“You hear the phrase ‘child prostitution’. There cannot be such [a] thing as child prostitution,” Poe said Tuesday at a news conference on “Human Sex Trafficking in America” held at the National Press Club in Washington.
“Prostitution connotes the idea that there’s consent involved. Children cannot consent to sex, so they are not prostitutes. They are victims of criminal conduct,” Poe said.
“So we have to change the mindset in this country to treat these victims as victims and not child prostitutes, not just treat them as runaways, throwaways and stowaways. They are victims of crime, and we need to rescue them.”
Poe added that there are two components of the human sex trade in America. “We’re facing two issues in this country: the international sex trade that is being brought into the United States, but we also have domestic trafficking of children,” he explained.
“Unfortunately there’s a high demand, that’s why there’s so much money involved in this scourge,” Poe added, emphasizing the need for a change in the public’s attitude towards the buyers of commercial sex as well.
“We shouldn’t be calling them ‘johns’. We should call them what they are: They’re child abusers, they’re sexual predators, they’re child rapists,” Poe said.
Poe is sponsoring the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act (HR3530), which he says will do “three things: recover and restore the victim; prosecute the demand, because it’s the demand that’s driving the money; and put the slave master behind bars where he belongs.”
He pointed out that this was a bipartisan issue, saying, “We have over 80 members, Republicans and Democrats on this legislation. It is a human rights issue that we have to deal with in the United States, and the sooner the better.”
Poe's bill passed the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday along with two other bills that aim to combat sex trafficking.
During Tuesday’s press conference, the National Association of Counties (NACo) also released a telephone survey of 400 county sheriffs offices and police departments conducted by National Research, LLC of Washington, D.C.
The survey found that 86 percent of counties with populations of more than 250,000 people consider human sex trafficking a “problem” within their jurisdictions.
Law enforcement officials in 48 percent of the nation’s largest counties with populations greater than 250,000 people said that sex trafficking - which Poe defined as “kidnapping, hostage taking of people, taking them from one place to another for sexual slavery” - is a “major problem” for them.
More than half (53 percent) of the smaller counties with populations between 50,000 and 249,999 also said they have to cope with it.
“This is a difficult problem for many of our larger counties,” NACo executive director Matthew D. Chase said in a news release. “Counties like Los Angeles County and others are making a major effort to help the victims and deal with this problem. It is a community, economic, and moral issue that has long-term effects on the children that are impacted by it.”
Despite the prevalence of sex trafficking in so many communities in America, Poe called attention to the lack of resources available for young victims.
“Just a few years ago, Shared Hope International had this statistic in our country. We have 5,000 animal shelters...but beds for child trafficking victims just a couple of years ago was less than 300. So... we have a lot more care for animals,” he said.
Last month, William Woolf, lead investigator of the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force, testified before Congress that an estimated 100,000 minors from all socio-economic groups are lured into sexual slavery every year in the U.S. “The average life expectancy of a trafficking victim is only seven years after the exploitation begins,” he told members of Congress.
Jessica M., a child sex trafficking survivor who now works with the Los Angeles County Probation Department, recounted her experience at the press conference:
“I was exploited beginning at the age of eleven and was arrested several times across the United States,” she said. “For a lot of young women like me, [the] trauma began at an early age before the commercial sexual exploitation. Abuse was a major factor in most of our childhoods.
“Pimps are waiting to prey on these most vulnerable girls promising the love and family they never had. Once coerced into exploitation, these false promises turn into violence and physical and emotional manipulation,” she continued. “The girls are told that they are now dirty and disgusting and no one will love them except the pimp. We believe it.”
Jessica said she observed first-hand the problems with the current system. “The individuals I saw getting arrested most often were victims just like me. Like many young ladies, I was considered the criminal. Names were attached to me, and yet the men who bought and sold me and so many other young girls too often get away without penalties or even consequences.
“The legislation being discussed today is a first step in righting these wrongs. It’s time for the real criminals to pay for exploiting young girls and it’s time for the young victims to get the services they need to move forward in their lives to get the things that they deserve,” she concluded.
Kristina Fitz, a survivor advocate at Saving Innocence, an organization dedicated to helping the victims of sex trafficking, told CNSNews.com that the media and public often overlook this growing problem because it sometimes hits too close to home.
“When we start revealing who these people are, who are really buying these girls, then it’s your next door neighbor or somebody that’s in your church. Then it can become a really big issue and I don’t feel like people are ready to tackle that,” she told CNSNews.com. “But that’s why now we’re trying to bring this issue to light because we have a lot of girls that are being exploited and we need to get [them] help.”
“A lot of them have severe trust issues,” she went on. “They don’t really trust a lot of people. The system has failed them, so we need to just tighten up on our government systems and our programs and get more programs in the communities where these girls are…to let them know that they’re not going through this by themselves.”
Don Knabe, chairman of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, said he realized that sex trafficking was “a growing issue occurring right in our own backyard” after being briefed by two women in the LA Probation Department.
When CNSNews.com asked him how the public can actively combat sex trafficking, Knabe replied, “There’s certain signs of a victim: looking down, edgy, you know, those kinds of things. Report it. That’s what we’re trying to do, raise the public’s awareness…. Any doubt, it’s a 911 call.”