Anti-Prostitution Laws are Hurting Juveniles


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The movement to decriminalize sex work has been pushed by sex workers for decades and has gained national popularity in criminal justice discussions. Decriminalizing sex work would halt arrests and charges for prostitution. While this may not seem like a juvenile justice issue, there is a small but significant group who have been impacted by anti sex work laws: juveniles arrested for prostitution.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act defines sex trafficking as recruiting, patronizing, or otherwise causing a person under 18 years old to participate in a commercial sex act.[1] Most states have statutory rape laws which state a person under a certain age cannot consent to sex with an adult. In Texas, for example, an adult cannot engage in sexual contact with a person under 17 years old.[2] These laws indicate a general consensus that minors cannot consent to sex work or sex with adults. If that is the case, the 290 children aged 0-17 who were arrested in 2019 for prostitution should have been treated as victims instead of criminals.[3]

The interception of child trafficking victims and criminal prostitution laws can be seen in the 2010 Texas case In re B.W. This case involved a 13 year old girl who was arrested for prostitution in Texas.[4] The offense was filed in adult criminal court, where it was discovered the arrestee was a child. [5] The prostitution charge was then dismissed, but B.W.’s involvement with the justice system was not over. The charges were transferred to juvenile court, where B.W. pleaded true to the allegation, which is the equivalent of pleading guilty in adult court, and was sentenced to 18 months probation.[6]

On appeal, the Supreme Court of Texas ruled that because the legislature has determined children under 14 do not have the mental capacity to consent to sex with anyone, they are exempt from prostitution charges. [7] This was a win for B.W. and child sex trafficking victims all over Texas, but the impact of criminalization was already felt. B.W. had already been subjected to arrest and booking in adult court. In re B.W. protects juveniles who are 14 or younger, but leaves other teenagers in Texas age 15-16 vulnerable to prostitution charges and arrests. There is not clear data on how many 15 and 16 year olds have been arrested for prostitution in Texas since In re B.W., but Texas makes up part of the 290 total arrests, indicating there have been some. Not all arrests lead to charges, but all arrests traumatize the children who are subject to them.

The effects of arrest on juveniles cannot be taken lightly. Youth who have been arrested are much less likely than their peers to graduate high school or enroll in college.[8] A child who is arrested and is then confined at a juvenile detention facility is virtually guaranteed to not finish their high school education.[9] Young people without a high school degree will face more difficulties finding stability and employment.[10] High school dropouts may face an increased risk of grooming by sex traffickers because they are not around teachers who recognize the signs and can refer the student to school counseling or other services.

Criminalization of sex work is causing lifelong effects in vulnerable juveniles. While full decriminalization of sex work may not be popular in every state, laws preventing minors from being charged with prostitution would go a long way in protecting the country’s youth.


[1] 18 U.S.C. § 1591
[2] Tex. Penal Code §21.11
[3] Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, https://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/crime/ucr.asp?table_in=1
[4] In re B.W., 313 S.W.3d 818
[5]Id.
[6] ​​Id.
[7] Id.
[8] David S. Kirk & Robert J. Sampson, Juvenile Arrest and Collateral Education Damage in the Transition to Adulthood, 36, 47 (American Psychological Association 2013).
[9] Id at 55
[10] Id.

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