Demanding Justice for Cyntoia Brown and All Victims of Commercial Sexual Exploitation

Cherise Charleswell | Women's Issues | Commentary | January 2nd, 2019

I currently work as a Director at an agency that has been providing direct services to victims of human sex trafficking/commercial sexual exploitation since 1980. These over-35 years of operation are quite significant, and I will get into the reasons why later. What I will not be addressing in this article is sex workers/sex worker's rights, but the two topics should not be conflated. One group has agency over their bodies and decides upon who, where, when, and what they will do with their bodies. And not all sex workers have an expectation of being penetrated, and certainly not on an hourly basis, or to the point that they would later suffer infection and/or trauma to their reproductive organs, and possible infertility.

Sex workers are not treated as property, and are not branded on their legs, arms, breasts, and faces with the names and "logos" of their exploiter/trafficker. Sex workers are not the victims of socioeconomic circumstances, rape, coercion, manipulation, kidnapping, or threats. And it is truly time for society to stop acting like these two very separate groups are the same. As if they all have lives that play out like the glamorous, rags-to-riches scenes in the 1990 film Pretty Woman. That is simply not the reality, and it leads to judgment and misconceptions about those who truly are victims. They are deemed to be hypersexual, and are believed to enjoy what they are doing. When the reality is that many have been in "The Life" since they were children (the average entry age for sex trafficking in the United States is 11-14 years) and have no family support, little education or professional experience, and face barriers due to arrests records; and thus do not know a way out. They may be suffering from trauma-induced mental illness, or may be using illicit drugs as a coping method.

Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA)

I mentioned that there was something profound about an agency providing support and advocacy services to "victims" of commercial sexual exploitation as far back as 1980, and this is because that date far precedes any changes in legislation, and certainly attitudes. In fact, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) wasn't enacted until decades later, in 2000. This legislation provides the following definition for a victim of trafficking: "a person recruited through the use of force, fraud, coercion, or manipulation to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act".

Having worked closely with this population I often point out that the TVPA needs to be amended to account for the "victims of circumstance."

In simplest terms, sex trafficking/commercial sexual exploitation involves the "Exploitation of Vulnerabilities," and we all have vulnerabilities that serve as risk factors. Those having the greater number of vulnerabilities are most likely to fall victim to this public health and human rights epidemic. Cyntoia Brown was no different - her history and vulnerabilities led her to being a victim of sex trafficking.

So, what are these vulnerabilities?

These vulnerabilities vary greatly and can be cultural, social, and even psychological in nature. They include poverty, disability, being a LGBTQ youth, current or former foster youth, having low self esteem, being a victim of or having a family history of domestic violence, homelessness, and living in a gang-infested neighborhood.

Girls/women of color, like Cyntoia Brown, and Black women/girls particularly have a disproportionate burden of commercial sexual exploitation, and this is due to their high volume of vulnerabilities, historical stereotypes (oversexed jezebels), and attitudes.

What do these disparities look like?

Consider these statistics, because they speak for themselves:

• In 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice reported that African American children make up 52% of all juvenile prostitution arrests.

• In 2012, a Los Angeles-based report indicated that "92 percent of identified CSEC (Commercially sexually exploited children) in the juvenile justice system were African-American girls."

• A Los Angeles Juvenile Court found that over 75 percent of the sex trafficked girls in the program were involved in the child welfare system."

• People of African descent make up 9% of Los Angeles County, yet they account for 30-40% of the victims of sexual exploitation.

Understanding Cyntoia's Case

In August 2004, at the age of 16, while a victim of child sex trafficking, Cyntoia killed a man (a pedophile who just paid a pimp to have sex with an underage girl), who she feared would kill her. His murder was an act of self defense carried out by a commercially sexually exploited child (CSEC) victim who was a ward of the foster system. Cyntoia was a Black disabled girl who was experiencing extreme physical and sexual abuse.

If you consider the "vulnerabilities" that I previously mentioned, Cyntoia was a perfect victim for sex trafficking. Her vulnerabilities/risk factors for trafficking included: Being a black girl, being a foster youth, being disabled, living in poverty, and having a history of family dysfunction/disruption. Despite this, the State of Tennessee has chosen not to side with the victim and protect the vulnerable.

In August 2006, Cyntoia was subsequently tried as an adult and sent to jail for first-degree murder and robbery without possibility for parole for 51 years. In 2011, the film "Me Facing Life: Cyntoia's Story" was released to tell the story of Cyntoia's case. Since this time, the State of Tennessee changed its legislation so that juveniles can no longer be sentenced to life in prison without parole.

