On January 7th, social media was in an uproar. Cyntoia Brown, the woman whose case went viral in 2017, was granted clemency. She is set to walk free on August 7, 2019.
The news arrived just a month after Tennessee’s Supreme Court ruled Brown was to serve out the remainder of her 51-year sentence. To understand the response to this news, it’s essential to understand the events that played out nearly 15 years ago.
On August 5, 2004, a 16-year-old Cyntoia Brown met Johnny Allen, who would solicit her for sex. He was a 43-year-old man who had an obsession with firearms.
In the 2011 documentary, “Me Facing Life: Cyntoia’s Story,” Brown recalled the events of that night. She talks about Allen’s incessant desire to show off his rifle collection, as well as, his strange and jumpy behavior throughout the night. It was that behavior that made Brown alleges she was in trouble. Nobody knew where she had been, and if she were harmed, no one would ever know. That night, when Allen reached over the side of the bed, allegedly appearing to reach for a weapon, Brown says she acted immediately out of self-defense.
And yet, despite Brown being a minor forced into sex trafficking, she was tried as an adult and given two concurrent life sentences.
Thirteen years later, Brown’s case would go on to spark anger and catch the attention of celebrities, like Kim Kardashian and Rihanna, who saw a teen put behind bars for simply acting in self-defense. Today, that message cuts deeper than ever. We live in a world where rapists like Brock Turner only face three months behind bars, while survivors like Brown receive harsh treatment from an abhorrently unfair justice system.
Of course, there is something positive to note from Brown’s case. Since 2004, laws in Tennessee have changed dramatically. Today, children under the age of 18 can no longer be tried for prostitution. And state Rep. London Lamar is currently working on sponsoring legislation to close a criminal justice “loophole” for children accused of violence during the act of prostitution.
On top of that, organizations exist to help survivors. There’s the Young Women’s Empowerment Project, the Polaris Project, and the #GirlsToo movement with Girls, Inc., which is working to “shift the deeply entrenched norms that lead to sexual harassment and violence in our society.”
In the wake of Brown’s case and the work to change legislation, it’s important to remember that there’s no perfect victim.
Writers Mariame Kaba and Brit Schulte warned in their 2017 piece published on The Appeal that we must not attempt to make a perfect victim out of Cyntoia Brown. They urged advocates to avoid euphemizing her story because doing so “avoids the complexity of her experience.”
Every person, child or adult, woman or man, involved in sex trade deserves justice. By “euphemizing” Brown’s story, it allows folks to treat Brown as somehow more deserving of justice when compared to the thousands of other women whose stories remain unheard by the nation. Those who continue to face injustice.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline’s Data found over 5,000 cases of human trafficking in 2018 alone. That number doesn’t include unreported cases.
That number is too important to forget. It shows that the fight to defend victims of the sex trade is far from over. It’s time we start prosecuting those committing the acts of sexual abuse rather than go after the victims caught up in the system. It’s up to us to turn the tides of history and make our justice system work for women and to ensure Cyntoia Brown is not the last woman to get justice.