It clearly hurts victims because it insists on punishing them and establishing a criminal record. Under federal law, there does not need to be evidence of “force, threats of force, fraud, or coercion” in order for a minor to be considered a victim of trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation:
“When the victim is a minor, Section 1591 does not require proof that the defendant used force, threats of force, fraud, or coercion, or any combination of those means, to cause the minor to engage in a commercial sex act.”
This is an important distinction from the legal definition of sex trafficking of adults, which requires those elements of force and coercion to establish a case of sex trafficking.
Pressing charges against minors for prostitution and other minor crimes has potentially devastating repercussions for survivors of sex trafficking as these criminal records follow them into their adult lives, making it harder to them to secure things like housing and employment. See this journal article, “Criminalizing the Victim: Ending Prosecution of Human Trafficking Victims” for a more detailed analysis.
On a practical note, while some states have passed legislation that would allow victims of sex trafficking to vacate or expunge their criminal records, this process requires legal assistance and financial means – resources not all survivors have access to. Furthermore, attempting to clear criminal records can put tremendous stress on trafficking survivors as they may need to relive their past trauma.
It’s also worth acknowledging that homeless youth – especially homeless LGBTQ youth who have been kicked out of their families — are particularly at-risk of exploitation and may engage in “survival sex,” or the trading of sex for cash or shelter. The Urban Institute did a great study on LGBTQ homeless youth in NYC here.
Arresting and charging this already vulnerable population with prostitution only furthers their stigmatization in society. Not enough attention has been given to LGBTQ homeless youth in the wider US anti-trafficking sector, contributing to their invisibility. We are calling for better support for homeless youth to prevent trafficking in our campaign here.