Nicholas Kristof: When children are bought and sold

20 July 2023

More than a decade ago, I met a scared 15-year-old who was trying to recover her life after having been kidnapped by a pimp and sold for sex.

Melanie Thompson recalled the day her life changed: She and two other girls in New York City ran into some older boys who invited them to hang out. The girls did so, the boys provided alcohol, Melanie blacked out — and she says she woke up to being raped. She told me how a pimp then locked her with another girl in an abandoned house, and she had a new job: having sex with strangers against her will.

She was 13.

When we spoke two years later, she was in a residential program for formerly trafficked girls. She was thoughtful, charming and fond of poetry, but I wondered if she would be able to rebuild her life. Then I lost track of her, until a message arrived from her this spring. We met, and she filled me in on her bumpy journey — and her campaign against what she sees as misguided liberalism that would legalize pimping.

Melanie spent years in foster care after I met her. There’s no doubt that some foster care parents are outstanding, but overall, America’s foster care system is a disgrace. Only about half of foster children finish high school; perhaps 4% earn a bachelor’s degree. By several estimates, a majority of trafficked girls have been in foster care or some other part of the child welfare system.

That was Melanie’s world. She says she was trafficked again, leaving her teenage years a blur of trauma. The sex trade left a mark on her and made it difficult to relate to other high school students, she said.

“You feel like damaged goods,” she recalled. “You also internalize the shame people put on you.”

After attending five high schools, she finally graduated at age 19. A path opened when she interned with the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, a nonprofit in New York.

Taina Bien-Aimé, the executive director of the coalition, was swept away. “She’s an extraordinary human being, very determined, ambitious, smart, focused,” Bien-Aimé told me. So she hired Melanie, who is now the outreach and advocacy coordinator for the coalition.

Meanwhile, Melanie earned her Bachelor of Arts in gender studies. In college, she often found herself the odd woman out. In classes, there would be discussions of the sex trade, with affluent students or professors speaking of sex work for consenting adults as empowering, while that did not remotely ring true for Melanie. Her situation as a trafficked child was of course different, for there was no consent and she recalled nothing but abuse. But her life in the world of commercial sex left her convinced that lines were more blurred than outsiders understood and that there wasn’t much empowerment going on even among adults; it was largely about vulnerable people being exploited.

That disconnect is now her focus. There is a drive in blue states, including New York, to decriminalize the entire sex trade, giving a green light to pimping and brothel-keeping. Melanie argues for something closer to the model in Sweden and Norway, which do not arrest prostitutes (instead offering them social services) but do prosecute pimps and johns. While frankly no legal approach works all that well, Sweden has promoted its approach internationally as a way to reduce trafficking. Maine has just become the first state in America to adopt that Nordic approach.

Melanie, now 27, warns that the result of full decriminalization, including allowing pimps and brothels, would be more trafficking of victims who are overwhelmingly Black and brown, or coming out of foster care, or LGBTQ youth or others who are marginalized. Indeed, one large global study found that legalization is associated with more trafficking, not less.

Clearly there is a slice of the commercial sex trade that is consensual, another that is nonconsensual, and other elements that are more murky. In other contexts where there’s a significant power imbalance and vulnerability, such as relationships between bosses and interns, we tend to apply bans because of the potential for predation.

The push in recent years to allow pimping seems odd to me, because elsewhere we liberals are alert to the potential for exploitation. We ban work among consenting adults if it’s performed for less than the minimum wage, for example, and we block consensual high-risk work like using window-washing platforms without many safeguards.

Commercial sex is more dangerous than window-washing or almost any other job, and Melanie scoffs at the view that pimps are business partners of women selling sex. “I never touched the money,” she told me. “And if you got caught trying to stash anything, it was not good for you.”

We have made strides in empowering affluent, educated women and girls, with Title IX, #MeToo and more female lawyers, doctors and board members. But some of the most vulnerable girls in America, those in foster care, have benefited much less.

I fear that if this well-meaning push for full decriminalization proceeds, the winners will be pimps and the losers will be some of America’s most vulnerable young people. There are many other Melanies out there who need help, and we risk throwing them to the wolves.

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