The push to decriminalize child prostitution

The state of California decriminalized prostitution acts by a minor and recognized it instead for what anti-human trafficking advocates say it is: a form of sex trafficking. The new law, which went into effect at the beginning of the year, now directs minors toward treatment and keeps traffickers and their clients in the crosshairs of law enforcement.

Some prosecutors and politicians have feared that the new law, S.B. 1322, would contribute further to the exploitation of minors, while Catholic advocates told Our Sunday Visitor that treating minors engaged in commercial sexual transactions as victims of a horrific crime is an important step for rescuing and healing them. Supporters of the bill pointed out that minors legally are unable to consent to sex, but under California’s previous statutes, they could receive criminal records for the activities they are forced into.

“This is our opportunity to do what we say is right in cases of sex trafficking: stop the exploiters and help the exploited,” said State Sen. Holly Mitchell in a statement.

Other lawmakers had misgivings. Assemblyman Travis Allen, who opposed the bill, wrote in an op ed, “Immunity from arrest means law enforcement can’t interfere with minors engaging in prostitution.”

Fighting child trafficking

Under federal law, any minor induced to a commercial sex act, such as prostitution, pornography or other sexual performances, even without coercion, is defined as a victim of sex trafficking. Pope Francis has strenuously called on society to make every effort to eradicate sex trafficking, which he has called a “shameful and intolerable crime.”

In a Feb. 8 address, he urged government officials to “combat this scourge with firmness, giving voice to our younger brothers and sisters who have been wounded in their dignity.”

In an earlier address, he said human trafficking “violates the God-given dignity of so many of our brothers and sisters, and constitutes a true crime against humanity.”

According to the Polaris Project, a human trafficking nonprofit, 100,000-300,000 children are currently sexually exploited in the United States. Male victims on average begin at age 11-13, while female victims begin at age 12-14.

Sex trafficking, both of minors and adults, provides a lucrative source of income for traffickers. A 2013 study in San Diego County estimated the size of the illegal sex economy at $810 million, with traffickers earning around $670,000 per year.

A Las Vegas Police Department study of sex trafficking cases found that one in three victims had been recruited through social media. The internet has played a significant role in finding customers: until the website Backpage closed its adult advertisements in January, the site was notorious as a marketplace for sexual services by minors. A U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Investigations found that “Backpage has knowingly concealed evidence of criminality” by editing posts that advertised sex acts from a minor.

Rescue and restoration

Hilary Chester, associate director of the anti-trafficking unit of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told OSV that Catholic social teaching could inform laws on sex trafficking through its emphasis on the dignity of the person and the preferential option for the poor.

“By not helping to elevate and empower communities and individuals to be much more self sufficient, it opens them to exploitation,” she said.

Chester also stressed the pro-life aspect of addressing sex trafficking, explaining that this evil violates in every way the Church’s teaching on healthy sexual relationships.


“It commodifies that and turns that act into something that has cash value,” she said.

Both Chester and Mary Leary, a law professor at The Catholic University of America and a former prosecutor, agreed that safe harbor provisions, which under the law treat sex-trafficked minors as victims rather than criminals, should be supported.

“It’s important that individuals are not criminalized for acts that they were compelled to engage in,” Chester said.

Leary told OSV that the “biggest gap in our anti-trafficking programs” are services to help with recovery. Programs for victims of sex trafficking, she said, need to provide mental health counseling, substance abuse treatment, education and other services.

In Louisiana, Father Jeff Bayhi has been leading an effort to build a long-term residential program to address those needs. Through a friend, he met Sister Eugenia Bonetti, a Consolata Missionary Sister who has worked with rescuing women from sex trafficking in Italy. Four sisters from the Hospitaler Sisters of Mercy have committed to staff the house.

“Make no mistake about it, when you talk about the heroes of this, it’s these wonderful women who will dedicate their lives to living with these girls,” Father Bayhi told OSV.

The home, called Metanoia, will open in the metropolitan Baton Rouge area and partner with the state of Louisiana to provide needed services, such as mental health and substance abuse counseling, to girls under 18. Father Bayhi said that Metanoia will help residents “complete their education, provide a sense of security, knowledge they’re loved and cared for.”

Preventing a tragedy

However, Catholic advocates say more needs to be done on prevention.

“It’s one thing to help restore a child, but whatever we can do to prevent a child from falling into this situation is critical too,” Chester said.

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Prevention campaigns, such as the one Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles announced Feb. 8, will raise awareness in parishes about the scope of human trafficking and what Catholics in the pew can do to help.

Kathleen Buckley Domingo, associate director of life ministry for the archdiocese, told OSV that everyone can learn to spot signs that someone is being trafficked, or put flyers in restrooms with a human trafficking hotline listed.

Since a church is often the only place a trafficker will allow his victims to attend, she said, recognizing and reaching out to someone in distress at the parish is vital.

“There are a ton of small, local things we can do,” she said.

Leary also said that a society needs to do more to stigmatize the buying of people for sex.

“The idea that prostitution has any social acceptability in our culture has got to be taken care of,” she said. “Until that happens, we will continue to have a sex-trafficking problem.”

The National Human Trafficking Hotline is 1-888-373-7888.

Nicholas Smith writes from New York.

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