Is Milo Yiannopoulos That Surprising When We Treat Sex Trafficking As A Choice?

On Feb. 21, Milo Yiannopoulos resigned from Breitbart News, just a day after the Conservative Political Action Conference rescinded its keynote invitation and publisher Simon & Schuster killed its book deal with the far-right firebrand. Yiannopoulos, who drew violent protests in Berkeley Feb. 1, came under scrutiny after a conservative website unearthed footage of him seemingly criticizing laws prohibiting sexual relations with minors.

To most reasonable people, the idea that children can consent to sexual relationships with adults is twisted. Yet America’s courts and popular culture continue to hold at fault youth victimized by human trafficking, implying they choose to sell oral and anal sex to old men. Given this sort of climate, is it any wonder ideas like Yiannopoulos’ come to the surface?

In the United States, sex trafficking, or the use of coercion, violence, lies and other means to compel adults and children into commercial sex, is a multi-state problem involving millions of people and many more dollars. For youth the matter is extremely dangerous. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports one in six runaways are likely caught in sex trafficking.

The choice argument misses a critical backstory. A 2015 study on girls in the criminal justice system and those arrested for prostitution-related offenses points out disproportionately high rates of trauma, including rape and abuse. The Coalition for Juvenile Justice’s research hints these female youth are vulnerable to those looking to lure them into commercial sex. As convicted pimps told the Texas Tribune, creating dependency only made such efforts easier.

Domestic child sex trafficking is often called child prostitution in the media. It is language that implies choice, which participation in the commercial sex industry very seldom is among kids, or adults. Just as in the Texas Tribune report, NCMEC remarks on growing trends, such as coercion by partners, blackmail and similar methods to draw females into the commercial sex trade.

Once prostituted by traffickers, Polaris and other researchers say women and girls, who are the primary survivors moreso than men and boys, will face violence on a daily basis. They’ll be mostly African-American. And, even though they’re legally not of age to consent to sex, underage girls are often arrested and put on the path to prison, while sex buyers get off without repercussions.

In the Yiannopoulos scandal, liberals and progressives were rightfully repulsed by the Breitbart editor’s suggestion the children were emotionally and intellectually mature enough to choose sexual liaisons with adults. It is important Americans consider this standard when it comes to what too many slyly call “the world’s oldest profession.”

Natasha Chart makes these points more brilliantly at Feminist Current, but I needed to second what she says.

On the left, perhaps the most famous advocate of commercial sex with children is Jacobin. It was lawyering up in 2012 for Backpage, recently pursued by Congress amid horrifying stories like that of a 16-year-old girl whose face was gouged with a potato peeler by a pimp and which is the subject of a new documentary, I Am Jane Doe. Not unlike fringe Libertarians, extreme elements on the left center the idea of choice without understanding the illusion of choice must be understood in the context of power, race, sex and history.

Chris Hedges remarks the prostitution industry, like warmaking, feeds off the despair, poverty and hopelessness of the young, especially youth of color. Sex trafficking of girls is more profitable and less risky than other criminal activities. Buyers are seldom convicted; pimps can use a variety of methods to avoid detection; girls of color are often criminalized and ascribed sexual availability in ways catering to buyers’ prejudices; and girls can be terrorized into not going to the police or seeking help. In many respects, lingering social ills like misogyny and patriarchy don’t take female life as seriously. Such profound sociopolitical problems only permit sex trafficking to flourish.

It is necessary for the United States stop seeing the commercial sex industry as a choice, or anything less than exploitation. Just as importantly, the country would do well to increase penalties and prosecute fully the buyers of commercial sex while recognizing sex trafficking more acutely. The so-called Nordic Model makes it a crime to buy sex, but not to sell, acknowledging that taking advantage of the economically disadvantaged, the disenfranchised and those trafficked is not a democracy’s core value. Instead it is worthy of criminal conviction.

In a society that centers men’s sexual access to whatever the free market may have, attitudes like that of Milo Yiannopoulos are probably more prevalent that you think. It remains nevertheless the obligation of those concerned about the lives of young women and girls to speak up that buyers, not they, are the criminals. Efforts like the #NoSuchThing campaign are important, but lawmakers, movements and our communities must take a more active interest to create lasting change.