We Don’t Know How to Talk About Child Prostitution

A Bay Area police chief has had to step down for the fourth time in a month. The last three took place in just over a week, spurred by a multi-agency, multi-departmental child prostitution scandal that spans the entire ranks of these institutions — specifically the Oakland and Richmond Police Departments — and potentially implicates Oakland City government. But as the extensiveness of the scandal is further exposed in a dramatic unfolding of events, it threatens to eclipse the issue of child sex trafficking at the heart of it.

Investigative journalists from the East Bay Express have importantly exposed the depth and scope of police involvement in sex-trafficking a young woman whose pseudonym is Celeste Guap.

The reporters show how police can act as human traffickers, rather than as the first line of defense for potential victims and rescuers of actual victims. They highlight Guap’s victimization even as she passed the legal threshold of adulthood into eighteen years of age because her background as a commercially-sexually exploited child very much matters.

According to reports, Guap entered prostitution at the age of twelve. She was running from a pimp when she sought help from the police, who then re-trafficked her.

We hear about how the commercial-sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) is institutionalized in “the third world,” in places such as Thailand, where police participate in and profit from the commercial-sexual exploitation of children and routinely return girls to their traffickers, pimps and abusers. We view the exploitation of faraway children through the lens of human rights and child rights, and characterize their violation as child sex trafficking and child sex tourism, and those who do not see it in these systemic terms are at least quick to denounce it as pedophilia.

Unlike our condemnation of CSEC in the developing world, when it comes to child prostitution in the US our discussions are sometimes confused, contradictory and incoherent.

While the current exposé of East Bay police departments and officers succeeds in highlighting the urgency and extent of this scandal within an already troubled institution that is under federal oversight for police brutality and racial profiling, it also exemplifies some of the problematic aspects of how we understand and talk about the issue of child prostitution and its subjects.

The reporters often take great care to highlight Guap’s victimization, but they also stumble and confuse, and this reverberates in virtually all of the reporting. There are at least three issues to hash out that can help us reframe and refocus on the problem of child sex trafficking at the heart of this matter.

1.“Sexually exploited minor” is not a job.

The range of how Guap’s behavior and victimization has been characterized in the media runs from simply having sex, being a prostitute or doing sex work, to statutory rape, child sex trafficking and rape. These distinctions matter. They matter because they imply legal consent, coercion or force, and therefore indicate the seriousness of the crimes.

Guap is contradictorily characterized as both a sexually exploited minor and as a “sex worker.” Particularly awkward and troubling is the description that seventeen-year-old Guap was “working on the streets of East Oakland as a sexually exploited minor.”

“Sexually exploited minor” is not a job. Being a sexually exploited minor is not “working.” This is not merely awkward phrasing. While it indicates the reporters’ earnest attempts to recognize that Guap has been commercially-sexually exploited through prostitution, it is also trying to reconcile this with the idea promoted by legalization that prostitution is simply “work.” These two things are irreconcilable.

2. Decriminalization is not the same as legalization.

The reporters decided to protect the identity of a former police captain who admitted to committing statutory rape, and cited their support for the “decriminalization” of prostitution as their reason.

The ex-captain claims that Guap deceived him by saying she was twenty years old at the time. His subjective belief is good enough for the reporters. They stated in a radio interview, “we took the story at face value, and we didn’t publish his name…we have to take his word for that.”

But even if the ex-captain is to be believed, statutory rape is a strict liability crime, meaning that the adult’s subjective belief or mistake regarding the age of the minor is irrelevant, even if the minor claimed that s/he is of age.

The former captain begged the reporters for anonymity, claiming that the public exposure of his crime would cause him a heart attack. The reporters granted his request “for medical reasons.”

The reporters continue to defend protecting the ex-captain by citing their disagreement with the criminalization of prostitution. “That was a very tough conversation to have…we do not think that sex work should be criminalized…if two consenting adults get together and one of them pays for sex, we personally don’t see anything wrong with that.”

