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Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism University of Southern California
Southern California

No Such Thing As A Child Prostitute

A new campaign is trying to remove "child prostitute" from our conversations, the media and the legal system, saying that it implies consent and criminality where there is none.

For the audio version of this story, click here

Withelma Ortiz Walker Pettigrew was born into foster care. She says the abuse she suffered made her especially vulnerable to the proposition of an older man. 

“At the age of 10, I met a man who promised me he was gonna love for me and care for me and do everything I wanted someone to do because I had no one,” Pettigrew said. 

That’s when she was sold into child sex trafficking. 

“From the ages of 10 and 17, I got exploited right here in the western United States — here in California all the way down the coast to El Cajon Blvd. in San Diego all the way up to the state of Washington,” Pettigrew said. 

She was then charged with solicitation and prostitution and placed in juvenile hall. 

Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell says that won’t happen to another victim of child sex trafficking in Los Angeles County. 

“Particularly juveniles are not capable of consenting to sex,” he said. “Therefore it’s inappropriate to book them for prostitution. Rather we’re treating them as victims of statutory rape, and looking at them as a victim in need of resources, in need of options.”

On Tuesday, the LA County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a motion that ensures abused juveniles are treated as victims, not criminals. 

McDonnell says 70% of these victims come from foster care and the average age is between 12 and 14, but as young as eight. 

On Wednesday, the Human Rights Project for Girls launched the No Such Thing Campaign, asserting there is no such thing as a child prostitute — an initiative supported by the LA County Board of Supervisors and California Endowment. 

Their goal is to remove the term child prostitute from our conversations, the media and the legal system, saying it implies consent and criminality where there is none. 

“These children should not be treated as anything other than victims of child sex abuse. Remove the labeling,” LA Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said. 

McDonnell says the LAPD has renovated its approach to addressing child sex trafficking, with what they call the Law Enforcement First Responder Protocol. 

“Our three-pronged approach is going after the traffickers, the pimps, and to the fullest extent of the law, holding them accountable,” he said. “Going after the johns who are actually pedophiles and predators." 

“Going after them not with a citation for soliciting prostitution as in the past, but rather for statutory rape and child molestation. And for the victim, treating them as a victim and providing them services to get them away from that life.”

The LA County Board of Supervisors says 32 child victims of sex trafficking have been identified in Los Angeles in the last nine months and received community support and medical and mental health screening. 70% “currently remain stable.”

They say law enforcement have arrested and prosecuted many “high-profile exploiters.” 

The protocol first started in Compton and Long Beach, places with high rates of sex-related crimes. 

McDonnell says child sex trafficking is prevalent in Los Angeles County as well.  

“It happens in abandoned RVs on the side of the road, motels and hotels, in any location —abandoned homes, any location available for this type of activity — it’s being exploited,” he said.

“The street gangs have gotten into this because it’s so lucrative and it’s been relatively low risk. It’s all done over the Internet and cell phone so its not conspicuous.”

Pettigrew is now 26 years old and a junior in college studying communications, with dreams of becoming a broadcast journalist. 

She serves as a policy consultant for ending domestic child trafficking, making Time Magazine’s 2014 “100 List of the Most Influential People in the World” and receiving Glamour Magazine’s 2011 “Woman of the Year.”

Pettigrew gave a Ted Talk earlier this year on exploring sexuality after trauma. She says she has since reclaimed her sexuality — an important part of the recovery process she says is often left out of victim treatment plans. 

“Being a victim of child sex trafficking, choking was being used as a form of torture… to completely overpower me,” she said. “To make me succumb to that. Now something I enjoy in my sexuality as an adult is something like breath play. Which really incorporates the idea of trust. It incorporates the idea of therapeutic breath. It incorporates the idea of liberation.”

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