State must snuff digital age sex trade

Georgia’s laws on human trafficking have come a long way since 2001, when the pimping of a child was punishable as a misdemeanor with a fine of $50. Public awareness has grown exponentially in the last decade, and our elected officials have responded to our advocacy.

Women’s and civic groups like the Rotary Club, immigrant and refugee organizations, faith-based groups and congregations of every religion have raised public consciousness of child prostitution and developed downstream strategies to provide services to victims and intervene with at-risk youth.

These efforts have helped move the perception of the child as a criminal—“the bad girl”— to being a victim, vulnerable and desperate to survive. The training of medical and psychological personnel and, importantly, law enforcement on how to identify a victim has begun to take place, and a clearinghouse for services, the Georgia Care Connection, has been established under the Governor’s Office of Children and Families.

So why do we still have a problem?

The Internet and cell phones keep the illegal sex trade growing and flourishing. We need new technological strategies to intervene. Safe houses for minors are slowly coming on line, but there are too few places for adult victims who are often dumped in overcrowded battered women’s shelters, where their multiple needs and trauma cannot be addressed adequately.

There is a solution. Nationally, 50 women and girls are arrested for every man who engages in the act of buying sex. If we are to end child prostitution, we must get serious about ending all prostitution and the sex industry that supports it. We must end the demand for it. This can be done with greater law enforcement focus on pimps and johns and a broader understanding that buying sex creates victims.

It will take sustained outrage and more upstream strategies if we are ever to change this course completely. But it can be done. As compassion has grown for victims, justice has followed.

Recently, we have seen bipartisan, nearly unanimous support for laws that require professionals to report apparent child exploitation, and that require adult entertainment establishments, hotels and truck stops to post the toll-free number for the national human trafficking hotline (888-373-7888 or text BeFree to 233733). Victims can more easily seek rescue and safe refuge.

Perhaps most important, landmark legislation, HB 200, provided an affirmative defense for all trafficking victims while boosting penalties for traffickers, pimps and johns.

Today, Georgia Women for a Change convenes the 23rd annual Georgia Women’s Assembly. Human trafficking is once again on our policy agenda. We will propose a Safe Harbor bill, like the law in several other states, that presumes anyone under 18 is trafficked and deserves services. It would be another inch forward in shifting criminality away from the victims of the sex trade, and perhaps toward a greater understanding of the crime.

Stephanie Davis is executive director of Georgia Women for a Change, a non-profit public policy organization.