A misleading news story has gone viral, claiming that a new California law has made child prostitution legal.
The bill, SB-1322 Commercial sex acts: minors, was designed to protect child victims of sex trafficking and get them to safety instead of charging them with prostitution and releasing them back into the hands of their traffickers.
However, websites like the Washington Examiner pounced on the story with the misleading headline, “California Democrats legalize child prostitution.”
“Beginning on Jan. 1, prostitution by minors will be legal in California. Yes, you read that right.
“SB 1322 bars law enforcement from arresting sex workers who are under the age of 18 for soliciting or engaging in prostitution, or loitering with the intent to do so. So teenage girls (and boys) in California will soon be free to have sex in exchange for money without fear of arrest or prosecution.”
Outraged readers were quick to spread the misinformation through social media this week.
In reality, the law does not make child prostitution legal. Instead, it gives authorities the power to help children who are victims of sex trafficking instead of charging them with crimes.
The text of the actual bill explains the changes to the law for children who are found to be engaging in prostitution.
“This bill would make the above provisions inapplicable to a child under 18 years of age who is alleged to have engaged in conduct that would, if committed by an adult, violate the above provisions. The bill would authorize the minor to be taken into temporary custody under limited circumstances.”
“This does not, however, mean that child prostitution is legal,” Snopes explained. “It is still illegal for Californians to hire prostitutes (child or otherwise), and sex traffickers will still face consequences if they are caught prostituting children.” Instead, they explain, the new law means that children involved in sex trafficking and prostitution will be treated as victims instead of criminals.
The New York Times explained the change in the law in October, pointing out that campaigners have tried for years to erase the phrase “child prostitute” from the law, arguing that if children cannot legally consent to sex with adults, they also cannot willingly consent to sell their bodies.
Children who are used in prostitution, they say, are rape victims, not prostitutes.
Under the new law, which was signed into effect by California Governor Jerry Brown in early October, these children will be treated as victims instead of as criminals, and directed toward social services. The governor also signed a law that allows adult victims to have the charges against them dropped if they were coerced into selling sex.
Detective Lina Teague, a coordinator of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Human Trafficking Unit, said that many people continue to falsely see prostitution as a willing exchange.
“But the reality of street prostitution today is that minors and young women are being sexually exploited out of some type of duress, fear or some type of coercion,” she said.
Kim Biddle, the executive director of Saving Innocence, a group that counsels sexually exploited youth, calls the change in the law “a really big deal.”
Biddle cited one North Hollywood case where a 13-year-old girl was caught with a 47-year-old man. The child was handcuffed and charged with prostitution, while the adult perpetrator got a citation, she said.
“Now, we’re able to view these children correctly under the law,” Biddle said, “as victims.”
Supporters of the new bill are applauding the change, which will finally direct law enforcement and prosecutors to treat these children as crime victims instead of further punishing them.
Rights4Girls, a human rights organization that has fought for the changes to child prostitution laws, estimates that 1,000 children are arrested and charged with prostitution every year in the United States.
Fifteen states now recognize these children as victims instead of as criminals.
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