ECPAT-USA Statement on Decriminalizing the Sex Trade

As a children’s rights organization working to protect every child’s right to grow up free from sexual exploitation, ECPAT-USA opposes laws that decriminalize pimping, sex buying and brothel owning wherever they are introduced. Laws like these are harmful to children.

It is now well documented that children who are exploited in the sex trade suffer long-term harmful consequences to their health and well being. Victims often have many hospital visits during the duration of their abuse. Urgent problems can range from malnutrition, injuries, and gynecological problems such as STIs and early pregnancy. Chronic cognitive problems sustained during the duration of abuse can include PTSD and other mood disorders such as dissociation, depression, substance abuse, anxiety, attachment problems, self-harm and suicidal ideation. Youths who experience this stress are in a constant state of emergency. Their trauma makes it more difficult to pay attention and process new information. Therefore, growing up as an exploited child damages their social and educational development. They are harmed by not having a chance to reach their full educational potential. They are harmed by having their thoughts and actions controlled by an exploiter. Children learn from the sex trade that their main value is the dollar amount that their traffickers can earn by selling them to buyers.

Children who are most at risk for recruitment by traffickers are those who are from backgrounds of abuse and neglect, children from foster care, LGBTQ children and runaway and homeless children. In short, children who do not have a strong and safe family setting are those easiest to recruit. Decriminalizing the sex trade will make it that much harder for these children to find safe passage to adulthood.

Children are already integrated into the adult sex trade. Even though child sexual exploitation is illegal at both federal and state levels across the country, children are regularly recruited and sold for sex. ECPAT-USA keeps track of localities reporting the number of sexually exploited children in their jurisdictions. In August 2019 alone, a federal nationwide investigation of sexual exploitation crimes recovered over 100 children.

Legalizing buying, pimping and brothel owning will not protect children from exploitation, it will merely make the sex market that much larger, which will lead to pimps and traffickers stepping up recruitment to meet demand. Many adults currently in the sex trade were recruited and trafficked as children. This new, large, legitimate industry will then be presented as an acceptable and viable career choice. It is a brutal, inherently violent industry that is not fit for children.

All parents should be outraged about the prospect of raising their children in a society where children are presented with prostitution as a legal and legitimate option when in fact it is an industry that preys on the vulnerabilities of youth. Parents already face tremendous challenges in helping their children navigate a world where the worst aspects of humanity are readily available to them through multiple media. Legalizing prostitution will mean it is presented to children as something glamorous and lucrative, rather than as something that is brutal and dehumanizing.

ECPAT-USA opposes using public policy as an instrument that puts all of our children at risk. Every ounce of public policy effort should instead be aimed at creating a social safety net for children so that they are not forced into an absurd choice between having enough to eat and a safe place to sleep, or putting their lives into the hands of a pimp. Passing decriminalization of the entire sex trade will only make it so much easier for children's lives and futures to be endangered.