ATLANTA (WOMENSENEWS)–When a young woman here tried to escape her pimp in April 2010, his retaliation was swift and brutal. He ordered four other sex workers to beat the runaway until her eyes swelled shut and a bottle pierced her head.

Then the pimp locked the 21-year-old woman in a 3-by-5 foot dog cage overnight, bragging about her debasement by texting photos of the caged woman to other pimps. Police, tipped off by someone horrified by the photos, searched a hotel until they found the woman alive and arrested the pimp and prostitutes.

A new law here, aimed at helping protect victims of sexual trafficking, will likely change the way such a case is handled.

Georgia legislators in April set higher fines and longer sentences on pimps, with a 25-year minimum prison sentence for coercing sex from anyone under 18. Buying sex with a 16-year-old carries a five-year sentence. The new statutes also protect adult women who were coerced into prostitution, such as the caged woman, from prosecution.

An estimated 250 to 300 underage teens and girls are sexually exploited each month in Georgia, says Kaffie McCullough, campaign director of A Future. Not a Past, a campaign to reduce juvenile prostitution in Georgia.

Many Georgians associate child sex trafficking with foreign countries and aren’t aware that it’s happening in their own state, says McCullough.

Malika Saada Saar is founder of the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, a group based in Washington, D.C., that works to prevent violence and exploitation of women. She echoes McCullough’s complaint that U.S. child exploitation gets ignored.

American Girls ‘Not Recognized’

There’s support for "girls in India or Thailand, girls from fractured families, who have endured abuse, who are very vulnerable, who have been lured or kidnapped into being trafficked for sex," says Saar. "But girls from those same situations from American circumstances are not recognized as victims; they are cast down as bad girls making bad decisions."

McCullough says the new law allows prosecutors to seize the illegally gained assets of pimps and to use them for law enforcement and to provide minors with victim compensation funds to provide counseling and residential treatment.

State laws on human trafficking are relatively new so their effectiveness is unproven. But Saar wonders how effective the new laws will be, given what she sees as a failure by authorities to prosecute existing laws against statutory rape.

"The commercial sex industry has ceased to be an industry of adults," says Saar. "It’s about buying girls. You talk to any pimp. He wants young girls; young girls make more money for him. Demand that exists is for very young girls."

This market demand is fueled in part by the larger society’s hypersexualization of young girls, Saar says.

Saar wants to prevent girls from winding up in detention centers where they face the risk of further sexual harassment or violence.

"There’s no opportunity to heal from the intense trauma that has been done to them…We have a long way to go in terms of reforming our juvenile justice system and our child welfare system," she says.

Saar supports a coordinated campaign to ask law enforcement to make prosecution of buyers an equal priority to the prosecution of traffickers.

McCullough agrees. "To me, if we don’t stop the demand, we won’t ever stop this issue. There are always going to be 13-, 14-, 15-year-old girls out there," she says. "We need to start making it not okay to buy them."

Way to Escape Criminal Charges

Kirsten Widner, director of policy and advocacy at the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory Law School here, helped draft the law. She says it provides ways for prostituted adults and children to escape criminal charges if they can demonstrate they were coerced into sexual servitude. Forms of coercion include threats and providing drugs or shelter in exchange for sex.

Like the privacy provisions of a rape shield law, this aspect of the law prevents prosecutors from using the sexual history of an exploited girl or woman against her in a criminal trial, says Widner.

Georgia State Sen. Renee Untermann, a Republican insurance executive, has championed the latest Georgia law, along with previous laws against child trafficking. A Democrat wouldn’t have gotten far in the Republican-controlled Atlanta legislature, Untermann says. Even she had to work to persuade her conservative colleagues that girls were being victimized in their state.

"People don’t want to hear about 50-year-old men having sex with 12-year-old girls," says Untermann.

In Georgia, Wellspring Living provides 45 beds for exploited girls and teens, the largest number of any state. But it’s still not much "for a state of 8 million people," says Untermann.

She has received help from several large Christian churches and has worked with the National Conference of State Legislatures to pass model legislation on the topic.

New laws on sex trafficking are bringing the problem to light, says Samantha Vardaman, senior director of Shared Hope International in Washington, D.C., which is compiling a report card of such laws. But the nation, she says, "has a long way to go."

Diane Loupe is a freelance writer based in Decatur, Ga. She has an M.A. in journalism from the University of Missouri and teaches writing and communication at the Interactive College of Technology in Chamblee, Ga.

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