On May 23, 2018, after serving 14 years, Cyntoia requested a second chance and the Tennessee parole board denied her request. On December 6, 2018, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that she would have to serve the full 51 years to be eligible for parole. The Court stated that under state law, a life sentence is 60 years and because the sentence is for 51 years, it is technically not a "life sentence" and can stand.

Finally, after initial petitions and calls for justice, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam agreed to review Cyntoia's case and consider granting clemency. However, on Thursday December 20 the Governor did not include Cyntonia on his list of 11 individuals who were granted clemency. The Governor leaves his position on January 19, 2019.

Moral and Unjust

What initially stood out to me when I heard about Cyntoia's incarceration and trial was that it was a great miscarriage of justice, and shows not only the continued failure of the criminal justice system in the United States, but also the problem of a lack of awareness about the sex trafficking/commercial sexual exploitation epidemic in this country.

When speaking with various groups about this epidemic, I always point to this problem and its ramifications. In this case, having an informed juror pool, arresting officers, elected officials, etc. would mean that they would understand that their judgment and decision would essentially be re-victimizing a victim. They would have realized that there was more involved in this case than self defense, and that they were making a ruling that sided with the Exploiter (john), pedophile, captor, and rapist. That they were making a ruling against someone who was a minor, and thus couldn't even consent to sex; and this meant that she was being raped repeatedly by various exploiters day-after-day. How long should she have been expected to endure this? How long will we in society sit quietly and allow this to happen?

With this understanding, and framing the circumstances of the case in this manner, there should be no reason why Cyntoia was even charged, or remains incarcerated today. A traumatized, physically- and sexually-abused minor should never have been arrested and even prosecuted for bringing an end to the nightmare that they had been subjected to. The case is even more problematic when you consider the fact that we allow states to have "Stand Your Ground" laws, and it is even deemed acceptable for those trespassing in another's home to be shot and killed in the process. In these cases we side with the perceived "victim" and their need for defense. Yet, somehow we are allowing a young woman, who killed a man who set out to trespass not in her home, but something more important -- her body, causing emotional harm in the process, to remain locked up. Rather than granting a victim of what has been referred to as "modern day slavery," freedom. What part of any of this makes sense?

Being one of, if not the most progressive state, California actually enacted SB1322 in January 2017, and it basically states that there is " No such thing as a child prostitute." In short, that minors are not able to legally consent to sex, and thus should not be arrested for prostitution and related charges. The legislation also meant that we would truly look at these minors as victims, rather than criminals. This is a policy that the state of Tennessee, as well as other states in the union, needs to adopt.

Take Action

There are a number of things that can be done to bring necessary attention to Cyntoia's case and to help victims of sex trafficking/commercial sexual exploitation. They include, but are not limited to:

• Simply share this article as a means of helping to raise awareness about the case, the epidemic of commercial sexual exploitation, and the many misconceptions that society continues to hold about the "victims." The goal should be "building empathy" and removing stigma, so people will feel the need to act.

• Send Cyntoia a letter of support or even money to assist with her defense. Send funds to: #00410593.

While letters can be sent to:

Cyntoia Brown


Tennessee Prison for Women

2 North, B49

3881 Stewarts Lane

Nashville, TN 37218

• Join the "Second Chance" Jagged Justice Call for Cyntoia Brown being held by the Women of Color Network, Inc. on Monday January 7, 2018 from 5PM to 7PM (EST). Co-sponsors for this Call include: Minnesota Indian Women's Sexual Assault Coalition, National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, Marissa Alexander Justice Project, and MACOSH Healing Network. You can register for the Call at:

• Sign petitions in support of granting Cyntoia clemency or another trial.

• Send letters to the Governor of Tennessee and contact Tennessee legislators who can also put pressure on the Governor to do the right thing.

• Begin to have candid conversations with your friends and family members about sex trafficking and the harm that it causes victims across the lifespan. This is important, because exploiters do not fit a singular profile. Your friend, cousin, brother, father, pastor, lawyer, optometrist, personal trainer, professor - may actually be exploiters, who pay traffickers to engage in sex acts with victims, and it is likely that they do not understand the full scope of the violence that they are participating in.

• Contact your local legislators and demand that they fund intervention services for victims of sex trafficking/commercial sexual exploitation, as well as put forth greater penalties for Exploiters (johns and pimps/traffickers). These tougher laws and increase sentences could serve as a deterrent that could help stop mitigate the epidemic. Currently one will do more time for the sale of drugs or weapons, than the sale of human beings.

• And for goodness sake, STOP glorifying pimps! Realize that they are criminals, predators, and morally-bankrupt individuals with the potential to unleash violence on their victims.

If you suspect that someone is a victim of human sex trafficking, you can contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline to report this by calling 1-888-373-7888, texting HELP to BEFREE (233733) or emailing