full and equal ability to consent. The above article was specifically addressing sex trafficking only.
While I stand behind my words that pornography, sex trafficking, and prostitution are not separate issues, I hope we can all recognize that there is also a broader landscape. These issues overlap like a Venn Diagram, and there are of course examples where the issues don’t overlap at all. There exists pornography which was created and consumed with full and equal consent of empowered adults, with a person stripping and no prostitution. There are prostitutes who choose sex work and are not trafficking victims nor have they been filmed or photographed. There is a muddy mish mash of every configuration.
Again, while I stand by my words that it’s a myth that prostitution is a job and sex buyers are not simply sexually frustrated nice guys, that’s my brushing aside of an oversimplification. The reality is much more complicated. There are some adult prostitutes who choose sex work as a job, and there are some sexually frustrated nice guys. There is also a much darker reality when it comes to sex trafficking and minors. Minors who are being prostituted are not choosing a job, and their johns know it. Even if it appears that these minors are acting from a place of choice, this is exactly why we have age of consent laws.
Personally, I’m all for decriminalization of sex work, working with sex workers to create safe and healthy conditions. For those who would like to learn more, check out this article from the AMA Journal of Ethics, this article on sex work vs sex trafficking, and this powerful TED Talk by a sex worker.
So, what to say to kids if you want to go this next step of giving them a fuller picture? Maybe watch the TED talk with your teen and discuss. Talk about the marginalization of girls, women, ethnic groups, and other minorities, how their vulnerability may prompt them to choose sex work. Talk about how consuming porn fuels the global demand, how a video might be of consensual sex work or of a rape – it might be impossible to tell. Myself, I’d rather avoid porn altogether than get aroused by someone’s rape video (not that that would make me a bad person). Tread lightly on the morality. Direct them instead to pay attention to their feelings and act accordingly.
Let us know how it goes! This is certainly a varsity – no, Olympic – level conversation.
In support of you,