Web ads, media complicit in underage sex trafficking, say victims' advocates
In a call for social change that she compared to the civil rights movement, Deborah Richardson of the Women's Funding Network told a packed Town Hall that sex trafficking is the "human rights issue of the 21st century." The manipulation and abuse of girls and some boys in the sex industry affects 300,000 children each year across the country, she said. That number includes 300-500 youth in King County at any given time.
Richardson, who keynoted the Jan. 20 presentation, said the anonymity and low risk offered by the Internet has increased the demand for prostituted youth. She urged the audience to call on the Seattle Weekly to pressure their parent company, Village Voice Media, to protect underage girls from being bought and sold on one of the company's other media properties, Backpage.com, which is a leading venue for online sex ads.
The youth lured into prostituting come from all races and backgrounds, but the majority have already suffered sexual abuse at home, said panelist Leslie Briner of YouthCare. Youth from low-income families, as well as those who identify as LGBT are overrepresented among victims of sex trafficking she said. The average starting age is 12, and the younger girls bring in a higher price. Although a girl may make $1,000 in a night, said Briner, the girl has no control over the money.
Another panelist, cultural anthropologist Debra Boyer called on men to change the culture that objectifies women and glorifies pimps. "Until we really look at this normative behavior we are going to have this problem, and have this demand," said Boyer. Briner agreed, noting the popularity of MTV's "Pimp my Ride" and the Oscar-winning song, "It's Hard out Here for a Pimp."
The Seattle Police Department has made a shift to seeing prostituted youth as victims rather than criminals, City Councilmember Tim Burgess said in opening remarks. Prosecuting the pimps and johns can be difficult though, said King County Prosecuting Attorney Sean Patrick O'Donnell, because it requires the girls to testify and be repeatedly questioned about sex acts in front of their abusers. That's traumatic for a 12-year-old to go through.
The youth are at high risk of violence if they try to escape, but now there is a place in Seattle specifically designed for them to go. YouthCare opened The Bridge last year to provide housing and wraparound services for minors recovering from commercial sexual exploitation.