Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Wrong Target

The Wrong Target

By Bob Herbert

Go to Original

A New York City police detective and his girlfriend have been accused of kidnapping and forcing a 13-year-old girl into prostitution.

According to the Queens district attorney's office, the detective, Wayne Taylor, and the girlfriend, Zalika Brown, would parade the girl at parties and other places where adult men had gathered and force her to have sex with them for money - $40 for oral sex, $80 for intercourse.

The child was an investment. The couple allegedly told her that she had been purchased for $500 - purchased, like the slaves of old, only this time for use as a prostitute.

Other than the fact that one of the accused in this case is a police detective, there was nothing unusual about this tale of trafficking in young female flesh.

Our perspective is twisted. It was a big story when a television newsman was crude and thoughtless enough to use the term "pimped out" in a reference to Chelsea Clinton. The comment generated outrage - as it should have - and the newsman was suspended. But if someone actually pimps out a 13-year-old child, and even if that someone is alleged to be a police detective, it generates a collective yawn.

Across the country, young girls by the many thousands - children - are being drawn into the hellishly dangerous world of prostitution. They are raped, beaten and exploited in every way imaginable.

As part of the staggeringly lucrative commercial sex trade, the role of these children is to satisfy the sexual demands of johns who in most cases do not fit the stereotype of a pedophile.

"Many of the guys who buy sex with children would never consider themselves pedophiles," said Rachel Lloyd, founder of an organization in New York called GEMS that offers help to under-age girls in the sex trade. "They're not necessarily out there looking for 12-year-olds or teenagers. They just kind of don't care.

"They feel like they have the right to buy sex from someone, and they prefer it to be someone who looks younger and cleaner and less drug-addicted."

In the case of the accused New York City detective, the authorities acted promptly and effectively. The girl managed to escape and notified the police, who investigated immediately. Detective Taylor and Ms. Brown were arrested and the case has been turned over to the office of Queens District Attorney Richard Brown. Both are in custody.

But law enforcement does not always respond in a positive or constructive way. It is common across the country for under-age girls engaged in prostitution to be arrested, which is bizarre when you consider that it is a serious crime - statutory rape - for an adult to have sex with a minor.

If no money is involved, the youngster is considered a victim. But if the man pays for the sex - even if the money is going to the pimp, which is so often the case - the child is considered a prostitute and thus subject in many venues to arrest and incarceration.

"We often see the girls arrested and the pimps and the johns go free," said Carol Smolenski, the head of Ecpat-USA, a group that fights the sexual exploitation of children. "One of the big problems is that there is this whole set of child sex exploiters who are not targeted as exceptionally bad guys."

What's needed is a paradigm shift. Society (and thus law enforcement) needs to view any adult who sexually exploits a child as a villain, and the exploited child as a victim of that villainy. If a 35-year-old pimp puts a 16-year-old girl on the street and a 30-year-old john pays to have sex with her, how is it reasonable that the girl is most often the point in that triangle that is targeted by law enforcement?

A measure of how far we still have to go is the fact that some enlightened officials in the state of New York tried to shift that paradigm last year and failed. The proposed Safe Harbor Act would have ended the practice of criminalizing kids too young to legally consent to sex. Under the law, authorities would have no longer been able to charge children with prostitution, but would have had to offer such youngsters emotional counseling, medical care and shelter, if necessary.

Legislative passage was thwarted in large part because prosecutors made the case that it was necessary to hold the threat of jail over the heads of these children as a way of coercing them to testify against pimps. In other words: If you don't tell us who hurt you, little girl, we're going to put you in jail.

It was an utterly specious case, filled to the bursting point with tragic implications and unworthy of a civilized society.

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