This year is, in many ways, a moment of truth for Georgia’s conservatives. Who knew that the fate of 12-year-old sex slaves would be front and center?
Out of the blue, a fight broke out this week among social conservatives over a child prostitution bill sponsored by Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Buford).
The bill would change the law so that children under 16 — the age of consent in Georgia — are not charged with prostitution and instead are considered victims. The FBI lists Atlanta among the cities where child prostitution is most rampant.
“Decriminalization of prostitution,” cried groups such as the Georgia Christian Coalition and Concerned Women for America of Georgia. Some of them said Unterman had “good intentions” but was misguided.
Actually, I think they have that charge backward.
The arguments against the bill tend to conflate adult prostitutes and children.
When holding people responsible for their actions, we presume they choose to act. The notion that kids aged 12 to 14 — the average age of entry for children in the commercial sex industry, according to FBI stats — can choose to sell their bodies doesn’t square with other legal treatments of minors.
Under Georgia law, a 15-year-old girl cannot consent to sex with her boyfriend. There are legal restrictions on her ability to work. So, how can she consent to having sex for money?
(For the record, since the more hysterical groups claim the bill would please the likes of the North American Man Boy Love Association, Unterman’s bill covers boys and girls alike.)
Studies of Georgia’s child sex industry indicate that these children often are trafficked. A Future Not a Past, a statewide project of the Juvenile Justice Fund, says half of the girls prostituted in Georgia are brought here from another state.
Add the safe assumption that some Georgian children are forced into prostitution, and it’s clear that a majority of these kids are sex slaves.
Treating the children as victims does not diminish the criminality of pimps, gangs and “johns” exploiting them. Their roles will remain illegal, and police will still have reason to intervene in these situations. If the bill needs to be altered to make that clear, so be it.
For her part, Unterman argues that her bill would aid the prosecution of exploiters.
“It’s much easier to take a child into custody and put them into a secure, therapeutic facility and get them to talk to us,” she says. If you first handcuff children and throw them in jail, on the other hand, “they’re not going to rat out that pimp.”
Speaking personally, what’s most disappointing here is hearing such loud opposition in the name of Christianity.
Umbrella groups oppose the bill, but coalitions of churches are begging legislators to act. They’ve also formed organizations like Street Grace to help sexually exploited children. My family’s church is one of them.
Another participant is North Avenue Presbyterian Church — which, statistics tell us, sits amid a hotbed of child exploitation. While pledging to work with others to resolve differences on the legislation, North Avenue’s urban ministries coordinator, Phil Cobb, says the imperative is to help the victims.
“In Scripture, and in the Christian faith, there is a theme of justice, and providing a voice to those who are victims of injustice is a clear theme throughout the Bible,” says Cobb.
“For us, once we found out this was happening, we felt like we had no choice but to answer the call.”