The Maryland Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention provided a statement addressing Governor Hogan’s commitment to the prevention of human sex trafficking and the sex trafficking of minors. The numbers are impressive. The office, since October of last year, has allocated nearly $30 million to human trafficking. In that time, the Office has trained about 1,000 individuals, including first responders, health professionals, police officers, and community groups in spotting the signs of sex trafficking.
It Says the Thing That It’s Not
The Office pointed to two Bills and one Act. House Bill 871/Senate Bill 690 makes sex trafficking a violent felony; “This legislation also created a human trafficking subtitle in stature and recodified prostitution offenses to separate types of offenses.”
House Bill 734/Senate Bill 689 deals with labor trafficking and now comes with a penalty of “Up to 25 years in prison and/or a fine up to $15,000.”
The Child Sex Trafficking Screening and Services Act of 2019 sets up “navigators” that those in law enforcement and child protective services should contact when dealing with a sex-trafficked minor (up to 25 years of age) to ensure the minor (or young adult) is getting the services they need.
The Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention is committed to offering these victims trauma-informed care.
Overall, these measures are a noted improvement, and the Governor’s Office is responding to the sex trafficking problem the DC area faces. However, the disturbing part remains that the word “prostitution” is still being used and that children can still technically be charged as prostitutes, even though many cannot legally consent to sex, or, if young adults, they are consenting through coercion. Such is not prostitution in either case. Such is sexually exploitative labor trafficking.
The question remains, why are kids or young adults still being seen as prostitutes? Why have separate kinds of prostitutes? Prostitution is when one is being hired to provide sexual services for pay; however, in a minor sex trafficking case, the child cannot consent and is often groomed, nor does the child get paid.
The General Assembly’s Stinkin’ “Sex Offender” Thinkin’
Such blurring of “prostitution” with that of sex trafficking leaves Senator Lee’s haunting remark in a previous article as worthy of more investigation. She noted that there are those in the General Assembly that see sex trafficking as simply prostitution, that the minors like doing it and want to. Few realize the complex and severe trauma, along with the very low self-esteem, that survivors deal with often facing over 20 sexual assaults per day, 7-days per week. Such errors in thinking are what often lead to sex offenses. Certainly, such attitudes, if true, do not belong in the General Assembly or anywhere else for that matter.
If the state’s goal is to protect children and vulnerable women and men from sex trafficking, a major step forward would be to distinguish sex trafficking from prostitution and the stigma and misunderstanding that comes with it. If a minor cannot consent to sex, then that minor is not prostituting herself, plain and simple.
Such leads to another recent development in Maryland. On October 29, a 10-year old boy in Marbury, Maryland was charged with a fourth-degree sex offense. He was playing with girls in the schoolyard when he allegedly made inappropriate comments and motions to the girls. He could face jail or prison time, but as Evan Gerstmann writes, a fourth-degree sexual offense in Maryland requires the “offender” to be placed on the sex offender registry for 25 years. This means he will be 35 when he gets off the registry.
If I was the girls’ parents, I’d be very upset. I may feel like they do. My child is scared, upset, and afraid. Such is understandable from their point of view. However, as Gerstmann explains further, the fear of sex crimes, in particular, and the fear we all have for kids’ safety has prompted hasty and ill-thought-out punitive measures that do more to abuse children than protect them.
Laws are Meant to Elect not to Protect
In the end, laws are passed to make the public feel better and rarely rely on sound research or address the real complexity that would do more to muddy up a political campaign for office, than make our lawmakers look good.
However, such a political culture may irreversibly harm child development, further isolating troubled kids, and relegating all inappropriate actions as serious felonies. No one wins in the end but those that profit off incarceration or “tough-on-crime” talk. Such almost always leads to further damage in the long run.
If a child cannot consent to sex, but we see the child as a “prostitute,” and if a 10-year-old cannot consent to a sexual act, can a child that age knowingly commit a sex offense? Is that child acting out something they see adults do on television, social media, or even in adult pornography? Is that child not crying out for help?
Why is our lawmakers’ answer to every social problem in the U.S. always punitive?
A US News and World Report article addressed the Maryland Court of Appeals decision on a teen in a child pornography case. The Court ruled in favor of a lower Court’s decision 6-1 that a teen girl texting herself doing a sex act did, in fact, violate the State’s pornography laws. However, the Court also encouraged the State to address this legal problem. The lone dissenting judge said that no harm was done to the teen since exploitation was not involved. The higher Court noted that charging a child with child pornography was problematic.
The Maryland cases are not the only ones. Gerstmann highlights Charla Roberts, a 10-year old girl, that was put on the sex offender registry for 10 years. Her crime? She pulled down a classmate’s pants. This decision resulted in her being totally isolated because a sex offender cannot attend school with other kids.
Maryland’s Legal System: A Catalyst for Child Neglect and Abuse?
Such a careless and punitive ruling for children is nothing short of child abuse as it severely limits a child’s chance to develop socially or have a healthy self-image when approaching puberty.
It is not uncommon to hear kids at play say, “I am going to kill you,” and lunge at another child with a play knife or weapon. Though these acts may not be appropriate and need addressing, the messiness of these laws shows the haste with which they are thrown on the books.
There is little regard on what the long-term consequences will be for children whose brains are still under construction and do not even fully understand what sex and sexual development is.
While the Governor’s Office is attempting to address sex crimes against kids, it leaves them as child “prostitutes” with the possibility of being charged. Inappropriate or bad play is being treated as an adult criminal offense involving sex before children even hit puberty.
The State charges kids with child pornography offenses because they are somehow sexually exploiting themselves, all the while, not being able to consent to sex in many states. It turns out that the State sees child sex trafficked “prostitutes,” minor-child sex offenders, and child-child pornographers as the same thing: criminals that are criminally developed adults.
Should we call in a SWAT team to a playground if a child wields a branch as a sword? Should he be charged with attempted murder if, in play, he says, “Kill them!”
Are Maryland’s Kids Our Future Incarceration?
I would ask Governor Hogan and his Office of Crime Control and Prevention these questions and statements below for thought.
Maybe the real problem is how the State fails to educate kids and its state attorneys and judges about human sexuality and human sexual development.
Maybe what these children need is a more frank and open conversation, while age-appropriate, about how their bodies work, how they develop, and what is healthy and unhealthy.
Does anyone in Governor Hogan’s Office have expertise in human sexuality? Does a single officer or state’s attorney? Do any judges?
Shouldn’t state (and the federal) governments take human sexuality more seriously, allocating resources to the study of human sexuality in all its forms and researching the facts before passing laws?
After all, those of us in sex therapy training know that most kids start looking at adult pornography by 11 years of age. Should they be charged as sex offenders or child “prostitutes,” or should they be properly educated?
As one young man told me in class, “Sex education for me in school meant seeing horrible diseases on genitalia. After I saw that, sex was horrible.”
I then asked him if the school taught him about healthy sex and relationships. He looked at me perplexed and said, “What is that?”
Earl Yarington (LMSW) is a social worker and school bus driver. He taught literature and writing for nearly 20 years and spent 3 years working in forensic social work internships with offending populations, including work at Delaware Correctional facilities and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He has a PhD in literature and criticism (feminism/women writers) from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Master of Social Work from Louisiana State University, and an interdisciplinary Master of Liberal Arts from Arizona State University, where he studied the impact of visual image and girlhood in media/social media. He also has an MA and BS in English from SUNY College at Brockport. The opinions and analyses that Earl writes are his own and are not necessarily the positions or views of his employers, the agencies he supports, or that of his colleagues. Reach out with comments or questions.