Cyntoia Brown
December 5, 2017

Care about Cyntoia Brown? Stop normalizing “teenage prostitution.”

Cyntoia Brown was a 16-year-old sex trafficking victim, for all purposes invisible to society.

Her trafficker, Garion “Cut Throat” McGlothen, had coercive control over her life in August 2004 when she was picked up close to a Tennessee Sonic parking lot by 43-year-old Johnny Mitchell Allan.

Allan, a real estate agent, purchased Cynotia for sex that night according to court documents and multiple local reports.

That evening, Cynotia Brown shot and killed Johnny Allan when she claims she felt in fear for her life. She was tried and convicted as an adult of first degree murder and aggravated robbery for taking Allan’s wallet, and she received concurrent life sentences. There, one would have expected her to fade even further into the shadows.

But Ms. Brown did not remain invisible.

In 2011, PBS made a documentary about her case. Now, celebrities like RhiannaKim Kardashian, and others have re-sparked interest in Ms. Brown’s plight. They are expressing outrage that the criminal justice system would sentence a minor sex trafficking victim to life in prison for what they perceive as defensive actions against a sexual abuser.

As media attention swirls around Cynotia though, I feel compelled to reflect: how will her case impact sex trafficking victims across our country? The ones who are still invisible?

Ms. Brown’s case is not a single tragedy happening in a vacuum.

All around our country trafficked children are regularly arrested for crimes such as prostitution.

Why aren’t our juries and court systems appropriately recognizing sex trafficking victims?

One major reason is a broad lack of understanding in our society about teenage sex trafficking and the inherently exploitive nature of prostitution.

Many news outlets are referring to Ms. Brown as a “sex worker,” yet this is a complete misnomer.  Under U.S. federal law, anyone engaged in commercial sex who is under 18 years old is by law a sex trafficking victim.

Perhaps if she had been sexually assaulted by a school teacher or a doctor for Olympic athletes her exploitation would have been recognizable—at least to a few. But, Cynotia’s sexual abuse, contextualized within the world of commercial sex somehow morphed her experiences of serial rape into “sex work.”

The media is not alone in mischaracterizing this issue. Netflix is poised to normalize the sexual exploitation of girls just like Cynotia, as well as the idea of the sexy teenage “prostitute,” through its new show “Baby,” which is based on a real-life case of 14- and 15-year-old girls in the sex trade. Many individuals are taking action by emailing Netflix executives asking them to cancel production of this show.

This is being billed as a “coming of age” story, that’s “edgy” and about “defying social norms.” In reality, it’s an example of a mainstream corporation reinforcing societal misconceptions that lead to our #MeToo epidemic and trivialize sexual harassment, assault, and exploitation in all its forms—even the sex trafficking of minors.

When media giants normalize the idea of “teenage prostitution,” it becomes more difficult for law enforcement to convict the sex traffickers, pimps, and sex buyers who abuse them.

Case in point, one member of the Denver Police Department said,  “When I have a jury pool, and I am trying talk about this 17-year-old or 25-year-old that has been victimized, the jury pool thinks they want to be in it. Aren’t they putting themselves through college? They think they are making all this money and drinking champagne and driving in Bentleys.”

We must recognize that Cynotia was a sex trafficked child who underwent profound trauma. These experiences should be considered in the charging and sentencing of any trafficking victim, particularly a child victim.

The good news is that there is real hope that this case can bring a renewed focus to consider a sex trafficked person’s status in criminal cases. However, if we truly want judges and juries who can recognize victims, then it’s time for news outlets and mainstream entertainment to stop feeding into myths about commercial sexual exploitation.

Let Cynotia Brown’s tragic exploitation be a wakeup call to our court systems, and our news and entertainment outlets, to recognize victims and support survivors.

Haley Halverson

Vice President of Advocacy and Outreach

Haley Halverson is the Vice President of Advocacy and Outreach at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation where she develops and executes national campaigns to change policies and raise awareness. Haley regularly speaks and writes on topics including child sexual abuse, sex trafficking, prostitution, sexual objectification, the exploitation of males, and more. She has presented before officials at the United Nations, as well as at several national symposia before influencers from the Department of Justice, Department of Health and Human Services, and more. She is the host of the “Sexploitation?” podcast and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts at Johns Hopkins University.

Previously, Haley served for two years as Director of Communications for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation where she oversaw strategic messaging development, press outreach, email marketing, and social media marketing.

Prior to working at NCOSE, Haley wrote for Media Research Center. Haley graduated from Hillsdale College (summa cum laude) where she double majored in Politics and interdisciplinary religious studies, and conducted a senior thesis on the abolitionist argument regarding prostitution. During her studies, she studied abroad at Oxford University and established a background in policy research through several internship experiences in the DC area.

Haley has appeared on, or been quoted in, several outlets including the New York Post, USA Today, BBC News, Fox News, the Washington Post, Voice of America, Dr. Drew Midday Live, The DeMaio Report, the New York Daily News, USA Radio Network, the Washington Times, CBC News, The Rod Arquette Show, the Christian Post, Lifeline with Neil Boron, EWTN News Nightly, KCBS San Francisco Radio, LifeSiteNews, The Drew Mariano Show on Relevant Radio, News Talk KGVO, and American Family News.

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