A case hit home for me. Where an exploiter/pimp was in the process of a plea deal. He had “accidentally” killed a 17-year old who was a bystander in a murder attempt of another exploiter/pimp. As someone who worked with CSEC (commercially sexually exploited children) youth, the death of the 17 year old girl who was “in the life” and was in sex work felt unnecessary. In an ideal world, she shouldn’t have been out on the track (areas of street prostitution). I felt that her struggles as a young woman who’s still a child, who is in sex work disappeared with her death. Even if she “chose” (whatever that means with limited choices to begin with…) to be in the life, I can’t help but feel that there is some type of coercion or force in play that made her feel like she needed to be in sex work as a minor. But she no longer could be helped because her life was taken away.
As a lawyer, I feel that I would be able to compartmentalize and be able to give the best representation that an individual deserves. That even if an individual needs to be held accountable for his or her actions, they should not be over-punished or railroaded by a flawed system created by other flawed individuals in holding other flawed individuals accountable. However, hearing the outcome of cases like the one my boss had just finished, I’m not sure how to feel. And series of questions run through my mind as I ponder on this case.
Does it matter that this guy who’s guilty of killing someone was a ‘good’ pimp? And the guy he was trying to kill was abusive as fuck? Is there such a thing as a ‘good pimp?”
I never thought to even consider if one can be a “good pimp.” As I started to introspect on why I was feeling so confused after my boss told me of the outcome of her homicide case, I texted a friend and a colleague in doing social justice work. And the conclusion I came to with my colleague was that, there is no such thing as a “good pimp.” It may be significant that this individual didn’t mean to kill the girl who was the victim, but his recklessness resulted in the death of an individual. An individual who truly didn’t deserve to die. Additionally, the exploiters/pimps that I’ve come across have all been willing to commit violence, the kindness is a demeanor; a mask like in any abusive relationship that can lull the exploited into a fallacy that they have a “good relationship.” In truth, the kindness is only an aspect of the honeymoon phase.
In understanding CSEC, I often parallel the struggle girls go through in staying in the life with the cycle of violence seen in domestic violence (DV). DV is understood as having this cycle of violence. This is often understood under the Duluth model (chart shown above). Kindness becomes a tool in maintaining a system of violence. So if someone is inherently oppressive in their relationship with another, they can’t be “good.” Right?
When I conduct trainings on CSEC, I highlight that the relationship between the girl and her exploiter is similar to the cycle of violence seen in DV. Since the 1980’s, the domestic violence movement was able to establish the language to articulate why victims and survivors didn’t “just leave” their abuser. Because in the course of this cycle of violence, it is difficult to leave an abusive relationship. It creates a dangerous, unhealthy, dependency-inducing relationship. In CSEC, the cycle of abuse is as follows: a honey moon phase. Like in DV, this is where there is “courtship” between the exploiter and the child. They build report. Sometimes, this can embody a sexual relationship or a “romantic” relationship. This is also can be the grooming period. Where the exploiter/pimp educates the child on sex, or how to be “in the life.” So similar to victims of domestic violence, victims of commercial sexual exploitation cannot simply leave.* Statistics show indicate that victims of domestic violence needs to try 5-7 times on average to leave. I think the same can be said for girls who are in the life. Even if they chose to leave, that choice is often difficult and challenging to accomplish.
Additionally, going back to the conversation on agency: when does the autonomy of the individual come into play? I argue that there is sex trafficking in sex work, but not all sex work is sex trafficking. Children are automatically deemed to be victims of trafficking because under the law, a child cannot consent to sex until the age of 18. So if they are in sex work, they are unable to consent and therefore, the work is inherently exploitative for children because they are unable to consent to sex work itself. However, what happens to a child who has been coerced or forced to be in sex work since their teenage years, and turns 18. Under the law, they are now adults. But how can we as society not take into account the years of their trauma as a child in sex work? Would this not affect their abilities to “chose” a profession in which they make their livelihood? Does their choice become mitigated because of their trauma?
Take the victim of this crime I am discussing right now. She was 17, a minor. However, had she turned 18, she would no longer be automatically considered a victim of human trafficking/commercial sexual exploitation unless she was in sex work because of force, fraud, or coercion**. Did this child acknowledge the risk she was taking for staying in the life? Was she able to comprehend the magnitude of danger she is in? But did she think the risk of trying to leave her exploiter/pimp outweighed the risk of being on the track and continuing to be in “the life?”
Is the insight by the victim’s family any indication of justice or accountability?
If the victim’s family was ok for the plea deal to end if the accused got 20 years, how much weight should they have? I wondered, was it not just to sentence a man to 20 years in prison? What happens to the insight of the victim’s family? Do they have a say? What is accountability for one’s actions? Is there a difference if a man is sentenced to 20 years versus 35 years? Especially in our incredibly flawed prison system, is there anyway this man can be reformed in 20-35 years? Wouldn’t it be better if he was able to reform his ways and not go back to the life in which he is a pimp/exploiter? Wouldn’t that be accountability and justice too?
The more I thought about the situation, the more I questioned what justice and accountability means to me and what I idealize it to be, I juxtaposed it to what it means in our current criminal law system. In my idealized world, accountability for perpetrators of crime is not just punitive, but also rehabilitative. But under the law, our system does not give opportunities for rehabilitation.
As I further my path into the legal profession. I know I will have to continue searching for answers I may never find. And the human rights advocate in me wants to find the perfect answer that makes everyone happy. But as a lawyer, I’m not sure if our system will allow for such a “perfect” answer. I hope to keep pursuing these answers and never lose the conviction to keep questioning.
Sincerely, in Solidarity,
The Pacifist Fighter
*I will write another post if anyone cares to know about my analysis on the cycle of violence CSEC youth face and its parallel to the cycle of violence discussed under the Duluth model.
**Polaris Project has a good source on current federal laws defining human trafficking. I used the “Trafficking Victims Protection Act” as the working definition for what constitutes as trafficking