By: Lexi Tartaglio
When many people think of the term “trafficking,” they often think about drugs, weapons, and people being smuggled internationally into America. But, the legal definition of human trafficking includes not only cases that take place internationally, or even nationally, but also cases in which the victim remains in their state of residence. The definition of human trafficking “involves the exploitation of people through force, coercion, threat, and deception and includes human rights abuses such as debt bondage, deprivation of liberty, and lack of control over freedom and labor.” Trafficking is commonly for purposes of sexual exploitation, but trafficking is not limited to the sex industry; many are used for forced labor under slave-like conditions as well.
Severe forms of trafficking include “sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age[.]” Thus, any individual under the age of 18, including a U.S citizen, who is used in a commercial sex act is a trafficking victim. Indeed, many of the victims of these crimes are girls, particularly young women of color. And, while survivors come from a wide set of backgrounds, experts say they all have a vulnerability which is exploited by the perpetrator. As the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (VTVPA) of 2000 states, “traffickers primarily target women and girls, who are disproportionately affected by poverty, the lack of access to education, chronic unemployment, discrimination, and the lack of economic opportunities in countries of origin.” Traffickers often transport their victims from their communities and victims are often forced through physical violence to engage in sex acts or slave-like labor.
Unfortunately, trafficking is an issue that takes place in the U.S much more often than commonly believed. Experts in 2011 estimated that there were more than 100,000 U.S minors who were trafficked for commercial sex at the current time. Acknowledging this issue, and to protect the victims of sex-trafficking, the VTVPA expressly states that “[v]ictims of severe forms of trafficking should not be inappropriately incarcerated, fined, or otherwise penalized solely for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being trafficked[.]” Yet, despite the fact that under federal law minors are to be treated as victims of the acts they committed while trafficked, this is not the reality. When law enforcement discovers that a minor was trafficked for the sex industry, the victim is often labelled as being a prostitute and juvenile delinquent. Child trafficking victims are thus viewed as offenders and are subject to arrest, detention, and deportation.
Indeed, there are discrepancies between federal and state law with respect to juvenile prostitution. While the VTVPA defines any person under the age of eighteen to be a victim of sex-trafficking, states may ultimately charge someone younger than eighteen with juvenile prostitution. These charges essentially result in the revictimization of these minor victims. As of yet, only four states have passed “safe harbor” laws to address this issue. This is an extreme miscarriage of justice as minors cannot even legally consent to sexual activity. The persecution of these minors wrongfully turns victims into criminals. More states need to enact safe harbor laws to better identify victims of sexual trafficking and treat them accordingly, pursuant to federal law.