Sex Work

Coercion Dressed Up As Compassion for L.A.'s Teen 'Sex Trafficking' Victims



For three years, Los Angeles court Commissioner Catherine Pratt has set aside Tuesdays for focusing exclusively on sex-trafficking cases. A Los Angeles Times profile of Pratt's work starts with what's designed to be a heartwarming anecdote about the personal interest she takes in the teens that appear before her. This particular teen was both pregnant and locked up on prostitution charges. 

Pratt told the girl that if she would stop running back to the streets, Pratt would place her in a group home where she could eat what she wants, keep her child out of foster care and hold the baby shower she fantasizes about.

"You'll have to let me know when it is. I'd like to go," Pratt said, prompting a startled chuckle from the girl. "You're not doing this alone. We're going to help you."

I suppose "help" is in the eye of the beholder. In this case, it means keeping a pregnant teen locked up in juvenile jail because she accepted payment for sex, but still talking to her in really nice tones. The Times article thinks this is a wonderful illustration of the "softer approach" that Los Angeles County supervisors, social workers, and police officers are taking when it comes to prostitution. It even trots out what's become the sine qua non of sex trafficking scaremongering: the idea that "criminal gangs are increasingly turning" to it because "a drug is sold once, but a child is sold over and over." 

But if you read on, it becomes clear that many if not most of the teens who appear before Pratt aren't being held against their will and forced into selling sex. They may be runaways. They may have grown up and live in poverty. They may not have a lot of options available to them. They may want help finding another path, even. But they're not the image of "sex trafficking victims" that most have in mind. And I think the distinction does matter. 

Pimping out young girls, even in the absense of abuse or force, should be against the law, just as having sex with minors is against the law. But even young girls have agency. I was a precocious and rebellious teen not so far long ago that I can't remember what it felt like. And it felt like I was perfectly capable of making sexual choices for myself. The point I'm trying to make is that it can be both a) wrong to aid the sale of sexual services from minors, and b) not necessarily a situation in which the minor is acting counter to his or her will.

Because people don't like the idea of teens engaging in sex work—and I'm not saying they should—they want the government to do something about it, and the way to get people under state jurisidction is to define them as either criminals or helpless victims. So if teen sex workers aren't criminals, they must be children whom the state has an obligation to protect coercively. 

L.A. has at least decided that these young sex workers aren't criminals. "Police officers are receiving training in many parts of the county to call the child abuse hotline when they find children engaged in prostitution instead of booking them for a crime," the Times piece notes. Yet people can't make the leap from teen (or any) prostitutes not being criminals to teen prostitutes not being victims. They must be one of the other. They must so that the state can step in.

Los Angeles county officials are currently "debating whether to ask Sacramento lawmakers" to change California law. Right now, they can't legally send juvenile sex workers to locked detention facilities without charging them with a crime. County officials don't want to charge them with a crime, they just want to be able to lock them up "to prevent them from returning to their pimps." 

This shouldn't be acceptable. Teenagers may not have the full capacity to consent or bear as full a responsibility for their actions as adults do, but they're not mentally incapacitated. The government shouldn't be able to lock up a 15-year-old girl 'til her 18th birthday to stop her from having sex in a way of which it disapproves. 

Luckily, others in L.A. think getting these teens into foster homes is a better option, and are working toward making that more of a priority. Critics complain that "children will use the freedom of unlocked facilities to spend more time on the streets." But if it's a choice between a system where some small percentage of teens will engage in prostitution and a system where we create elaborate, state-expanding, liberty-infringing mechanisms to prevent these teens from engaging in prostitution, I will take the former. 

NEXT: Remember, Law and Order Folk: A Prison Sentence is a Very Serious Thing

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  1. You want to end the underage prostitution trade in a heartbeat?

    Repeal Child Labor laws. It’s those laws that make it impossible for children to flee abusive situations. It’s those laws that ensure that the only way for kids to earn money and support themselves is to enter black market trades.

    Child Labor Laws are to children what the Black Codes were to black men.

    1. There are a lot of people out there who want to pretend that nobody has it so bad that living on the street and trading sex for money is better than being at home. Unfortunately, that’s not remotely true. I had a friend who spent an evening making me sick telling me about the horrible “normal” foster kids coming through his brother’s house experienced.

      1. This.

        I’ve worked in residential facilities with kids too broken for foster homes. I wrote a play including some of the milder cases. Every publisher I’ve showed it to says I need to tone it down.

    2. Although I don’t disagree, don’t minimum wage laws first require child labor laws?

      At this point the minimum wage already makes it hard enough for teens to get jobs anyway.

      1. Oh, yes, that had slipped my mind. Few people forget that the original proponents of the federal minimum wage were white northern unions trying to get rid of non-union competition. Back then that meant not only black people but kids.

        The racists are long dead, but like their evil laws continue to chew through our community.

  2. others in L.A. think getting these teens into foster homes is a better option,

    So if a teen girl is in a foster home, then decides on her own to fuck for money, she can be labelled a victim of child abuse which means the foster parents will be held liable.

    According to RC’s law, this is the plan.

  3. Pimping out young girls, even in the absense of abuse or force, should be against the law

    What is pimping if not force? An absent force, nothing should be against the law.

    1. Whatever pimping is, it’s not easy.

      1. See my reply- ‘pimping’ is ‘living off the earnings of a prostitute in full or in part?’ when I left the LAPD to become a call girl, I continued to make my car payments to the police credit union? I made CERTAIN they knew where my money came from? they accepted that money in payment? they were legally my pimp…

    2. Barfman, “pimping” for most sex workers is like having a manager or agent? just like minors who work in show business or in sports? no, it is NOT force if someone hires another to find clients and then pays them a percentage. I am a writer and have a literary agent who finds prospective publishers for me? I pay her when she negotiates a deal that I find acceptable? does she FORCE me to write? Does she FORCE me to accept the offer from the publisher? NO!

