Minors cannot legally consent to sex, yet they can be charged with prostitution under the majority of state laws.

Victims of child sex trafficking are currently being arrested and even prosecuted in thirty-one states. Children, victims – these are the people being arrested. It seems backwards that the victims are treated as criminals.

“States do not recognize that buyers of child sex are at fault consistently,” expressed Christine Raino, the Senior Director of Public Policy at the Shared Hope International at a panel on child sex trafficking and the evolving legal landscape hosted by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) in June.

The way that state laws address child sex trafficking often creates feelings of guilt and responsibility for victims about their own trafficking rather than holding buyers and traffickers accountable.

“I never knew that I was a victim,” shares survivor Monica Miller in a recent video released by Shared Hope. “I never knew that what these men had done to me wasn’t my fault or I didn’t ask for it.” This practice of arresting child sex-trafficking victims is extremely harmful to the victim’s mental health and can exacerbate their trauma.

“Detention,” explains a Shared Hope policy paper, “involves additional restraint, deprivation of liberty and may involve strip searches and solitary confinement, which often further intensifies trauma already endured by trafficking victims.” The act of arresting child sex trafficking victims makes them feel that they are the ones who have done something wrong.

Despite the numerous harmful effects of detaining children, attempts to decriminalize the practice have received pushback. The most resistance has come from district attorneys because decriminalization takes away a tool from them to prosecute perpetrators. District attorneys can use prosecution as leverage to coerce victims into testifying against their abusers and traffickers. Also, many law enforcement officers feel that arresting the child is the best way to ensure that the child will not run away. Criminal justice officials make a case that child victims of commercial sexual exploitation especially need to be put in detention for their own “protection” from traffickers and sex-buyers. Though some law enforcement agencies stand by their claim that arresting kids is the only way to keep them safe, advocates wonder if a child in a detention center is really safer?

Advocate Kate Price, the featured speaker at ICRW’s June panel, emphasized that there are much more effective ways to keep child victims safe than detention. Price made a call for “more resources such as safe housing and funding for support programs so that jail is not seen as the only option for “protecting” sex trafficked children,” in a blog post earlier this year.

In this #MeToo moment, let’s not leave the victims of child sex trafficking out of the narrative. Now is the time to push serious policy changes concerning the way we address sex trafficked children in our country.

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