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Survivors of Child Sex Trafficking are Never the Aggressor

February 13, 2019 by Karen Countryman-Roswurm and Kalynn Cheyney

Joint Statement by the Center for Combating Human Trafficking and Shared Hope International on Sentencing by Kansas Judge Michael Gibbens

Under Federal and Kansas state law, persons who purchase sex from minors commit child sex trafficking; in fact, Kansas law specifically criminalizes such conduct as “Aggravated Human Trafficking.” Therefore, by definition, minors who are purchased for commercial sex are victims of sex trafficking. Yet, in 25 states, including Kansas, an alarming legal paradox exists that oftentimes prevents child sex trafficking victims from being identified and treated as victims of the heinous crime.

A February 3, 2019 sentencing by Kansas Judge Michael Gibbens has once again reminded us of the detrimental status of our nation’s non-criminalization laws. In reducing the sentence of a 67-year-old buyer, and referencing the 13 and 14-year-old victims, Judge Gibbens stated,

“So, she’s uncomfortable for something that she voluntarily went to, voluntarily took her top off for, and was paid for? . . . . I do find that the victims in this case in particular were more an aggressor . . . [t]hey were certainly selling things monetarily that it’s against the law for even an adult to sell. . . . Normally, I would think that the harm that would have been done by this kind of conduct would very, very substantial. I’m not convinced that that is so in this case.”

This case illuminates a culture that allows half of the country’s laws to regard minors engaged in commercial sex as offenders of prostitution, despite their status as victims of sex trafficking. Shared Hope International and the Center for Combating Human Trafficking at Wichita State University adamantly and unequivocally assert that survivors of child sex trafficking are never the aggressors or blameworthy for their own victimization. Together, we challenge the laws and culture that support penalizing, rather than protecting, youth who have experienced and survived commercial sexual exploitation.

We share the collective outrage for the reduction in the buyer’s sentence while daring the conversation to go further; we must amend our laws and shift our beliefs to ensure that no child is deemed a “prostitute” and prevented from receiving imperative protections and specialized services. We believe that when laws, practices, and beliefs are transformed in tandem, true perpetrators will be held accountable and survivors will be appropriately identified and protected; justice will be served.

Be part of a movement that seeks genuine change to both the laws and practices that address exploited youth; together, we can ensure that youth survivors of sex trafficking are protected, not punished:

  1. Education: The Center for Combating Human Trafficking offers training and technical assistance and also has a significant amount of free resources available.
  2. Action: Sign the Kansas petition to address the actions of Judge Gibbens. Also, sign Shared Hope International’s petition to Stop the Injustice and end the criminalization of child sex trafficking victims.
  3. Continued Contribution:

    • Slow down, pay attention, think critically, and seek solutions that move beyond technical, short-term responses and address the more complex root causes of trafficking.
    • As states across the country, including Kansas, continue to develop their anti-trafficking and child sexual exploitation laws this legislative session, support legislation that offers true “Safe Harbor” protections for minors, ensuring youth survivors of sex trafficking are protected from criminalization and have access to critical forms of post-conviction or post-adjudication relief, including vacatur and records expungement.
    • Many state laws, including Kansas, ensure that there is increased training for law enforcement officers and commercial truck drivers who might assist in identifying individuals who are trafficked. However, without adequate and accessible resources, increased identification can lead to increased criminalization of the very victims we seek to assist. Thus, improved legislation should consider training for those who are charged with determining outcomes and trajectories for youth survivors, especially stakeholders within the justice system, including prosecutors, probation officers, and public defenders.
    • Hold elected officials accountable in applying the law as it was intended. This requires all of us to invest through time, talent, and treasure in our own local communities.