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Picture taken by Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

Picture taken by Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

If Katrin Bennhold’s front-page article in today’s New York Times —Years of Rape and “Utter Contempt” in Britain — were told as a narrative movie, it would be considered too far-fetched to be true and would most likely be viewed as a hyperbolic psychological drama. However it is a news item and one subtitled, “Life in an English Town Where Abuse of Girls Flourished.”

Ms. Bennhold recounts a monstrous story of over 1000 girls as young as 12 being groomed for rape by gangs of young Pakistani men over a period of 16 years in a working class town called Rotherham. Even when girls came forward with parental support, the authorities chose to ignore the crimes, lost evidence and succumbed to the worst kind of victim blaming. In a staggering series of cases of police negligence, children who were raped were referred to as “tarts” and crimes against them called “100% consensual”.

It would be easy to imagine this does not happen here in the United States or that this is an isolated incident. Sadly, neither is the case. Nor is it simply a story of child abuse and rape. What is described is sexual slavery and fits our Federal definition of (child) sex trafficking. It also serves as an important illustration of the common misconceptions about commercial sex, outdated law enforcement culture around prostitution and sex crimes and the on-going battle to stop blaming victims for crimes committed against them.

Ms. Bennold’s article describes girls being groomed by young men who they perceived as friends or boyfriends – this is the most common way that pimps in the USA recruit girls into the sex trade. In Rotherham the sexual encounters, “evolved from personal gratification to business opportunities” to literal life–threatening enslavement, an evolution that perfectly matches the descent of many young people in this country from quasi-volitional sex work to enslavement.

Equally tragic and also prevalent in this country is the dominant culture that sees, and in many cases, insists that all this sexual activity is consensual. This ranges from adults engaging in sex with underage boys and girls, which, whether we like it or not, is statutory rape, to minors being “boyfriended” or kidnapped by pimps and gangs and sold for sex as prostitutes. The outcomes of these crimes depend almost entirely on the attitude of local law enforcement and their understanding of the severity of harm done to any minor who is sexually abused. Many people in this country (and elsewhere) believe prostitution is a victimless crime, one that it is here to stay and does not warrant time, money and focus by our criminal justice system.

My experience over the last 5 years making the documentary Tricked  about sex slavery in the USA unequivocally indicates otherwise. No one I encountered was unscathed by their sexual abuse. All still carry deep and lasting wounds years and decades later and every john who had purchased sex was insistent that nothing that he had done could have in any way harmed the girls and boys from whom he had paid for sex. In between is the criminal justice system – gradually waking up to the reality that sexual crimes of this sort are major human rights violations that need our utmost attention. Alas, way too slowly for the hundreds of thousand of victims out there. Katrin Bennhold deserves praise for telling such as newsworthy story.

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