      Unfortunately, the cops use the ‘pimping’ laws to threaten our families, friends and others if we or they (the families, friends and others) don’t ‘cooperate’- the force comes from the laws and the cops, not our non violent, non abusive employers, clients and associates.

      As a sex worker (retired) and an activist for 32 years, it is very discouraging to see that people still believe that a ‘pimp’ is a predator. Do some workers have abusive employers? Sure, and some wives have abusive spouses. Does that make ‘husband’ synonymous with ‘wife beater’?

  4. You can’t fool me Elizabeth, I know you’re just looking to get into the “teenage girl prostitution racket”. It is, after all, the next logical step in libertarians diabolical plan to enslave and subjugate the rest of the world. (Right after we figure out a way to make every child an orphan so that they can be put to work in our diamond and coal mines.)

    1. Well you have to admit that teenage prostitutes are the only sector of the economy that isn’t under the control of libertarians.

  5. “So if teen sex workers aren’t criminals, they must be children whom the state has an obligation to protect coercively.”

    Um, yes? How about FUCK YES!

    You don’t have to be Helen Lovejoy to say, “yes, the government should protect children who are separated from/abused by their mothers and fathers and/or exploited by pimps.”

    1. In fact, everyone from Helen Lovejoy to Comic Book Guy should agree on this basic idea.

      1. Or they could be making an informed choice to sell sex for money?

        I know it’s hard to believe, but teenagers have brains and wills of their own and are sometimes going to do things that we as adults don’t agree with.

        (Obviously if there is abuse or force being used then they deserve protection, but don’t pretend that all of them are in the same situation.)

        1. Yeah, that pretty much sums up the point I was trying to make.

  6. Teenagers may not have the full capacity to consent or bear as full a responsibility for their actions as adults do, but they’re not mentally incapacitated. The government shouldn’t be able to lock up a 15-year-old girl ’til her 18th birthday to stop her from having sex in a way of which it disapproves.

    There has to be some kind of punishment for these people, though, right? I mean, I think prostitution ought to be legal, but that sentiment applies to consenting adults, not teenagers. I think it’s perfectly legitimate to make and enforce laws regarding what teenagers choose to do with themselves. For example, what would you do with a teenager who continually drives a car without a license? Throwing the kid in jail for lengthy stay probably isn’t the answer, but at some point, there isn’t really a law against underaged prostitution or unlicensed vehicular operation if the state doesn’t actually mete out some punishment for willfully violating. What you have is de facto legalization. In a world of shitty teen drivers, HIV, herpes and drug-resistant syphilis, that’s not an attractive option. So what kind of punishment here is appropriate?

    1. If she is a victim, it’s not only wrong but actually immoral to lock her up.

      Punish the john, not the prostitute.

      1. Yeah, if prostitution shouldn’t be illegal (and I and most people around here don’t think it should), then the teen isn’t doing anything wrong. The having sex (or sexually exploiting) a minor is what’s wrong, and that’s the only place punishment or state involvement should lie.

        1. What? You just said teens are “not mentally incapacitated.” Presumably, that means they can make their own choices. Okay, that’s true, of course, but that should also mean they have to take some responsibility for those choices. If that includes being under the age of majority and knowingly trying to sell sex to someone over the age of majority, I see no reason to convict the customer here and excuse the seller.

          1. Exactly. This “half-crime” logic is stupid enough to sound like it came from Jezebel or some such.

            Why in the hell would a 17-year old sex worker NOT want to sell to a clientele that would generate more revenue? Seems to be the whole goddamned POINT!

            Likewise, if a 17-year old boy wants to buy sex from a 28-year old woman, seems like a totally acceptable transaction if they both consent to it.

            The real problem here is the ever-advancing age of majority. Used to be age 13, then people wanted to restrict competition for low-skill jobs.

        2. if prostitution shouldn’t be illegal …, then the teen isn’t doing anything wrong.

          Teens are legally prohibited from a number of activities that in which adults are free to engage. For example, adults are free to possess and consume alcohol, marijuana (in some places), and tobacco, but it is a crime for a teen to do so. It is far more serious, however, to be an adult purveyor of such substances to teens.

          It does not follow that the fact that an particular activity is legal for adults should make it legal for a teen. Anyway, the legality of an activity does not make it right. Vices should not be crimes, but they are very often wrong.

          Personally, I think this just shows how ineffective government is in solving social problems. The real debate should be over age of consent and the distinction between vices and crimes. Rothbard writes well on the former; Spooner has a brilliant essay on the latter. If people were not so inclined to turn to government to solve what they perceive to be social problems, civil society would provide far more effective solutions. Why? Because government solutions always require coercion to force a one-size-fits-all solution upon a very complex world.

      2. Many 17 year old girls (and boys) look older than they are. They will tell a prospective ‘john’ that they are 18. Should he demand identification? And if so, what if the minor has been able to obtain a fake driver’s license or other ID that gives their age as over 18?

        For everyone who thinks teens should be punished by being incarcerated (to protect them for their own good), you should see what the rate of rape of teens behind bars is. Most of the rapes are perpetrated by the guards, not other inmates. So, put them in jail and let them be raped- that will teach that ho to stop ho’ing!

        1. Well, if the state is going to charge the ‘john’ with sex with a minor, the burden of proof is on them to prove he knew at the time.

          (Unfortunately this still probably wouldn’t happen so I don’t know what the answer would be.)

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