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 Cyntoia 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 Cyntoia 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 Cyntoia 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 McNamara (Halverson)

Vice President and Director of the International Centre on Sexual Exploitation

Haley McNamara (formerly Halverson) is the Director of the International Centre on Sexual Exploitation in the UK, and a Vice President at the U.S. based National Center on Sexual Exploitation. She leads international efforts and joint campaigns to improve policies and education among global governing bodies, citizenry, and corporations regarding the full web of sexual exploitation issues. Her advocacy work has contributed to policy improvements in social media, online advertising, retail, and hotel industries. She has advocated at the United Nations, led international coalition campaigns, presented to Danish, Croatian, Colombian and Rwandan government officials, and more

She is a former member of the Washington DC Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect. This Committee advises DC Mayor Muriel Bowser on the multi-faceted continuum of the District of Columbia’s child welfare services, including prevention, early intervention, treatment, and sources of permanency.

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, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Croatian government officials. She has provided training to Arlington County Child & Family Services on the social media grooming, recruitment, and advertising for sex trafficking. She has a Master of Arts in Government from Johns Hopkins University where she received honors for her thesis regarding the online commercial sexual exploitation marketplace.

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 a cultural media outlet. Haley graduated from Hillsdale College (summa cum laude) with a double major, 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 internships in the DC area.

Haley has appeared on, or been quoted in, several outlets including the New York Times, NBC’s The Today Show, BBC News, New York Post, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, Fox News, San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post, Yahoo News, Voice of America, Dr. Drew Midday Live, The DeMaio Report, the New York Daily News, the Washington Examiner, USA Radio Network, the Washington Times, CBC News, The Rod Arquette Show, The Detroit News, Lifezette, 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.

She has written op-eds for the Washington Post, the Huffington Post,, Washington Examiner,, Darling Magazine, the Daytona-Beach News Journal, and has been published in the Journal of Internet Law and the journal Dignity: A Journal on Sexual Exploitation and ViolenceShe has also contributed to a digital middle school curriculum regarding the links between sex trafficking and pornography as well as the public health impacts of sex trafficking.

Further Reading