Sunday, September 30, 2007

Letter to the Editor re: Barry Kutun

When the former North Miami City Attorney Barry Kutun story first broke several months ago, his lawyers were quick to call his actions against a 16-year-old commercially sexually exploited child a “victimless crime”. The language used by his lawyers and the press, alike, has not since challenged this perception. A teenage girl being exploited in the sex industry is a victim, she is a commercially sexually exploited child; she is not a “teen prostitute”. The latter term carries age-old stereotypes and stigma and implies a level of agency that does not exist for the girl.

Consider these facts:

* The average age of entry into prostitution in the United States is twelve years old.

* There are currently up to 300,000 children being exploited in the commercial sex trade in the United States, thousands of which can be found in Miami.

* 80-90% of girls involved in prostitution are under the control of pimps, who often use violence and coercion to extract obedience and do not allow the girls to keep the money they earn.

These are children who, oftentimes, end up on the streets after exiting an abusive home and are quickly found and recruited by pimps looking for vulnerable youth to exploit. Escaping “the life” is incredibly difficult for most, as they are held in virtual slavery.

If a 66-year-old man had sex with a 16-year-old girl, it would no doubt be considered child sexual abuse. Once money is exchanged, however, we begin to see the child as a free agent. We need to wonder why Kutun is able to walk away with nine months of house arrest and doesn’t have to register as a sex-offender. Is it because, as his lawyers state, this was “an aberration in an otherwise stellar career” or because we really believe that “he’s not some street thug or criminal” and that our perception of an exploiter, laced with race and class stereotypes, is exactly that?

Kutun doesn’t fit into the nice little box that we like to categorize sex offenders. He’s not a creepy, under-the-bridge pedophile; he’s likely a situational abuser. He just doesn’t care if she is under eighteen, as long as she has features that are attractive to him, namely, she is young looking. This is not an aberration; in fact, it’s all too common among men of all stations. The biggest risk factor for children becoming exploited in the sex industry is the demand. One in seven men has been found to have purchased sex at least once in their lives and the demand for younger girls is on the rise. Remember, the average age of entry into prostitution is twelve.

The commercial sexual exploitation of children is not a hidden crime. It exists in plain sight and we choose to ignore it. Nicholas Spangler’s article in Saturday’s Herald made only marginal reference to the victim in the case, calling her a “16-year-old prostitute” who was only mentioned as a piece of evidence against Kutun. Her welfare was completely ignored by the press.

Likewise, her welfare was trivialized by the sentences handed down on Kutun and Orenbuch, the girl’s pimp. The commercial sexual exploitation of children is a crime of human trafficking, which is a federal crime carrying a fifteen-year sentence. The victims don’t have to be foreign nationals, they don’t have to be transported, and they don’t have to prove force, fraud or coercion. If they are minors being engaged in the sex industry, they are victims of trafficking according to law.

If we continue to dehumanize the child victim through our indifference and the way in which we speak about commercial sexual exploitation, the victims will continue to have limited access to needed services and the abusers will continue to go free or get significantly reduced sentences. We need to start making some changes. We need to understand that commercially sexually exploited children are victims of trafficking and of child sexual abuse and should be treated as such.

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