Children face greater risk of exploitation with push to decriminalize prostitution, advocate says

Haley Halverson speaks at the Heritiage Foundation for a panel on protecting children from sexualization on Oct. 9, 2019.
Haley Halverson speaks at the Heritiage Foundation for a panel on protecting children from sexualization on Oct. 9, 2019. | Photo: Screengrab/

WASHINGTON — Amid efforts around the nation to decriminalize prostitution and the explosion of apps and online porn, minors are particularly vulnerable for sexual exploitation, a leading advocate says.

Speaking on a panel about preventing the sexualization of children at the Heritage Foundation, a summit co-hosted by the Family Policy Alliance, Haley Halverson, vice president for advocacy with the National Center on Sexual Exploitation stressed that it is vital to understand the interconnections between all sexual abuse, particularly pornography's link with prostitution and trafficking.

"It is no longer a question of if children will be exposed to pornography. It is question of when," she said.

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Porn both rewires the brain and in much of it sexual violence against women is celebrated, she said, adding that it now serves as the primary sexual education of rising generations, with the primary lesson being "no means yes" and that "violence is sexy."

Because of the myriad harms inherent in porn, NCOSE has authored a state resolution declaring widespread pornography use to be a public health crisis, a measure that has passed in 15 states thus far.

Porn also overlaps with the online scourge of grooming children for sexual abuse and trafficking, Halverson continued, recounting how a few months ago she met three teen girls from Washington, D.C., who were sex trafficking survivors.

"They showed me their Instagram accounts. And even though their accounts were set to private, they were receiving on a weekly basis dozens of direct messages from strangers, men in D.C., reaching out to them, telling them they're beautiful, asking them to meet up, asking them for sexually explicit photos, sending them sexually explicit photos."

The exploiters sometimes complimented the girls, manipulated them into feeling loved, and extorted them. Through use of various apps, they did all of that anonymously.

Around the country, a massive campaign is occurring to decriminalize prostitution; several states and Washington D.C. already have or are at present considering doing so. Decriminalizing prostitution usually not only removes criminal penalties from the seller of sex but also from the pimps and sex buyers.

"This would lead to an exponential boom in the commercial sexual exploitation marketplace," Halverson asserted, noting that in Germany, where prostitution and brothels have been legalized since 2002, an estimated 1 million men purchase sex every day.

"A 2018 study of 8,000 U.S. men said that over 20 percent of them who had never bought sex would consider doing it if it was legal," she added. "So to meet this increased demand in a fully decriminalized system, the sex trade would lure, manipulate and coerce more vulnerable people because there are never enough women willing to be exploited and degraded in the system of prostitution."

Citing another study from the London School of Economics, legalizing prostitution leads to increased sex trafficking, including the sale of children for sex, she went on to say.

On Oct. 17, a city council hearing in Washington, D.C., will take place where the full decriminalization of prostitution will be seriously considered.

Should the city proceed in that direction, the nation's capital would become "an international sex trade tourism destination," she said.

The Heritage summit gathered policy experts and practitioners to collaborate and advance solutions to protect children from sexualization in the realms of culture, education, and healthcare.

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