Last month a judge in Kansas made national headlines for erroneously claiming that two girls — just 13 and 14-years-old — were “aggressors” in a case where a 67-year-old man paid them to have sex.
“So, she’s uncomfortable for something that she voluntarily went to, voluntarily took her top off for, and was paid for?” said Kansas Judge Michael Gibbens.
“I wonder, what kind of trauma there really was to this victim under those peculiar circumstances?”
The public responded with outrage, but the issue of children who are victims of sex trafficking being charged for prostitution and minor crimes they were forced to commit is nothing new.
Writing in a piece for Wichita State University, Dr. Karen Countryman-Roswurm from the Center for Combating Human Trafficking, Wichita State University and Linda Smith from Shared Hope International explain:
As a society, we must ask, why did money sanitize what, in any other circumstance, would be considered child rape? And more concerning, how did the exchange of money shift the narrative so dramatically so as to characterize children as aggressors in the crime of which they were victims?
The answers lie in the paradox in which victims of child sex trafficking are legally apprehended and consequently, socially stigmatized. Twenty-five states, including Kansas, still allow commercially sexually exploited minors to be charged and prosecuted for prostitution and human trafficking offenses despite federal and state laws that recognize these same minors as victims of child sex trafficking.
This paradox still exists despite an increase in awareness, and specific laws to protect children from such offenses over the last couple of decades.
Criminalizing youth who have experienced the horrors of commercial sexual exploitation, and oftentimes survived traumatic experiences that predate the exploitation, is not only the gravest of injustices but also prevents survivors from receiving critical services and ongoing, specialized care.
Notably, the age of consent in Kansas is 16, meaning sexual contact between an adult and the minors in this case was not consensual. Still, comments on social media surrounding this case tried to place blame on these two girls, calling them “delinquent,” “out of control,” “promiscuous,” and “prostitutes.”
As Countryman-Roswurm and Smith write, “as Kansans we must ask ourselves: How do we really view individuals who have been victimized by and survived human trafficking? If we truly care, how do we shift our culture to recognize all survivors of sexual violence, including child sex trafficking, as unequivocally blameless in the conduct that constitutes their very victimization?”