ACORN Pimp Sting, Child Prostitution and Accountability

by Guest Contributor (and frequent commenter) Atlasien

It’s all over the news lately: an elaborate sting operation by conservative activists.  A man and a woman go into an ACORN office, and ask about how to get affordable housing and file taxes properly.  The woman says she’s a sex worker.  The ACORN representatives give a variety of advice.  Up to this point, I don’t see anything really wrong with what they’re doing.  But then the man starts talking about his plan of bringing a group of underage girls, 13 years old, 14 years old, from El Salvador to “turn tricks” in the house.  And in the videos shown, the ACORN representatives keep on giving him advice.

I went to the sources and actually read through some transcripts.  As an example, see Page 22 of the Baltimore one.  It’s just as damning as the right-wingers are saying.

I’m glad that ACORN is firing everyone who took the bait, but I don’t think the accountability ends there.  They need to have a consistent anti-human trafficking policy.  Apparently some ACORN offices either threw them out or laughed them out (the “pimp” does look rather laughable) but way too many of them them took him seriously.  I believe ACORN’s statement about their need for reforms and review is not “caving in”, it’s an important process of accountability.

A lot of people on the left don’t want to talk about this issue.  I get a feeling of closing ranks.  After all, ACORN has done many, many good things for low-income communities.  They work with people on the margins of society that no one else will work with.  It’s a difficult balance.  Low-income people who work in illegal activities should NOT be cut off and isolated… but activities that savagely victimize other people shouldn’t be supported, either. I would never say that drug-dealing and sex work are “victimless” crimes; that would be a stupid statement because there are very few activities that are truly victimless, either legal or illegal.  Selling cigarettes is legal, for example, but not victimless.

But I refuse to believe that there is any kind of gray area when it comes to child prostitution.

It’s a serious problem in Atlanta.

NOW PBS REPORT:

A 2005 report from the Mayor’s office [PDF] offers these alarming findings:
- African American girls are disproportionately affected, with 90% of cases reported to the Center to End Adolescent Sexual Exploitation in 2004 coming from this population.
- Anecdotal evidence suggests that the average age of the affected girls is 14, with some as young as 10 and 11 reported.
- There is only one safe house east of the Mississippi River specifically for girls who have been sexually exploited – it is <a href=”http://www.juvenilejusticefund.org/programs/cease/angelashouse.aspx”>Angela’s House</a> in Georgia and can only accommodate six girls at a time.

From a local article:

Hooray! Atlanta is in the running to be No. 1! Let’s have a parade.

Uh, maybe not. Our city has earned a distinction, but it’s hardly one we crave. According to the FBI, Atlanta is among 14 cities vying for child prostitution capital of America. We’re up there with such hot destinations as Tampa, Miami and Washington, D.C.

[...]

FBI Special Agent Steve Emmett says there’s a problem with Brazilian girls being brought to Atlanta to service Hispanic day laborers. But most of the exploited children are homegrown.

Nationally, “200,000 to 300,000 children are believed to be at-risk for sexual exploitation,” according to “Hidden in Plain View,” a study of Atlanta’s problem. Other cities, such as Las Vegas, have estimated their number of child prostitutes in the 400-500 range.

“Hundreds?” muses Cathey Steinberg of Atlanta’s Juvenile Justice Fund. “Oh, absolutely. I call it an epidemic.”

About a dozen girls each month go through the Atlanta juvenile court system as victims of sexual exploitation. Typically, they’re 10 to 14 years old, and the average age is getting younger. Contributing factors aren’t a surprise: broken homes, physical and sexual abuse, runaways, poverty, housing instability and emotional problems. Few girls seek out prostitution, but the pimps know how to spot kids in distress.

What’s Atlanta’s big draw for pedo-pervs? One important factor is bustling Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. A 2003 federal law provides for up to 30-year sentences to people who jaunt to a foreign land, say Costa Rica or Thailand, for a kid tryst. A session with a teen or pre-teen inside the United States generally comes under state laws, however, which seldom match the threat of the federal penalties. Georgia in 2001 made pimping children a felony — previously, it was $50 misdemeanor. That has put some pimps away but hasn’t deterred the business, law enforcement officials say.

This is a horrendous problem, and the statistics here show that children of color are the most affected and most victimized.  There are many contributing factors and many, many people to blame.  The pimps, to start off with.  Everyone who enables the pimps, including their friends and relatives and money launderers. The criminal justice system that treats the victims as criminals. Self-righteous prostitute-haters that believe impoverished, abused children should be punished for their “choices” instead of helped… and vote to keep the current system going.  Regular bystanders, like me, that don’t contribute to the victimization but don’t know how to stand against it effectively.

The right-wing anger around the ACORN sting comes from a place of racism more than a place of sympathy.  A huge theme in their commentary is that “their tax money” would be hypothetically going to “illegal immigrant prostitutes”. But I’m not a right-winger, and I’m angry too, not about my tax money, but about a cultural habit spread through all levels of American society that includes enabling victimizers and rapists.

I don’t want to make this a debate about sex work (even though it might end up that way).  I used to work in the sex industry (I waitressed in a strip club), but I’m neither pro- nor anti-industry.  I’ll support anything that <i>works</i>, on the ground, no matter what theoretical framework it comes from.  To place this issue in another perspective, I’ll mention the Southern Poverty Law Center’s campaign against legal immigrant exploitation.  Here’s one positive recent step in that campaign:

The Southern Poverty Law Center praised Congress on Thursday for protecting immigrant workers by passing a human trafficking bill that allows unscrupulous labor recruiters to be prosecuted for fraud, but said more reform is needed to protect these workers from exploitation.

The William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 would allow foreign labor recruiters to be prosecuted for fraud when they lure workers to the United States with false promises.

Though H-2 programs are euphemistically called “Guest Worker” programs, it’s often much more like near slavery or indentured servitude.  It’s a form of trafficking that’s 100% legal and enabled by corporate-friendly U.S. law.  Nobody wanted to <i>see</i> its abuses except for a few legal activists and immigrant self-advocates.

Though child prostitution is already illegal, current measures against it are obviously not working.  What are some political measures that can be taken to fight it?  How can we support prostituted children, native and immigrant, with non-punitive services?  What should those ACORN employees known to have said and done instead?  And how can we support the good work that ACORN does while still holding them accountable on this issue?

(Image Credit: User CJaye on NowPublic)