But they quickly added that Guap has been a sexually exploited minor, coerced into having sex with police for protection, first from her pimp and later from police arrest. So her case does not fit the “consenting adults” scenario. Nonetheless, the potential harm to this former police captain — a marred reputation and possible heart attack — trumped the actual harm perpetrated against Guap.

The reporters conclude that the US approach to prostitution is flawed because it criminalizes “prostitution.” They are partly correct that the criminalization of prostitutes is what coerced Guap into exchanging sex for “protection” — protection from the cops themselves — specifically, their ability to arrest, detain and jail her. This is a power that police in the US have because American law equivocates on decriminalizing prostitutes, including minors.

But if we invoke “two consenting adults” to justify protecting an adult male authority figure against a commercially-sexually exploited minor, we are talking about the legalization of child prostitution, not simply preventing minors in prostitution from being criminalized.

Even without the name of this ex-captain, the reporters still published plenty of names for purposes of naming and shaming. At the same time, however, they shielded an abuser based on a faulty notion of statutory rape and a partial understanding of decriminalization.

3.“Sex scandal” distracts from systemic inequality and victimization.

Yes, this is a scandal of epic proportions. Child prostitution is also an epic problem in terms of how it is embedded in the structures and institutions of our society.

As a nation that is hopefully awakening to the realities of police brutality that often take the form of physical violence against children and young people of color, we should understand that police brutality also takes the form of sexual violence, sometimes against men and boys, but disproportionately against women and girls, especially females of color from marginalized communities like Celeste Guap.

If we are to prevent children from being commercially-sexually exploited, then we should learn to speak productively about it, which means to avoid framing it from the perspective of abusers, traffickers and even law enforcement.

The reporters explain that what led Guap to speak out was her own realization that she was being victimized.

In a mirror selfie on Guap’s social media accounts, which officers used to essentially solicit her, a little girl can be seen standing next to her, playfully holding up a doll. She could be Guap’s daughter, but it serves as a snapshot of the next generation exposed to the same — if not worse — conditions that led Guap into prostitution and kept her there, including police practices. Guap’s mother works as an Oakland police dispatcher, for the very department whose officers trafficked her daughter. Guap’s circumstances seem decidedly more dire, and would be more so for any child she bears responsibility for.

Seeing this primarily as a “sex scandal” detracts from the social, economic, civil and political inequalities that push and pull people into being sold or selling their bodies for sexual use.

This includes the inequalities of poverty, race & migration, gender and childhood. It includes relative deprivation and the threat of poverty that comes with economic insecurity. In Guap’s neighborhoods of Richmond and East Oakland, many children, adults and families live in inequitable and exploitive circumstances, which we can observe elsewhere in the Bay Area, across major cities of the US and the world.

The State of Things

This week protestors dropped a banner in front of the Oakland police department with the image of a young woman with hands covering her mouth, stating “OPD guilty as charged of human trafficking and statutory rape.” Several women randomly walking past implored “Where were you when this happened to me?”

The California Assembly currently has a bill before it (AB 1760), which calls for the decriminalization of child victims of sex trafficking in the state. It aims to eradicate what coerced Guap to have sex with policemen — the ability of police to arrest minors in prostitution as criminals — by requiring all jurisdictions to adopt “non-arrest alternatives.” This is an important legal step toward reconceptualizing minors in prostitution as victims rather than perpetrators.

But our laws on child sex trafficking do not address the bigger picture of coercive circumstances that push and pull children into prostitution, and make their bodies available for exploitation.

These include child poverty and the marginalization of communities through deprivation of human and economic resources. It includes the extractive and exploitive practices that cause housing crises, job loss and defunding our schools and social services, because exploitation is not just an effect of poverty or precarity; it is a cause of it as well — in a self-sustaining cycle.

Deprivation precipitates CSEC. Our current way of doing things is to scramble to try to “protect” children from episodic harm while their basic needs are going unmet. If children have no want of the resources they need to survive and thrive, there are no children’s bodies to exploit. The “toxic, macho culture” of our police forces can try to persist all it wants in that atmosphere, but it will have no outlet for its desire to sexualize and exploit children’s bodies. The impossibility of its fulfillment opens up the real possibility for its atrophy.