Some people seem willing to argue about what number represents an acceptable level of suffering that society is willing to tolerate. Our answer is none.
SEATTLE media have been reporting on the commercial sex industry in our community for years. The Seattle Times editorial “Legislature should bolster positive trends of targeting sex buyers” and the subsequent response from The Stranger, “Seattle Times Editorial Member Defends Sex Work Editorial with Flawed Research,” were no exception.
The Stranger’s reporting attempted, among other points, to debunk the age and prevalence of adolescents trafficked in the commercial sex trades and minimize the number of trafficked people based on what the author deemed a lack of research or otherwise flawed data. And while there’s no denying that research on this issue could be stronger, there is also no denying that there are far too many young people exploited by the illegal sex trade.
More concrete data on the true prevalence of trafficking victims would be incredibly useful for the purposes of education, enhanced planning and informed public discussion about the actual extent of this problem in the region. This is why the Center for Children and Youth Justice has been working diligently with a wide range of partners to develop a statewide data system. Very soon we will finally be able to systematically analyze how many young people in Washington are being bought for sex. In the meantime, please make no mistake, contrary to what you may read, young people in our communities are being sexually exploited every day.
In the last five years, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office has charged pimps, traffickers and sex buyers with exploiting 88 minor victims. Of the 88, 51 percent were age 15 or younger. That figure is not a mean, average or range — it is a raw figure of children who have experienced significant harm as victims of serious crimes.
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They are just the ones who were identified — YouthCare leads the Bridge Collaborative, a collaboration of social service agencies, including Friends of Youth, Auburn Youth Resources and Organization for Prostitution Survivors, through which many more young people come to light.
In the program, community advocates provide support services to youths who have been — or are at serious risk of being — sexually exploited. Since April 2014, these caseworkers have received more than 161 unduplicated referrals for children ages 17 and younger.
Accurately quantifying those trapped within the sex trade is difficult. By its very nature, it’s a transient and hidden industry where victims are forced to bear a public stigma that erodes empathy and understanding for the actual harm these boys and girls face on a daily basis.
But if we put the numbers aside for a minute, what are we really debating? Are we looking for a tipping point — some magic number that indicates too many young people are involved — before we intervene or institute a change in policies? Are we worried about the health and well-being of 15-year-olds, or is it just the 12-year-olds that we should care about?
This may sound absurd, but for those of us who are out there supporting these young people, that is what many of the arguments debated in The Stranger sound like. Some people seem willing to argue about what number represents an acceptable level of suffering that society is willing to tolerate.
Our answer is none. There is no minimum number of kids who must be exploited for us to demand action, nor do we need a consensus about the average age in which that exploitation first happens. Their suffering is real and that is unacceptable, no matter what.
These young people deserve our respect and care. They deserve to grow up in a world where adults don’t buy them, profit from the sale of their bodies, treat them like criminals or deny their very existence. They deserve to grow up in a society that acknowledges that it has a problem with how vulnerable people are treated and is committed to protecting and supporting all of its children.