I know firsthand that there is no such thing as sexual consent between an adult and a minor. I was raped twice (that I remember) at age 14. Yet I thought at the time that the circumstances in which I found myself — sexually exploited routinely for two months — were great. I wanted to go to Tokyo to model and thought I was big enough to go alone.
A pantheon of adults played a role in making a 14-year-old girl vulnerable to and available for exploitation.
The modeling agency recruiter and booker who dealt with commercial clients and assigned my jobs. The product advertisers who used my childhood to sell crap to adult men. The bars that gave us kids paper money to “spend” at their establishments so that adult men would come sit around and lecherously watch us. The visa departments of two sovereign nations that provided legal documents to an unescorted minor who did not speak Japanese and who knew no one in Japan, ultimately becoming the delivery system for a summer of commercial sexual exploitation. And lastly, of course, my beloved parents who, to their eternal regret, allowed this disaster to my bodily integrity, sexual dignity, mental and emotional health come to pass.
Somehow, I didn’t end up in the court system. If I had, it would have been me who went to jail — not the American man who assaulted me, the French man who raped me, the British man who groomed and molested me, the Japanese men who paid to manipulate me and my body for commercial retail profit. Do you see the trend here? It is male demand for a female child.
You may wonder why I tell my story so easily and fluidly now. I have healed, thanks be to God — the result of a lot of hard work on my part and other brave survivor leaders showing me how.
I am writing this from India, where I am attending the Second World Congress Against Sexual Exploitation of Girls and Women. It’s a convening of survivor leaders and allies from some of the most marginalized communities in the world: indigenous women from Canada, youth from the Nut and Dalit castes here in India, women raised by a parent with an untreated mental illness or in poverty. Here, survivors come to listen to other survivors and use our power and our voices to end sexual exploitation and abuse.
Modern slavery exists in the United States in many forms. Polaris Project, for which I am ambassador, has identified 25 forms of slavery and trafficking in the U.S., ranging from illicit massage parlor businesses to traveling sales crews, which typically exploit youth. Polaris estimates that “the total number of victims nationally reaches into the hundreds of thousands.” In 2016, the organization handled 8,042 cases of human trafficking. A staggering 2,042 survivors reached out to Polaris’ national hotline — a 24% increase from the previous year.
A particular emphasis of my activism that I share with Rights4Girls is to correct a deeply misguided and — let’s face it — convenient lie that adults tell themselves: that there is such a thing as a child or youth prostitute. Let’s get a few things straight:
One: Children and adolescents are not for sex.
Two: There is no such thing as consensual sex with a child or an adolescent. Choosing to interpret what a child or adolescent says or does as an affirmation for any sexual activity is sexual predation justified by an adult.
Three: Paying to rape, or paying to have any sexual activities with a child or minor, does not commercial sex make.
Human beings are not for sale — at any age, for any purposes, under any circumstances, by anyone. It matters not if the seller is their own parents or other relative, a stranger, a profiteer, or any other person or authority. There is no combination of factors — no circumstances, time, age, background of distress or privilege, race, ethnicity, gender identity or any other characteristic — that makes it okay to use a child or adolescent for sex.
Our penal system far more often criminalizes victims than perpetrators.
We have normalized the proliferation of pornography in the form of advertisements, clothing and activities that exploit children’s natural freedom with their bodies for consumer gain.
And yet our penal system far more often criminalizes victims than perpetrators. Each year, more than 1,000 American children are arrested for prostitution. Many are victims of child sexual abuse and violence. Often they come from foster care or group homes, making them ideal targets for traffickers. A majority are African-American girls.
On the flip side, everyone can do their part to help victims of child sex trafficking. First, identify the social vulnerabilities suffered by most kids who get trafficked by visiting the Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons and reading about Adverse Childhood Experiences. Second, visit polarisproject.org to learn about slavery here in the U.S. and the hotline for calling in a tip or getting help for yourself. Third, visit Demand Abolition, because using kids for sex only happens when people demand it.
For the perpetrators of child abuse, we have an opportunity to help them stop child sexual consumption, with evidence-based interventions. Do you have a hunch you might be struggling with a sexual addiction? Roughly 3% to 6% of the U.S. population does. For college youth, that number quadruples. Some experts suspect sexual compulsion is the number one addiction in our country. There are numerous resources available. Reach out for help by finding a therapist or a 12-step recovery program and attend an anonymous meeting near you.
Survivor accounts of the experience of sexual violence should shape interventions, laws, exit strategies and health and human services programs. Let’s continue to listen to survivors and use our power and our voices to end sexual exploitation and abuse. Listening is sacred activism.
Ashley Judd is an actor, writer and humanitarian.