THE crime bill that passed last month in the House of Representatives includes some important provisions that would strike a powerful blow against the growing international child-sex trade.
The new measures would make it a felony for any United States citizen traveling abroad to engage in sexual acts with a minor that are illegal in the US, and would strengthen barriers raised against international trafficking in child pornography.
But new laws, if enacted, are just the first step. Americans should be outraged about the operation of tours that provide an opening for US citizens to patronize the child sex industry. The companies and individuals who take part should be held accountable. In an era of 1-900 numbers, shifting legal boundaries of what is considered ``pornography,'' and debate over the morality of different sexual relations and practices, the US must make it absolutely clear that involvement in the abuse and exploitation of children is not just another ``legitimate sexual choice.''
The number of children involved in the sex industry, in the US and abroad, is shocking: Children's advocacy groups estimate 100,000 in both the Philippines and Taiwan; 200,000 to 300,000 in Thailand; 300,000 to 400,000 in India; 40,000 in Vietnam; 30,000 in Sri Lanka; and 25,000 in Brazil's Amazon mining camps.
In testimony before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus we hear that these children often come from poor families in remote rural areas or urban slums.
Some are sold into the sex trade by their families. Others are kidnapped or lured by traffickers with offers of domestic work or other employment. They often find themselves in foreign lands, without money, unable to speak the language, with no way out.
A majority of child prostitution is run for domestic markets. But there is also organized international tourism from countries like the US, Germany, Australia, and Japan aimed at exploiting child prostitution.
Many agencies in the US organize sex tours, serving thousands of customers a year, with package deals including airline, hotel, food, and transportation. Customers may choose an ``escort'' for the duration of their tour, change ``companions'' from day to day, or simply follow the recommendations of their tour agency about local brothels to patronize.
It is outrageous that US citizens can travel abroad and exploit and abuse minors in a way that is illegal in the US - and that US agencies can organize and advertise such travel.
Some countries have a lower age of ``consent'' for minors; others have lax prostitution laws. But sex with children is harmful and immoral, regardless of local laws. US citizens and tour agencies should not be allowed to fuel an international industry that results in widespread physical and psychological abuse of children - abuse that can last a lifetime.
US criminal law already bans the transport of a minor within the US for the purpose of prostitution or abusive sexual practices.
The new provisions of the crime bill - based on legislation that I introduced with Reps. Jim Ramstad (R) of Minnesota and Thomas Bliley Jr. (R) of Virginia and championed in the Senate by Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa - would extend this provision to US citizens who travel or conspire to travel in foreign commerce for the purpose of sexual acts with minors.
Similar efforts are now under way in Germany, France, Australia, Japan, and other ``consumer'' countries in the international sex trade. Cracking down on the US contribution to this trade is not only the right thing to do, it also puts the US in a stronger position to press countries that host a sex-tourism industry to start cleaning up their act. The momentum for action has been accelerated by a growing network of religious and human rights organizations attempting to expose the trade and assist its victims. The most visible network, the campaign to End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism (ECPAT) was founded in 1990. It now has offices in 26 countries.
Additionally, our legislation would make it a felony under US law for any person outside of the US to produce or traffic in child pornography, with the intent that those materials be imported into the US. Tens of thousands of children around the world are victimized in this trade, which often is conducted by individuals and agencies that also are involved in child-sex tourism.
Finally, our legislation also urges states in this country to enact legislation that prohibits the production, distribution, or possession of child pornography.
These new laws could be an essential first step in eliminating the scourge of traffic in child pornography and international tourism for sex with minors. For the sake of those children, we must take it upon ourselves to take the next step across our nation by investigating and denouncing these practices and ensuring that they be brought to an end.