At some point in our lives, we’ve all been told to avoid blaming the victim. But we still do it–we raise our eyebrows at promiscuous clothing, we expect women to follow unspoken curfews and we hold differing opinions of rape victims based on their varied sexual histories. And it’s not surprising. Much in our society speaks to sexual violence being the victim’s fault: there are no lessons on consent in schools, we expect women to take on numerous precautions to avoid being raped and the vast majority of sexual violence cases go untried or unconvicted. No one is safe from victim-blaming, not even underage victims. In at least 16 states–including highly populated states such as New York, Ohio and Massachusetts–it is legal to prosecute an underage sex trafficking victim for prostitution. In 2019 alone, 290 underage victims, some as young as 10 years old, were arrested for prostitution.
Fortunately, 34 states are currently acting against this practice with something called safe harbor laws. Safe harbor laws are legislation intended for the protection of trafficking victims; they prevent the arrest and prosecution of victims for crimes related to their victimization. Recently, Maryland’s General Assembly attempted to pass such a law. Legislators proposed the Safe Harbor and Service Response Act, which, like any safe harbor law, would prevent the prosecution of underage trafficking victims in regards to prostitution and any related crimes which their trafficker forced them to commit. Unfortunately, when the bill reached the Senate, it was rejected; deemed less important than other bills and thus allocated no time.
Not only would safe harbor laws encourage humane treatment of trafficking victims, they would also increase the likelihood that victims report. As it stands, the U.S. is estimated to have over 200,000 victims being trafficked at any given time, yet only around 11,000 cases are reported each year. Though many victims never escape captivity or don’t live to tell their tale, many others don’t report, often out of fear of retaliatory charges. Sex trafficking victims also tend to be among the more vulnerable in society–including those in abusive homes, the foster system or runaways–making them even less likely to trust authorities and more likely to view themselves as complicit or worry about consequences such as judgment or accusations levied against them. Laws like these would make victims feel safer in reporting their abuse to authorities.
A victim is a victim is a victim–however, as mentioned above, some victims are charged with more than just prostitution. In the occasional case, a victim has followed instructions to lure other children into the ring. It’s a matter of simple human psychology: if a child has been groomed and abused for long enough, they will either fear or trust their abuser so intently that they will do whatever it takes to keep them happy–or possibly to take the attention off of themselves. Due to such cases, Maryland’s Safe Harbor and Service Response Act also covered victims for crimes their trafficker forced them to commit. Though there is an ongoing debate as to whether punishment is the appropriate fate in such cases; from a humane lens, the answer seems quite simple. Holding a child hostage and exposing them to severe trauma does untold things to that child’s brain; knowing this, it is best for these children to receive understanding and help rather than punishment.
The bloodlust for victims is misplaced, but it’s not unusual. As a nation, we are too prepared to blame children for being victimized–people who are too young to vote, drink alcohol or have consensual sex, yet are apparently old enough to be complicit in their own rape. Abusers tend to claim that their victim seduced them in some way, and though our society upholds that children cannot consent to sex, rulings like this make it seem that we view children as complicit sexual beings who can consent to selling their bodies to adults.