The FBI’s recent successful operation targeting child sex trafficking revealed some impressive but shocking numbers. There were 281 pimps arrested and put behind bars for selling children, and nearly 170 children were rescued from being bought and sold for sex.
But the most disconcerting number may be zero. That is the number of buyers of underage children who were apprehended.
There is no question the FBI and law enforcement are to be commended for their exhaustive efforts to rescue children from modern day slavery. I have heard of child victims jumping into police cars in a desperate attempt to escape the forced rape and torture that comes with being trafficked.
But what about the persons who purchased these children for sex? The politely termed “Johns” who buy children for sex often pay more in order to have a younger girl. They intentionally respond to ads that list the girl’s weight and height, and other indicators that she could be underage. According to FBI Director James B. Comey, the operations were designed to “crush these pimps” who are “killing the souls of children.” Shouldn’t the FBI “crush” the Johns too? Aren’t the buyers also “killing the souls of our children?”
Even though these individuals purchased children for sex, the FBI did not consider their conduct criminal. As the FBI has stated in previous Operation Cross Country raids in which only the traffickers were arrested, the buyers are simply not their priority. Yet, in any other context, what happens to underage girls who are purchased by Johns would be construed as statutory rape or sexual assault of a minor.
In the marketplace of child trafficking, however, there is a culture of impunity for buyers. As if when child is purchased for sex, it is somehow less violent. Why is the rape of a child not considered a crime when it is paid for?
The FBI might tout its numbers of arrested pimps and saved children, but the decision to excuse the Johns entrenches a culture of impunity for the purchase of children for sex. It means individuals can confidently buy children for sex without fear of punishment.
Perhaps there is discomfort in going after the buyers because of who they are. It is far easier to target and demonize the traffickers — men who are disproportionately black and brown, under-educated and from economically marginalized communities. The buyers, however, tend to be middle-class and married professionals. Are we uncomfortable going after buyers because they do not adhere to our constructs of who is a criminal?
I want to believe that is not the reason. These individuals commit crimes against our most vulnerable children and must be treated accordingly by law enforcement.
There is hope. However, with limited time left on the congressional calendar, it is imperative action is taken now on the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act. The legislation — which was introduced by Reps. Ted Poe, R-Texas; Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y.; Rick Nolan, D-Minn.; and Kay Granger, R-Texas — addresses the culture of impunity for those who buy children for sex, and unanimously passed the House. It clarifies the language of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act to remove all doubt as to its criminal applicability to buyers of child sex. Moreover, the act requires anti-human trafficking task forces throughout the U.S. to increase the investigative capabilities of state and local law enforcement to go after buyers. The bill’s Senate companion, introduced by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Ron Wyden D-Ore., is now being deliberated in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
We need the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act because we must reframe who is criminalized for child sex trafficking. Yes, the traffickers are culpable, but so are those who are buying our children for sex. Despite the FBI’s raid, a major problem still exists. Buyers got off scot-free and, even worse, they can be more confident in their ability to continue with these horrific acts. The FBI and the Department of Justice must broaden their focus from arresting pimps to also going after buyers. By doing so they will actually address the root cause of child sex trafficking and send a strong message that children are not for sale in the United States.
Malika Saada Saar is executive director for the Human Rights Project for Girls.