The dramatic arrest and indictment of wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein for allegedly trafficking dozens of underage girls, as young as 14, underscores the fundamental truth that there is no such thing as a “child prostitute.” And the Epstein case does something else. It exposes the “pipeline of vulnerability” that spans our nation, entrapping youth in sex trafficking, due to circumstances beyond their control: homelessness, weak foster care systems, domestic violence, discrimination based on race and sexual orientation, and other societal problems.
According to prosecutors, Epstein allegedly paid cash to dozens of girls in exchange for sexual services and, in at least one case, committed rape. Many Epstein victims, including one girl who wore braces when she first met the financier, were runaways, homeless or foster youth. They were groomed, recruited and plucked from trailer parks, broken homes and the streets to sell sex for money, some of them flown on Epstein’s private jet, known as the “Lolita Express.” According to the recent criminal indictment filed against him, Epstein targeted girls “often particularly vulnerable to prostitution” for “various reasons.” An attorney for one girl, who alleges Epstein raped her, said, “She was a child — a child on welfare, with no father, who was groomed, recruited and preyed upon.”
It’s our moral duty not only to bring Epstein to justice but also to address the “various reasons” that lead to the sexual exploitation of our youth. The median age for entry into prostitution in the United States is 13 to 14 years old, according to the U.S. Justice Department. We have to reject the notion that these children — like the Epstein victims — are “young sex workers,” as some people view them, “consenting” to selling their bodies for sex. We all know morally that no child should be bought or sold for sex. Children are not commodities.
Yasmine Vafa, co-founder of Rights4Girls, based in Washington, D.C., says, “There is no such thing as a ‘child prostitute.’ They are all victims.”
Take the case of Kyra Doubek, a young Seattle mother. Earlier this year, she spoke to hundreds of people at an anti-trafficking event in downtown Seattle, chronicling her journey into “the life,” as sex work is known. “Instability, abuse, domestic violence, poverty and addiction were prevalent within my home,” she said. “It was like I was born for ‘the life,’ that there wasn’t any other outcome that could happen.”
After being a homeless runaway teenager, Doubek said, her then-boyfriend punched her in the face one night. “He said he was so upset, because he loved me. I was a minor, and he exposed me to porn, raped me, beat me, manipulated me and dismantled my identity. Everything had a price.” As a minor, she was forced to sell her body for sex, feeling broken and unloved. Finally, after totaling her car into a police car, Doubek left “the life.”
Today, Doubek is signatory No. 187 of about 340 survivors who sent a petition, before the Epstein scandal arrest, to tell U.S. presidential candidates that a growing movement to legalize prostitution would harm victims in the sex-trade industry, including the youngest victims, like Doubek and the girls allegedly trapped by Epstein. In the petition, the survivors wrote that “decriminalizing the sex trade in its entirety would have disastrous consequences.”
They wrote: “Do not be confused — full decriminalization means allowing pimps, sex buyers and brothel owners to operate with impunity. Sex trafficking (including that of children) and organized crime increases when pimping and sex buying are legalized.”
One promising solution to addressing the reasons youth are trapped in sexual exploitation is the Nordic Model, which decriminalizes the vulnerable people who represent the “supply” and provides them services to exit “the life.” It targets the demand that drives sex trafficking, criminalizing buyers and sellers.
In Seattle, at StolenYouth, a nonprofit established seven years ago to end child sex trafficking in Washington state, we follow the Nordic Model in supporting a coalition of local organizations dedicated to closing the onramps to sex trafficking by disrupting demand and building the offramps with outreach, housing, jobs, counseling and healing for young survivors of sex trafficking. By addressing why young people become vulnerable to sex trafficking, we have been able to help them leave “the life.”
At the event where she spoke, Doubek told the audience the rest of her story: In her new life, she works in South King County, helping commercially sexually exploited children escape the trap of sexual exploitation, allowing them to be “a child like I once was, and never got to be.”
That is why we must shut down the pipeline of vulnerability that entraps too many innocent children and youth, from the victims in Epstein’s sex ring to the children on the streets.