As America celebrates Labor Day, Attorney Sherri Jefferson wishes to share the painful journey of the children who will work today as victims of sex trafficking.
Recently, the Georgia State Attorney General unveiled his campaign for the constitutional amendment to fund project “Safe Harbor.” Safe Harbor is the enactment of legislation to protect victims of human and sex trafficking, with an emphasis on women and children.
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000 and reauthorized in 2013 says, that any child under the age of eighteen involved in commercial sex services is a victim of trafficking. Safe Harbor essentially decriminalizes juvenile prostitution. However, most states continue to subject juveniles and victims of sex trafficking to arrest and detention. In 2015, Georgia finally passed a “Safe Harbor” law, but it falls short of ending the arrest and detention of juveniles and victims of sex trafficking. It appears to be more profitable to arrest, detain, and seek donations for not-for-profit programs and services as oppose to ending their plight by preventing arrest, providing safe houses, and offering intervention and preventive services.
Georgia has faced many obstacles in protecting the interest of victims of human and sex trafficking. On the contrary, this journey did not begin in 2009 as alleged by the Senator in her “Safe Harbor” speech. In 2000, State representatives like Nadine Thomas and others tried to work across the political aisles to secure bipartisan support for legislation to end juvenile prostitution and to promote the delivery of programs and services to victims of sex trafficking. Now, 16 years after the enactment of TVPA, Georgia is trying to securing funding to finance the “Safe Harbor” programs through a constitutional amendment on the ballot this November. Georgia enacted its first “Safe Harbor” laws in 2015. Despite the appropriation of funding for the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice and the Georgia Department of Human Services, Safe Harbor alleges it will finance programs and services specifically for victims of sex trafficking and abuse.
During its press conference, participants of the “Safe Harbor” campaign addressed the victimization of sex trafficking of women and children. Before a room of invited members of the press, the State Attorney General and Senator, introduced the “face” of sex trafficking in Georgia. An African American female shared her story about being a child prostitute. Now an adult, she alleged that during her childhood that she knowingly engaged in “survival sex” as an eleven-year old in exchange for money to help feed her South Georgia family. Her story and journey are painful. However, with all due respect, her story is not the reality of the majority of victims of sex trafficking in the United States, especially victims of juvenile urban sex trafficking.
Has Georgia knowingly defaced victims of sex trafficking as consenting juvenile participants of “survival sex?” Surely, Georgia’s politicians, police, prosecutors and members of the public know that children under the age of 18 cannot consent to sex.
For some reason, we charge men with statutory rape for having sex with underage girls, unless they are legally defined as “child prostitutes.” We give men a pass who buy sex from children knowing that children cannot consent to sex. Until the enactment of “Safe Harbor” laws, most states treated the children as criminals by charging them with juvenile prostitution. However, it appears that Georgia is representing to the public that juveniles are knowing, willing and consenting participants of sexual encounters with adults. Does this justify why Georgia continues to arrest or deny services to juveniles and victims of sex trafficking, especially African American children?
According to the FBI, African American girls under the age of 18 represent 61% of the girls arrested for juvenile prostitution - nationwide. African American girls represent more than 40% of all girls trafficked in the United States, according to data provided by Characteristics of Suspected Human Trafficked Incidents. However, African Americans as a race only represent 14% of the total United States population. These numbers do not represent the many girls arrested for sex trafficking related offenses, which includes the school to prison pipeline (truancy, allegations of disrupting the public schools, fighting and battery, runaways, theft, burglary, and gang related activities).
To the extent that the State of Georgia is now asserting that children under the age of 18 are as responsible for their plights as the adults, they are wrong. To the extent that the “Safe Harbor” campaign is knowingly promoting the theory that girls (especially African American girls) are engaging in survival sex due to poverty and are not necessarily victims of sex trafficking, they are wrong. Attorney Sherri Jefferson has been recovering girls since 2001 before founding the African American Juvenile Justice Project and #FemaleNotFeemale. She has never encountered a child under the age of 18 who has engaged in survival sex for profit. She recognizes that many women and children have different stories about their journey into child prostitution; however, being knowing, willing, and consenting participants has never been one of their stories. They are all victims!
This is not to imply that the story shared by the “face” of “Safe Harbor” is inaccurate. Rather, it is to say that the State Attorney General, Senator, and the participants of the “Safe Harbor” campaign is engaging in a dangerous game of knowingly shifting the blame and responsibility of victimization unto children. Georgia is knowingly misleading the public about the plights of victims of sex trafficking, especially urban sex trafficking. Georgia is knowingly asserting that children are consenting to sexual encounters with adults due to poverty and not due to force, duress or coercion. In essence, Georgia is actually saying that children are not victims.
Further, by shifting the blame with this message of “survival sex,” Georgia is asserting that African American children are hyper-sexualized beings who by the age of 11-years old know that their bodies are profitable for sexual pleasure. To whom? When, where, and how does an 11-year old girl reach this conclusion? How does an 11-year old girl learn sexual acts? How does she meet her rapist/Johns to exchange sexual acts for profit? Who arranges her sexual encounters?
How does she travel from location to location? How does she manage to sustain herself at 11-years of age by selling her body? How does she collect her money? How does she purchase hotel, airfare, and other items necessary to be sold? Where does she get condoms and birth control to prevent the spread of STDs, HIV/AIDS and pregnancy? Who protects her from being beat, raped and tormented or killed by these “Johns?” Are we to believe that an 11-year old can engage in “survival sex” with adults without an adult mentor, pimp, or solicitor? It is undisputed that the majority of African American girls are pimped/sold by African American males to white male buyers/Johns aka rapist.
Respectfully, the story of the “face” of “Safe Harbor” draws sympathy, but it also draws criticism because it is not the reality of the majority of the victims of sex trafficking in America or urban America. To that end, the State of Georgia owes it to the public and to victims to share real stories of victimization not survival sex. Georgia should not subliminally use this “Safe Harbor” campaign to give Johns/rapist a pass by asserting that girls are willing participants due to poverty. These misstatements are responsible for the denial of services to victims, especially African American girls and is responsible for subjecting these girls to arrest, detention and criminal histories with collateral consequences that prevent them from securing healthcare, housing, education, employment, maintenance and support (HEMS).
The State of Georgia must focus upon prosecution of Johns and pimps, protection of children, and providing prevention programs and services. Safe harbor laws provide legal protection and programs and services to victims. Georgia needs to focus upon the language of the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act 2015 and cease from simplifying and redefining the meaning and experiences of victims. There is #nosuchthing as “Survival Sex.” Children having sex with adults for profit are victims of commercial sexual exploitation and African American girls are not knowing, willing and consenting participants. They are victims! Georgia needs to spread that message and cease from changing the face of victimization.