Co-authored by Neil Irvin, Executive Director, Men Can Stop Rape
Recently, the Metropolitan Police Department began using social media to help publicize information about individuals who go missing in the District of Columbia. As a result, there has been growing attention surrounding the number of children, particularly Black and Latinx girls, who have gone missing. In response to community outcry, the Mayor has launched a task force designed to address the needs of runaway youth, and to commit resources to support organizations serving vulnerable children in the District.
For those of us who work with and on issues impacting marginalized children every day, the increased attention on vulnerable girls, especially girls of color, has been a double-edged sword. While this newfound attention has certainly placed the safety of traditionally marginalized youth at the center of people’s focus, the tropes, myths, and misunderstandings about girls of color and the communities they come from has permeated the public narrative surrounding the missing children in D.C. For us, the narrative has never been that our girls were missing— it has been that our girls are being disappeared.
For girls of color, girls who experience and witness violence, girls in the child welfare or juvenile justice systems, and LBT/GNC girls, there are few spaces where they can be safe and free. Girls of color, particularly Black girls, are pushed out of school through suspensions, expulsions, and unfair disciplinary practices as a result of stereotypes and implicit racial and gender biases. Girls in the child welfare system often experience abuse, neglect, and sexual violence at the hands of foster care providers who are charged with their protection. Girls of color and LBT/GNC girls are also more likely to be funneled through an “Abuse to Prison Pipeline” that criminalizes them for suffering violence rather than understanding their behavior as a response to layered and complex trauma. We cannot talk about missing girls without talking about the conditions that render our girls unsafe in their homes, their schools, and their communities.
As advocates and providers who work to end gender-based violence, we cringe when we read news reports that suggest that girls who are “chronic runaways” or who “voluntarily” leave their homes are somehow less deserving of empathy and compassion than girls who are kidnapped. In our work, we know that when girls run, they are often running from something or running to something. Many girls run away from home because they are experiencing abuse, they are unwelcome, or they are running to meet basic needs denied them due to poverty or neglect. Girls in the child welfare system often run to escape group homes or foster care placements that are violent or unsafe. Victims of domestic child sex trafficking often run because they are threatened or under the psychological control of a trafficker. For girls, running away has become a form of self-preservation and a natural response to coping with situations of abuse or trauma.
These false distinctions between youth who seemingly run voluntarily versus those who are kidnapped trivialize and erase the extraordinary violence so many of these children have experienced. Where the narrative has also been remiss is in addressing the demand for commercial sex that renders girls and runaway and homeless youth exceptionally vulnerable to sexual exploitation and trafficking. As Phylicia Henry of Courtney’s House, a local, survivor-led anti-trafficking provider stated at a recent town hall, “If we are going to do something about missing children and sex trafficking in D.C., we have to go after demand. The reality is that there are men who want to buy sex from children.”
Despite the fact that there is no such thing as a “child prostitute” because children cannot legally consent to sex, too many states fail to recognize exploited children as victims of trafficking. It’s also critical to note that child sex trafficking can occur in the absence of a trafficker or other third-party exploiter. Under federal law, any child engaged in a sexual act in exchange for anything of value is a victim of human trafficking—that includes runaway or homeless youth who trade sex with adults for basic needs like food or shelter. Our collective failure to recognize these children as survivors of exploitation and trafficking means that they are denied opportunities for healing and that their abusers are shielded from accountability for what would in any other case constitute statutory rape or child abuse.
If we are truly going to “find our girls” and prevent them from going missing in the first place, we have to first examine our own complicity in tolerating a world where our girls are not safe. This violent reality is an opportunity for all men to take steps in their daily lives to end the demand and culture that promotes and sanctions the normalization of buying children’s bodies for sex. It is an opportunity to role model in all aspects of men’s lives healthy masculinity’s requirement that they do not tolerate the actions and attitudes of men who desire buying girls for sex. If men are accountable for wanting to stop demand, they must admit their role in sanctioning it. Do they, for example, ignore what they know other men do and say? Are they quiet when men openly discuss girls’ and women's bodies? Do they view the conversation from a distance because they believe that the girls in their lives would never become victims of these crimes? All men must raise awareness that this violence against girls is unacceptable. All men can become involved in ways that make sense to them in their everyday lives.
In addition to these steps, we must promote efforts to find all missing youth, not merely ones that are deemed worthy. We must prioritize our most vulnerable communities and families as well as the safety of children impacted by violence in the home and in our community. And we must hold accountable those who seek to prey on our most vulnerable children. As author and activist Monique Morris states, “Our girls are sacred, and they are loved.” If we believe that, then we must work to create a world where girls who have consistently been pushed to the margins are placed at the center, and where every girl knows that she is truly valued, safe, and loved.