The current furor in the press, fanned by police and interest groups, over the “epidemic” of “child prostitution” is only the latest in 150-year cycles of concern and indifference toward young girls selling sex. By all evidence, “child prostitution” was much more prevalent in the past. Researchers in Chicago, New York, and other cities in the 1860s found many thousands of prostitutes, more than one-third age 16 or younger. The numbers and rate of arrests of juveniles for prostitution were three times higher in the 1970s than today.
But, as usual, authorities, reporters, and “many experts… consider” today’s “child prostitution… an epidemic,” yielding another round of deploring everything they dislike about young people and modern culture. If history is teacher, this White House will glom onto “child prostitution” (like media-popularized “cyberbullying” and “childhood obesity”), with press splashes and task forces lamenting that “too many of our young people are engaging in this dangerous behavior” and remedies like arresting pimps and “educating” girls not to be on the streets.
But why, exactly, is the “epidemic” drawing such outrage? Older men having sex with 16 or 17 year-olds is perfectly legal under “age of consent” laws in 41 states—as long as it’s free. The fact that most “teenage pregnancy” involves adult (not teenage) male partners is of zero interest. During the Clinton-era anger at teenage mothers, the political and interest groups that “own” the “teen pregnancy” issue made it clear that adult men having sex with juvenile girls is socially acceptable; they blamed young girls for premature sexuality. A breathtakingly antiquated sexism—routine when discussing teens.
Nor is much concern evident about the tens of thousands of substantiated rapes and sexual abuses victimizing adolescent girls and children in domestic violence, overwhelmingly inflicted by parents and household adults 25 and older, reported in Child Maltreatment every year. Outrage over sexual violence against the young is confined to the occasional celebrity, church scandal, or student-party case involving objectionable Facebook comments.
No – what most arouses interest groups’ and reporters’ anger toward girls and sex seems to be when they get paid for it. The old legend of deluded teenage Hollywood wannabes turning to the streets, still repeated by venal sources, is being replaced by the new image of deluded victims.
The recent barrage of news stories hyping “child prostitution” lauds police and programs for rescuing girls enslaved by unscrupulous pimps and traffickers. But, as often happens in youth issues, the symptom is mistaken for the disease. Honest sources, down in a recent New York Times story, note the regularity and severity of drug abuse, violence, mental illness, and abandonment among the parents and families young prostitutes fled.
Yet, news stories continue to depict the girls as the “epidemic;” their toxic families are treated as mere background vexations, like lead poisoning. Nor do the cameras and reporters explore another disturbing issue: why do so many older men want sex with sixth graders? NBC’s “To Catch a Predator” (if worth anything at all) revealed the men in every community—doctors, lawyers, cops, teachers, principals, officials, fathers, grandfathers—seeking middle-school trysts. Should we enforce nighttime curfews and internet restrictions on grown men?
The “child prostitution epidemic” is a product of much larger epidemics that are ignored due to ideology and discomfort. Media and grant-savvy experts have long insisted that grownups are cognitively and developmentally immune to “adolescent” risks like drug abuse, crime, and risky sex. Thirty years of soaring drug deaths and criminal arrest volumes now topping 3 million per year among ages 40-59 have not dented these blinding dogmas.
That adult problems spawn youth problems, revealed yet again by the large runaway populations involved in “child prostitution,” exposes the inadequacy and failure of social, policing, and health strategies narrowly aimed at fixing kids. However popular the market-driven campaigns by America’s privatized social policy establishment to depict youthful victims and victimizers as the “epidemic,” the fact remains that grownup and youth pathologies are part of the same whole.
Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice
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