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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.