Content warning: This piece contains general discussion of child sexual abuse.
Reading about the plight of Latesha Clay, the child in Grand Rapids, MI sentenced to nine years in prison after being used as live bait in a robbery scheme, the thing that struck me was the use of the word “victim.” Of course, referring to Latesha Clay as a victim of human trafficking and the rampant racism of the criminal justice system makes sense. However, in this case, the 15-year-old mother is being painted as a villain. Every time I’ve seen the word “victim” used in relation to Latesha Clay, it’s been used to describe the men who responded to her Backpage ad, which featured the words “teen sex.”
To give you a quick rundown, in case you haven’t been exposed to this case in the media (and how could you have been? Almost all the coverage on it features the same news story that ran last October on a local crime blotter), Latesha Clay was used by two older teenagers, Trayvin Donnell Lewis, 18, and Monee Duepre Atkinson, 17, to lure men to their motel room. Both Lewis and Atkinson await criminal convictions, and like Clay, have both been charged as adults, though legally only Lewis is no longer a minor. Charging Black children as adults for crimes less severe than their white juvenile counterparts have committed is nothing new, but it is especially disheartening in the case of Clay, who, at 15, is a long ways off from adulthood.
Mlive, the website that initially ran her story, asserts that a man came to a hotel room expecting to have sex with a teenager. Upon arrival, he was greeted by Clay, who took the agreed upon payment and stepped aside. Lewis allegedly then came forward brandishing what investigators later said was an Airsoft pistol with the orange tip removed—not even a real firearm. He ordered him to the ground and requested the man’s money and cellphone. The older teens then allegedly forced the “victim” to drive to an ATM and withdraw a mere $300 before taking them back to the hotel. The teens also allegedly cleared the history from the victim’s cell phone.
After the man—unharmed except for his pride—called the police, a search of the hotel room turned up the three suspects as well as $650 in cash and the doctored Airsoft gun. Lewis is being charged with possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, even though an Airsoft gun was the only firearm found on premises. All three teenagers were hauled in and interrogated.
Something that stands out starkly in this case is the police department’s total exoneration of the men who were soliciting sex from a teenager over the internet in the first place. Kent County Undersheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young has gone on record assuring “robbery victims” that the department is not focused on investigating them for solicitation of prostitution in this case, urging them to come forward.
Latesha Clay fits the profile for a victim of sex-trafficking—she is under 18, her body was advertised over the internet as available for men to violate, and she appeared to be working with—more likely working for—older men. Clay’s father has been reported to have as many as 32 biological children. Father Theresa of Father Theresa’s Wine Cellar, a social justice news and commentary podcast, speculated that Clay’s father was forcing Latesha to have sex with men for profit. But because the men robbed did not engage in sexual activity with her, she was tried as an adult on armed robbery and unlawful imprisonment charges.
I’ll give you a minute for that to sink in.
Because this child was not raped by the adult men who came to the motel room expecting “teen sex”, she is being charged as an adult for an armed robbery she did not personally commit, an armed robbery that was not even committed with a legitimate firearm. The court system in Michigan decided that Latesha Clay’s freedom was worth a $50,000 bond, but that her body was only worth the $650 recovered in the hotel room. The men who wanted to buy access to an underage girl’s body are the victims. The girl desperately trying to provide for her two young children is the perpetrator.
Although I have an incredible amount of sympathy for Latesha Clay, we have very little in common. I’m childless, ten years her senior, and in possession of both white and class privilege. Had I become pregnant at the age Latesha did, my whiteness would have made me the victim of a horrible crime. I would have been offered an abortion and counseling. Clay wasn’t offered any counseling for the trauma of being sexually abused and impregnated at the age of 11. In fact, she was impregnated again a year later at the age of 12. It’s not clear whether she was offered the option to terminate her pregnancies, but the state of Michigan requires the written parental consent of one parent for abortion, or, failing that, a judicial bypass. It’s unlikely that Clay, with her probably sexually abusive father, would have been able to manage that.
Latesha Clay and I share one thing in common, though: I was an escort at 15 as well. I didn’t have anyone to provide for. I lived in a middle-class neighborhood, in my parent’s house, and never had to wonder where my next meal was coming from. All of the money I made when I was having sex with adult men at 15 was spent on cocaine, clothes, makeup, and marijuana.
I mention this to tell you that I was objectively more of a criminal than Clay, yet I never saw the inside of a courtroom. I was approached a few times by men hoping to profit off of my labor, but I was never put in a situation so desperate or dangerous that I felt I had to give in to them. I was not in any way a victim of human trafficking. But my own experience with law enforcement on the job was limited to one chance encounter with an officer who decided to wait until my friend and I were naked and belly down on his bed to tell us he knew our full names and where our fathers worked, and that he was letting us off with a warning—after we performed oral sex on him, of course.
Recent stings in some states have arrested men as traffickers in cases where a child victim did not even exist—an undercover officer drew them in by posing as a minor online. The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act asserts that anyone involved in patronizing or soliciting underage sex workers will be charged as a sex trafficker, yet no men who attempted to solicit sex from Clay are being charged with anything at all. Faced with a real victim, confronted with a sexually abused poor child of color, Michigan’s criminal justice system decided not to take Clay’s victimhood seriously. Instead, it sentenced her for it. Under these circumstances, how can we believe in the War on Trafficking’s purported concern for children?
Clay’s mother, Melissa Strickland, started a fundraiser for Clay to hire a new lawyer for her appeal here.