TIME Domestic Policy

Congress Eyes Crackdown on Sex Trade Customers

While the federal government has taken steps to curb child sex trafficking, lawmakers agree a more aggressive approach is needed on the demand-side of the problem. Texas Rep. Ted Poe said Wednesday that customers of child prostitutes need to be held accountable

More needs to be done to prosecute those who purchase children and teens for sex, lawmakers in both parties agreed Wednesday.

“The kids are not for sale, period,” Texas Republican Rep. Ted Poe said during a meeting of a House Judiciary Committee panel. The hearing, during which Poe decried the “boys being boys” attitude taken when it comes to the men who purchase prostitutes, reflected a growing focus by policy makers on the demand-side of the sex trade.

While state and federal law enforcement officials testified Wednesday about the many ways they’ve altered their approach to victims over the years, none could give concrete answers to questions about how “johns” who purchase sex are prosecuted. Corporal Chris Heid of the Maryland state police’s child recovery unit testified that the authorities rarely even arrest johns. Under federal law, those found guilty of engaging in sex with a minor can face between a 10- and 15-year mandatory minimum sentence, though in many states charges are now always pursued, officials testified.

Bringing charges more routinely, FBI Agent Michael Harpster said, would require a reallocation of resources. “Our resources are currently aimed at victims,” said Harpster, the chief of the FBI’s violent crimes against children section.

Congress estimates 100,000 children are sold in the U.S. sex trade every year. Many exploited children come from the foster care system or are runaways from sexually and physically abusive homes. Out of the 450,000 youth that runaway from home each year, one-third are estimated to be lured by pimps within their first 48 hours on the street. Congress has already taken steps to fight trafficking in the U.S., having introduced and passed several anti-trafficking bills in recent sessions, though committee members said more must be done.

In 39 states, child victims of sex trafficking could face criminal charges if police catch them. Withelma Ortiz Walker Pettigrew, who was a victim of trafficking between ages 10 and 17, said Wednesday that her experiences behind bars were just as traumatizing as her experiences with her pimp.

“This is not prostitution and it should not be treated as such,” Pettigrew said. “This is child rape.”

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