When it comes to sexual slavery and exploitation of children, Americans tend to view it as a problem somewhere else. Slavery doesn’t exist in the United States anymore, we tell ourselves. Certainly the selling of children here is unimaginable. And no, slavery as it existed in the early years of our country’s formation does not exist openly. But make no mistake: the buying and selling of people, especially children, for sexual acts occurs today.
Whether Americans realize it or not, this horrible threat against our children has existed here for many years. In fact, the first laws created to indirectly fight child exploitation were enacted over 100 years ago.
Between the 1880’s and 1900, most of the states changed a child’s age of consent from ten years old to sixteen. The winds of change slowly blew across the nation, as this transition marked the first action to protect the purity of young girls. Though rarely reported at that time, sexual abuse was more prevalent than people knew. Raising the age of consent showed the first sign of concern from authorities.
The first law that touched on human trafficking was the Mann Act of 1910, or the White Slave Trafficking Act. Enacted to fight forced prostitution and transportation of women from state to state, it didn’t specifically protect minors. An amendment in 1917 broadened the scope of the law to include any noncommercial immoral acts. However, it wasn’t until 60 years later in 1978 that the Mann Act was amended to protect male or female minors from sexual exploitation. The introduction of child pornography came in the late 70’s, prompting the government to take action.
With the sexual revolution and vast change in America during the 1960’s and 70’s, people felt more comfortable speaking out about child exploitation. Authorities started flexing their muscles within the family institution. Doctors were more likely to investigate physically abused children for sexual abuse and then notify law enforcement. A problem that always existed finally received some attention.
1986 saw another revision to the Mann Act. This change protected minors from “any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense.” Around the time when the Mann Act was amended again, child pornography was nearly extinct in America. Law enforcement agencies organized a series of successful campaigns and child pornographers became isolated, hunted people. But the rise of technology in the 90’s changed everything.
Once expensive and difficult to reproduce, child pornography could be in front of you with the click of a button. The internet allowed predators to communicate with each other and find victims easily. The law tried to keep up. The Mann Act was amended again in 1994 and currently makes it a felony to willingly transfer anyone under the age of 18 in the U.S. or in foreign countries for the purpose of prostitution or criminal sexual acts. Another law instated in 1994 was the Violent Crime Bill and Law Enforcement Act. It included a provision called the Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Act which makes it a crime to travel to a foreign country with the purpose of having sex with a minor. Prosecutors looked to both of these laws to combat child exploitation.
The year 2000 brought the first law intended to fight human trafficking. The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act criminalized human trafficking and zeroed in on prevention, protection and prosecution. While the Mann Act needs proof of transportation across state lines, TVPA needs no such evidence of trafficking. It can be in state. In 2002 Congress passed the Sex Tourism Prohibition Improvement Act, criminalizing the actions of sex tour operators. Laws are coming along but the problem of child sexual exploitation continues to grow. With the constant threat of HIV or AIDS, victims are getting younger. The average age a child first becomes a victim to exploitation is 13 or 14. 300,000 children are at risk of exploitation in this country. This isn’t an overseas problem. It is here in America. It isn’t just in impoverished communities but flourishes in middle class communities as well. Child sexual exploitation occurs everywhere.
We must continue to fight this. The law often lags behind technology and in the area of child exploitation it’s no different. Let those in government know that this is a huge problem and that you support anti-exploitation laws.
To help, exercise your right to vote! Beyond voting, you can search pending legislation in Congress and your own state online.