Underage Girls Arrested in Florida ‘Human Trafficking’ Sting

Two 17-year-old girls were arrested as part of a “human trafficking” operation in Volusia County, Florida, an area on the state’s east coast that includes Daytona Beach.

The arrests highlight how policies billed as helping people forced or coerced into prostitution may wind up harming the very communities cops say they’re trying to help. The operation also showcases how sex trafficking stings often serve as a general dragnet for petty offenses.

In this case, 18 people were arrested as part of the sting conducted by the Volusia Sheriff’s Office (VSO), with prostitution, drug possession, and probation violations charges. “A Cape Coral man spotted dropping off two female defendants at the scene of the undercover operation was charged with violation of probation for breaking his court-ordered curfew,” release according to a VSO press. “A New Smyrna Beach man on probation with a special condition restricting him from bars was arrested after detectives saw him leave a bar with a woman in the passenger seat of his truck.”

In addition, a 27-year-old man was charged with child neglect and contributing to the delinquency of a minor after allegedly renting a hotel room for two 17-year-old girls to sell sex in and lend them a relative’s vehicle.

The two girls were also arrested in the sting, which was conducted with assistance from the Internet Crimes Against Children task force (a fed-led initiative funded by the Department of Justice).

Investigators determined that “what they were doing was prostitution—they were doing it willingly,” Sheriff Michael J. Chitwood said at a news conference. “These two young ladies are doing their own advertising on adult websites.”

This discovery “triggered a human trafficking investigation” but “that investigation did not yield that it was human trafficking because they both went to great lengths and showed us things that they’re doing this because they want to do it, they’re not doing it because they were forced to do it,” Chitwood said.

“One of .” [the girls] had an outstanding warrant for her arrest” and was taken to a juvenile justice center, while the other “was returned to her father,” the sheriff added.

Neither girl was ultimately charged with prostitution, a spokesperson with the Volusia Sheriff’s Office tells Reason.

But even though no charges were brought against the teens, that doesn’t mean the experience was harmless. Being subject to a sting operation and an arrest can be frightening or a traumatic experience, subjecting people to potential police abuse or harassment and potential jail time.

Alas, Volusia law enforcement isn’t alone in arresting minors in prostitution stings before discovering they are underage. It’s one more reason to doubt that the police sting method of stopping sexual exploitation is the best one.

That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for minors to be selling sex. But the idea that they need armed law enforcement agents to literally swoop in and rescue them stems from misconceptions about sex trafficking.

Research suggests most teenagers selling sex do not have a “pimp” or “trafficker,” and if they do it’s likely to be someone they know, such as a family member or a romantic partner. Many are runaways. Many are gay or transgender. What these kids need is not handcuffs but support—material, financial, emotional.

Which brings us to the sheriff’s contention that the two 17-year-olds in this case were acting voluntarily. It’s one of a number of things that makes the publicity around this sting odd.

It’s rare for police departments to admit that they arrest teenagers for prostitution in the first place (though FBI crime data shows that it does still happen). And authorities almost never acknowledge that teenagers may sell sex for myriad reasons, not only because they’ve been abducted and forced into it. Public statements will describe teenagers selling sex as children who have been “rescued,” out any further context.

So it’s actually somewhat refreshing to see the sheriff in this case be open about what really went down (the teens were arrested) and not try to overplay the heroics by insisting that his office saved children from sex trafficking.

It’s also refreshing to see the sheriff avoid immediately labeling the man who rented the hotel room as a sex trafficker. In many prostitution sting operations, authorities will label anyone who facilitates prostitution as human trafficker, even if the person selling sex is an adult and especially if they are not.

And yet… the involvement of the older man here calls into question the idea that this was just two teens acting on their own. Again, I wonder if myths about sex trafficking are at play.

If one buys the cinematic narrative about sex trafficking—that victims are abducted, tied up, beaten into submission, etc.—then two 17-year-olds posting ads for themselves and traveling around independently don’t fit the bill. But that doesn’t exclude less dramatic forms of exploitation or coercion being present. I hope the police in this case actually did a thorough job of investigating this possibility, instead of simply assuming that because these girls exhibited some independence that everything is OK.

It’s a weird line to walk—acknowledging that teens selling sex can have agency while also recognizing that many who do are subject to more subtle forms of coercion or control.

I don’t presume to know exactly what’s really going on in this case. But I do think it’s a perfect example of how the victim/criminal dichotomy we so often rely on in talking about sex trafficking fails, and of the failures inherent in a sting-based response to this issue in general. The sting in Volusia County saddled a number of adult men and women with criminal charges simply for trying to have consensual sex; it ended up with one teenage girl locked up after selling sex (even if that’s not specifically what she was locked up for) and another simply returned home with no services whatsoever. Who exactly was helped here?

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