That time California legalized child prostitution

One of the stranger food fights in the Twittersphere this week erupted over a story which indicated that California had legalized child prostitution. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve seen the Golden State pass all sorts of measures that left me picking my jaw up off the floor, but this one sounded a tad bit outlandish even for them. Still, it was worth a look so I checked in with our RedState colleague Susan Wright. She was referencing a report on the new legislation going into effect in 2017 which showed up at the Washington Examiner.

SB 1322 bars law enforcement from arresting sex workers who are under the age of 18 for soliciting or engaging in prostitution, or loitering with the intent to do so. So teenage girls (and boys) in California will soon be free to have sex in exchange for money without fear of arrest or prosecution.

Basically, the bill aims to keep sex trafficking illegal. Pimps can still be prosecuted, but if an 11-year old girl is caught prostituting, and says she’s doing what she’s doing of her own free will, no problem.

So what if the child is so afraid of what their pimp will do that they refuse to give him up or say they’re being exploited?

That happens far too often in cases of sex trafficking and the exploitation of children. This bill makes it very easy for pimps and traffickers to not only thrive in their sick business, but encourages them to seek out more children to victimize.

Wow. That actually sounds pretty bad. Could it be true? Looking at the summary of the bill it certainly sounds like it. But trust the liberal wing to Libsplain it all away. Gianluca Mezzofiore at Mashable rushed to the defense of California Democrats and insisted that of course they hadn’t legalized child prostitution. I mean, that would just be crazy, right? Let’s check in and see how Gianluca explains what must obviously be a horrible misunderstanding. First he identifies the crazy right wingers who started this “rumor” in the first place, noting how insane the idea is.

A rumour that prostitution by minors will be legal in California from January has caused quite a stir on right-wing Twitter.

However the rumour relies on a shaky understanding of a law approved back in September by California (Dem.) Governor Jerry Brown…

The news spread on Twitter, with GOP accounts, conspiracy theorists, “deplorables,” right-wing pundits, so-called “alt-right” personalities, and journalists expressing their indignation:

Our intrepid interpreter then goes on to set the record straight, explaining “what the legislation actually says.” (Emphasis added)

So here’s the thing…. Gov. Jerry Brown did approve legislation that decriminalises prostitution in the case of minors. In other words, it bans police from charging people under 18 with prostitution.

He also signed bills allowing people to defend themselves against additional criminal charges if they were coerced into committing an offence.

Mezzofiore actually does have a branch to cling to here, but it’s a thin and shaky one. What we’re talking about is the difference between legalization and decriminalization. The former basically wipes some activity off the books and places it outside the sphere of interest for law enforcement. The latter leaves the action in the realm of things which are “technically” against the law, but for which the actor in question will face no legal consequences. That, of course, makes it “legal” in the eyes of anyone who wants to do it so the difference is subtle at best.

The odd aspect of this rather pointless debate is that what California is trying (in their own way) to do isn’t entirely misguided. Prosecuting minors for prostitution and treating them like criminals is, if anything, even more problematic than prosecuting adults who engage in prostitution. When adults do this of their own free will, my libertarian brain tells me that it’s a victimless crime and the state should butt out. It’s the people who force women into such roles who are the real perpetrators of criminal activity and those would still be subject to prosecution under California law. Of course, when we’re talking about children there are so many more factors which make the situation awful. When a child winds up on the streets selling her body to strangers, something has gone horribly, horribly wrong. (Not to mention the outrage of pedophiles being allowed to prey upon them.)

But I can also see what Susan is saying in her response piece. Decriminalizing the act absolutely makes it all the easier for predators to victimize helpless children as she describes. This is a seemingly intractable problem and I’m not sure what the best answer would be. It might start with a more aggressive and well funded program to take such underage prostitutes off the streets and into some sort of long term shelter (rather than jail or juvenile detention) and find a way to assure them that their cooperation in apprehending their abusers who put them on the streets won’t result in retribution from the criminals they’re caught up with.

In the end, it’s hard to see how that California bill will do much to actually help at risk children. And yes, it basically “legalizes” child prostitution in all but name. The real travesty here isn’t how the bill is being described, but the underlying horror show which prompted the law in the first place.