There are some issues that have great moral clarity--black and white, good and evil--and yet get ignored by nearly everyone. Worldwide child prostitution is such an issue. It is wrong--no ifs or qualifications, and yet every year tourists from the United States travel abroad for the very purpose of having sex with a child.
Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times has done a great job of trying to focus attention on this issue. today, Michael Gerson has a great column about how progress is finally being made in combating this sex tourism:
One sexual predator, when interviewed by the FBI, described his experience with foreign child prostitutes this way: "It's like being a star. They want to try my food. They want to see what clothes I wear. They want to watch my television." Such "stars" are the global consumers of innocence, exercising a particularly brutal form of power over the poorest, most vulnerable children on Earth.
Another predator told the FBI that he shouldn't be prosecuted because the girls he used were professionals. In his case, they ranged from 13 to 15 years old. Other transactions involve boys younger than 10. These "professionals" are often recruited by kidnapping or deception. With two or three "customers" a night, they suffer lasting physical damage and become particularly susceptible to venereal disease. They often end their lives as social outcasts, addicted to drugs and alcohol.
The language of commerce -- "professionals" serving "customers" -- is misapplied to violent child abuse.
Until recently, according to Joe Mettimano of World Vision, child sex tourism resulted in "less than a handful of arrests, and fewer convictions." Nations such as Thailand, Cambodia, Costa Rica, Mexico and Brazil were reluctant to admit and confront an embarrassing problem -- a kind of national venereal disease. And these crimes are inherently difficult to prosecute here at home, depending on the testimony of frightened children and evidence gathered in foreign countries.
But since 2003, Mettimano says, there has been "real progress" in ending this impunity -- more than 50 indictments in America for child sex tourism, resulting in over 35 convictions. He praises the Justice Department and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for their aggressiveness. And he credits Thailand, Cambodia and Costa Rica with "at least making an effort" to oppose child prostitution.
Gerson notes--quite correctly--that religous activism on this issue (largely by conservative Evangelicals in an odd coaltion with feminists) made a big diference here, and notes that this is not the first time that religious activism has successfully challenged child prostitution:
For several years conservative Christians have been at the forefront of the campaign against modern slavery, working closely with traditionally liberal human rights groups. Support for human trafficking legislation in 2000 included the unlikely pair of Chuck Colson and Gloria Steinem. This kind of alliance is potent because it communicates a broad national commitment.
These efforts are not unprecedented, and neither is the issue of child prostitution. A House of Lords report in Victorian England found that "juvenile prostitution from an almost incredibly early age is increasing to an appalling extent." In 1885, a crusading editor of the Pall Mall Gazette set out to demonstrate that children could be readily bought and sold in London. He managed to purchase a 13-year-old girl named Elizabeth Armstrong from her mother for 3 pounds sterling on delivery and 2 pounds more when her virginity was confirmed.
The story about Armstrong -- headlined "The maiden tribute of modern Babylon" -- sold a million newspapers in a week and ignited a national scandal. The Salvation Army opened houses of refuge for prostitutes and sent out Midnight Rescue Brigades to counsel young streetwalkers. And the British Parliament quickly increased the age of consent from 13 to 16.