Cyntoia Brown’s case reveals a larger truth about child sex trafficking
After leaving the abusive home in which she grew up as a teen, Cyntoia Brown ended up being forced into prostitution, during which time she was physically and sexually abused. At 16, Brown was sold to a 43-year-old “client” whom she ended up killing. She claimed she acted out of self-defense, but the prosecution in the case brought against her argued that her motive was robbery, since she took his wallet after shooting him. Brown was tried as an adult and convicted of first-degree murder, felony murder, and aggravated robbery, resulting in concurrent life sentences and eight additional years. She will have the possibility of parole at 69 years old: clearly not the treatment we would hope or expect for a survivor of human trafficking and sexual violence.
While Brown has spent the last decade serving this sentence, her story caught fresh media attention this November after Rihanna shared Brown’s story with her whopping 58 million Instagram followers. “Something is horribly wrong when the system enables these rapists and the victim is thrown away for life,” the A-list celebrity captioned the image of text describing Brown’s case. Kim Kardashian West shared the story soon after, and informed her Twitter followers that she had “Called [her] attorneys yesterday to see what can be done to fix this.” This display of social media activism might prove fortuitous for Brown, who now may be eligible for an early release. Legal expert Steve Mulroy told People magazine that the “national focus helps” her case.
Liberals are now relatively aware that the rate of incarceration of men of color, particularly black men, is high. But the criminalization of girls and women who were trafficked — particularly girls and women of color — is less discussed in conversations of incarceration justice. Yet it’s a significant issue: Between 2008 and 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice investigated 460 cases of child sex slavery; 358 victims involved in those cases were children of color. The organization FAIR girls, which aims to provide a rehabilitating transition for children who have been sex trafficked, reports that 90 percent of the survivors of child prostitution they have encountered are girls of color.
It seems likely that the disproportionate susceptibility of girls of color to sex trafficking can be traced back to colonization. Native Americans were raped and sexually exploited in an attempt to strip them of their religion and culture — a twisted form of “assimilation” that was justified by the same basic racialized, sexual stereotypes of people of color that persist today. Black women and girls experienced similar treatment during American slavery and have long been culturally regarded as hypersexualized and adultified — and experience higher rates of sexual exploitation than their white counterparts in general. Latina girls, some as young as seven years old, were sent to the “Reed Camps” of California to serve as sex slaves for white farmers for ten years — treatment that continued through the 2000s.
This legacy continues today, as America still doesn’t take care of girls of color. A significant percent of Native American girls enter prostitution today because they believe it's their only option for survival, and experience high rates of abuse in this work. Immigrant girls are also susceptible to sexual exploitation and are even more unable to report their experiences due to fear of deportation. Fifty-two percent of children arrested for juvenile prostitution have been black, and these girls are more likely to be tried as adults and criminalized as prostitutes rather than treated as victimized sex slaves.
Girls of color are at an intersection of exploitation: They are sexualized because of their gender and criminalized because of their race. Whether it is young women like Cyntoia Brown, who are punished for escaping their exploitation, or girls silenced out of fear of deportation or further oppression, America has work to do to protect all of its citizens on a basic level, let alone actually become the “color blind” nation it claims to be.
More articles by Category: Gender-based violence, Girls
More articles by Tag: Human trafficking, Rape, Women of color