Will New York Stop Treating Teen Prostitutes as Criminals?

Keep tabs on these two bills making their way through the New York State Senate and the New York State Assembly. Assembly bill A.5258, the Safe Harbor For Exploited Youth Act passed last year but didn’t make it to a vote in the Senate. It’s up again this year (its bill number in the Senate is S.3175), and I hope the Senate takes it up and passes it.

If it were to pass it would mean, as the New York Times pointed out in an editorial this morning, that we would treat American born teen prostitutes much the way we treat internationally trafficked teens caught working as prostitutes: that is, we would treat them as people in need of protection and services rather than as criminals. Here’s the lead paragraph from this morning’s New York Times editorial:

Sexually exploited children can be helped by the law or victimized by it, depending on where they are from. An Eastern European child smuggled into this country as a sex slave is offered protection under the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act. An American child who flees abusive parents and ends up selling her body on the streets is labeled a criminal and sent to the juvenile equivalent of prison.

That statement is important because it points out one reality of young prostitutes: they are sometimes engaged in prostitution because, as runaways, there are few options open to them that will allow them to remain free of the homes they are trying to escape. The National Runaway Switchboard sites a 1998 study published in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect, indicating that 34% of runaway youth (girls and boys) reported sexual abuse before leaving home and forty-three percent of runaway youth (girls and boys) reported physical abuse before leaving home.

In addition to offering treatment and care to teen prostitutes (instead of detention and punishment) the law recognizes that the needs of sexually exploited “boys, girls and transgendered youth,” may be different from each other, and should be treated as distinct where necessary. The inclusion of transgendered youth is important because transgendered youth are at high risk of family conflicts that are often behind running away in the first place, and the needs of transgendered youth certainly are distinct from those of other youth in important ways, and need to be met in appropriate ways.

Services mandated by the bill are to be provided in safe houses specifically for sexually exploited youth and will include: “housing, diagnostic assessment, individual case management, medical services including substance abuse services, counseling and therapeutic services, educational services including life skills services and planning services to successfully transition residents back to the community.”

The law is not without its problems. For one thing, the youth in question would not have a choice about participating in the state’s protection. Services would be “made available” to them whether they are “accessed voluntarily, as a condition of an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal issued in criminal court,” or through other court proceedings. In other words, if picked up for prostitution, protective services will be mandatory if not chosen voluntarily. This is likely to be a good thing for many youth engaged in prostitution, but not all teen prostitutes are operating in the same conditions nor do they all have the same needs. In addition, state care is not always effective, and until we know more about the quality of the services to be provided, and the culture of the safe houses, it is hard to have an unrestrained enthusiasm for the program. If the treatment options pathologize teens and their developing sexualities, they will not be helpful, and they may do more harm than good. Not only that, the law still separates sexual exploitation from other kinds of exploitation, and quite possibly will result in the release of youth “back into the community” where they are forced to choose some other kind of exploitation as a way to earn an independent living. Until we solve the fundamental economic problems of our society, exploitation would seem to be a necessary condition of many lives. We should not be concerned only with exploitation of a sexual nature.

Lastly, the comprehensive needs of abused or neglected youth will not be met by this bill alone. This bill makes an important step in the direction of humane treatment for young people in desperate circumstances, but we need to continue to work to solve the problems that lead teens to run away in the first place. Those reasons sometimes, themselves, have to do with sexuality. Teens are thrown out of their homes or run away from home because their sexual orientation or gender expression is rejected by their families. They are abused (whether sexually or otherwise) and run away to escape their abuse. They sometimes run away to be with boyfriends or girlfriends or lovers they have been barred from seeing. In other words, the denial of teens self-hood and sexuality is, itself, sometimes what leads to the sexual exploitation this bill is trying to address. If it does nothing more than offer treatment instead of punishment, this bill will have helped. I hope, though, that it will do more than that: I hope that the discussions generated by this bill will encourage us to move further down the road toward recognizing and affirming teens’ developing sexualities, and toward treating young people in our society with greater dignity.

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One response to “Will New York Stop Treating Teen Prostitutes as Criminals?

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