Francine Sporenda interviews Yasmin Vafa, the co-founder and executive director of Rights4Girls, which works to end male violence against young women and girls in the United States. She is a lawyer and her work focuses on the intersections between race, gender, violence, and the law. She educates the public and policymakers on these issues and how they affect the lives of marginalized women and children. She has successfully advocated for several anti-trafficking laws at the federal level, has testified before Congress and international human rights bodies, and co-authored a seminal report mapping girls’ unique pathways into the justice system: The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story.
You say that 700 children are arrested for prostitution in the US every year, with the media commonly referring to them as ‘child prostitutes.’ Can you explain why you consider this inappropriate, biased and misleading?
In 2015, Rights4Girls launched the ‘No Such Thing’ campaign to make it clear that there is ‘no such thing as a child prostitute.’ The goal of the campaign is to eliminate the concept of ‘child prostitute’ in both language and law. We believe the widespread use of the term by the media and the public in reference to underage children being bought and sold for sex is problematic, because children are by definition too young to consent to sex, and under our federal laws, they are considered victims of sex trafficking. In addition, such language masks the extreme violence and exploitation girls experience in the sex trade. These children are victims and survivors of child rape and our language and laws need to reflect that reality.
According to data collected by several DC agencies, girls are arrested more often than boys, and for less serious offenses. Can you tell us about this sexist bias in the US police and justice system against girls, and the ‘boys will be boys’ excuse granted to male children and adolescents?
One of the trends we found in DC is that while the arrests of boys has fallen over the past decade, the arrests of girls has increased by 87%. We also found that girls were getting arrested and entering the prison system at much younger ages than boys and for mostly non-serious offenses, such as running away from home or skipping school. Often, the police and legal system exhibit sexism towards girls by responding to them in a paternalistic manner. For example, our system expects boys to fight at school but when girls fight, they are more likely to be referred to the police. In addition, we routinely hear law enforcement and judges justify the arrest or detention of girls as a means of protecting them or keeping them safe when in reality we know that it causes more trauma and harm.
You note that black girls are arrested at 30 times the rate of white girls and boys. Can you tell us about this racist bias—and how it starts in school? What offenses are black girls mostly arrested for? How are these offenses responses to abuse?
This data came from our report entitled ‘Beyond the Walls: A Look at Girls in D.C.’s Juvenile Justice System,’ so the statistic is focused on what we are seeing in Washington, DC. What we have found is that black girls are criminalized for normal adolescent behaviors that their white peers are not punished for.
The reality is that the combination of racism and sexism uniquely impacts black girls’ entry and outcomes in the legal system. Research has shown that black girls are perceived by adults as less innocent, less in need of nurturing, and more knowledgeable about sex than their white peers. Unfortunately, these racist attitudes often lead to black girls being treated more harshly than others who commit similar actions.
We also know from our other research that the vast majority of girls in prison have suffered previous sexual and physical abuse. When you consider this data together with the most common charges for girls, it becomes clear that girls and especially girls of color, are being criminalized because of the abuse they experienced. We call this the abuse-to-prison pipeline.
Nationally, the most common offenses for girls are running away, truancy (skipping or being late to school), and prostitution—all behaviors that are strongly correlated with enduring or escaping trauma. We work to educate law enforcement and judges to understand these dynamics so that they can see girls for who they are, look beyond the offenses, and provide them with services and support instead of arrest and detention.
Can you explain what you mean by a ‘sexual abuse to prison pipeline?’ You say that in Oregon (for example) 93% of the girls in prison have been victims of sexual abuse. Typically, how does a girl go from sexual abuse to prostitution?
Sexual violence in the United States is painfully common with 1 in 4 girls experiencing some form of sexual violence before the age of 18. However due to economic and social barriers, many girls who experience violence are unable to access the services they need to heal. As a result, they are forced to take their safety into their own hands and find their own coping mechanisms to endure the trauma that they have experienced. Some of these strategies include running away to escape abuse in the home or self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. Unfortunately, too often our system punishes girls for these methods of self-preservation and resiliency. They are criminalized for the act of running away or using drugs and alcohol and are put into the prison system where they experience more trauma and sometimes violence.
We also know that sexual abuse is a risk factor for sexual exploitation and in most states throughout the United States, young girls can still be arrested on prostitution charges even if they are legally too young to consent to any sexual activity. This is another way that girls experience the abuse-to-prison pipeline.
What do you mean when you say that ‘girls in DC are not missing, they are being disappeared’?
Last year, Washington, DC noticed an alarming number of girls were being reported missing from their communities. Virtually all of them were black and latinx, and very young. Our community was trying to understand the factors that were causing this rise in the disappearance of girls of color and what we found was that many of them were being trafficked, kidnapped, abused at home or severely neglected.
We tried to argue that our girls were not simply going missing but that society was complicit in many of the factors that led to these girls going missing. For example, failing to address the demand for commercial sex that fuels sex trafficking of girls of color in our city leads to girls being kidnapped and trafficked for sex; failing to support young girls who are victims of child abuse means that girls are forced to protect themselves by running away, etc. So this was our way of saying that we all have a collective responsibility to our girls and to promoting a culture that values them and their safety.
You say that ‘the reality is that there are men who want to buy sex with children.’ Do you think this group of men is bigger than most people realize—and is the problem of child prostitution overlooked?
The sexual exploitation of children is driven almost entirely by male demand for sex with children. We certainly think the number is higher than most people imagine even if it’s not most men. Here in DC, we know of trafficked girls and boys as young as 10 or 11 who are referred to service providers. Currently, Courtney’s House, a survivor-led program for trafficked youth in DC is serving victims between the ages of 11-24. Almost all of the youth they serve are black and latinx and they currently serve no latinx survivors over the age of 15. So even if most men are not engaging in this behavior, the minority that do are causing a significant amount of harm.
You quote the example of Latesha Clay, a young victim of trafficking. Two johns who had sex with her at a hotel were robbed by her pimps, and she was jailed for that. Cyntoia Brown, also a young victim of trafficking, has been jailed until the age of 67 for having killed the john who had paid to rape her and was badly abusing her. Can you comment about these cases and the way the justice system treats these young victims of male sexual abuse as criminals?
Cases like that of Cyntoia Brown and Latesha Clay are sadly common. Both of these young women are victims of the abuse-to-prison pipeline. Both of them were punished for their victimization instead of being seen and treated as survivors of sexual violence and exploitation. We often say that this is what #MeToo looks like for poor girls in the United States because instead of recognizing their victimization, our system punishes these young women instead of holding their abusers accountable. This injustice needs to stop. We need to recognize our collective failure in protecting girls like Cyntoia from exploitation and then forcing them to take their safety and protection into their own hands.
This interview was originally published in French on the Révolution Féministe website.