Survived & Punished joins thousands of others in the call for the clemency of Cyntoia Brown, a young Black woman in Tennessee who, in 2004, was sentenced to life imprisonment for defending her life while in the sex industry at 16-years-old.


  • Visit the #Clemency4CyntoiaBrown campaign website to learn more about Cyntoia’s case and how to support her freedom.
  • We urge supporters to also take action to free Shantonio Hunter, another Black survivor in Tennessee who is being held responsible for the violent actions of her abuser against her child.
  • We call for these cases to spark mass commutations of all incarcerated survivors in Tennessee, New York, California, and everywhere. #FreeThemAll


Cyntoia is not a cardboard cutout upon whom other adults can project their narratives of youth involvement in the sex trades. She is a young woman who has experienced horrible violence, but that is not all she is. She has her own story to tell, but by portraying her as a victim without agency, some of Cyntoia’s advocates make it more difficult for her story of self-defense, her fight to survive, and her resistance to violence to be respected. We need to find a way to describe all of her realities — both as a survivor of violence with the right to defend herself, and as a young woman who was doing her best to survive.


Will this renewed focus on Cyntoia serve to improve the lives of all young people in the sex trade and street economies? Or will the current attention and the framing of her as a victim of sex “slavery” or trafficking serve to further marginalize them by silencing their voices and complexities in service of pursuing a “perfect victim” narrative, one that Black women are routinely excluded from?


The consequences for young women who don’t fit the “perfect victim” narrative are significant — both in terms of being harshly punished for self-defense, or being framed as “traffickers” themselves and then threatened with long sentences under new laws ostensibly passed for their own protection. Even if not subjected to punishment by what we call “the criminal legal system” — because we believe there is no justice in this system — many of the new “trafficking” laws passed at the state level over the past decade may force them back into foster care and other systems that they have fled because of the harm they experienced. Or, coerce them into “treatment” that does nothing to address the conditions under which they entered the sex trade in the first place. If they don’t “comply” with what is expected of them as “perfect victims,” then they, like many other survivors of violence, find themselves caged in a cell instead of receiving the support they need and deserve.Prosecuting and incarcerating survivors of violence puts courts and prisons in the same punitive role as their abusers, which compounds and prolongs victims’ experience of ongoing trauma and abuse.


The push to keep Cyntoia a child is also troubling. Since the recent surge of interest in her case, graphic artists have created an image of Brown with the pigtails she donned during her trial, when she was 16, accompanied by the text, “Free Cyntoia.” Another image of her at a similar age has been appropriated into a meme, juxtaposed with the rapist Brock Turner’s mugshot, using her incorrect age, and unconfirmed case circumstances. Other memes have claimed a “paedophile sex trafficking ring” was responsible for the violence visited upon Cyntoia. Why are these images and memes being circulated? Is an adult, 29-year-old Black woman an unsympathetic victim? If so, why? Acknowledging trauma and resilience are often ignored in favor of the driving desire by the media and public to support only a perfect victim. Perfect victims are submissive, not aggressive; they don’t have histories of drug use or prior contact with the criminal legal system; and they are “innocent” and respectable.


The reality, however, is there are no perfect victims. Twenty-nine-year-old Cyntoia deserves to be free from prison and absolved of this “crime,” no less than 16 year-young Cyntoia should have been.

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