Recently, a popular scripted drama television series, Being Mary Jane, aired an episode about sex trafficking. Often, the topic is avoided because it is difficult to believe that such a horrific and grotesque crime against children can flourish in our country and in our backyards. In the past, sex trafficking was thought of as something that happens "over there" in underdeveloped countries, but with an increase in research, changes in legislation, and an influx of advocacy groups, awareness has greatly increased. However, there is still work to be done in order to eradicate these crimes. This article will explore the basic facts of sex trafficking; however, readers are strongly encouraged to explore further because in this case, the saying "it could happen to you" is real, and not just something that happens on television.
What is Sex Trafficking?
Sex trafficking is one of the most complex, under-investigated, and misunderstood issues today (Estes & Wiener, 2001). Not to be confused with willful prostitution, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act defines sex trafficking as "the recruitment, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act where such an act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age" (Kerry, 2013). Domestic minor sex trafficking, also known in the literature as CSEC (commercial sexual exploitation of children), occurs when minors are exploited. "Children can be commercially sexually exploited through prostitution, pornography, and/or erotic entertainment" (NHTRC, 2011). An unspoken truth is that when people think of prostitution, they think of it as women willfully having sex for money, and because of that, the topic of trafficking is widely misunderstood.
Did You Know?
- Children as young as age 12 are exploited for sex
- 90% of children who runaway from home become victims
- Victims are unknowingly recruited through the internet and through social media
- Although children in foster care and children with emotional problems are most vulnerable, ALL children are at risk
- "Pimps" are not what they seem. They can be sophisticated, charismatic, intellectually bright, charming, and of any race, age, or gender
- Recruiters can be other children, planted in middle schools and high schools in order to coerce potential victims
- "Johns" or buyers are often economically empowered individuals with professional lives, a high social status and a respectable group of families and friends
Who Is Most Vulnerable?
Although all children are vulnerable, the risk of being exploited increases with 1) sexual abuse victims, 2) conflict in the home, and 3) being a runaway (Kristof, 2011).
Sexual Abuse Victims
One in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused by their 18th birthday and 90% of perpetrators are people who caregivers know and trust (Clinton, 2012). Sexual abuse has long-lasting and devastating consequences. One of the many consequences is that it increases vulnerability to be further victimized. When a child is violated by someone who they trust, their "uh-oh" feeling is depleted. In addition, they quickly learn that their bodies do not belong to them and they become vulnerable to other predators. For example, an eight year old girl is sexually abused by a family member, let's call her Jane. Jane's abuse remains secret and she develops emotional problems due to the trauma. Jane's self-esteem suffers and as she enters adolescence, she has problems with peers, failing grades, and is isolated because she feels like something must be wrong with her if a trusted family member sexually molested her. Jane has poor social skills so she meets many of her "friends" on social media. She meets a a boy named John who calls her beautiful, gives her his undivided attention, and makes her his girlfriend. Jane decides to meet John for a date at the mall. He looks much older than what he told Jane, but this is her first experience with "love" and she automatically trusts him. John tells Jane that she is beautiful and that he can make all of her dreams come true. Jane "auditions" for John, takes nude photographs, posts them on several web pages, then tells her if she doesn't do exactly what he says, he will send the photos to her parents and to everyone in her church and at her school. Jane does what he says and is now a victim of sex trafficking.
Conflict In the Home
When there is serious and ongoing conflict in the home, the children of the home are more vulnerable to becoming victims of sex trafficking. Domestic violence, parental alcoholism and substance abuse, untreated parental depression or other emotional problems, verbally and physically abusive homes, and parental neglect and lack of involvement all heighten the risk of victimization. The home environment should be a place where children feel safe and supported. When their "safe place" is in turmoil, children often seek comfort in someone who promises them a "better life". Traffickers are masterminds at identifying vulnerable children. They offer a false and dangerous sense of love and security. All children have a fundamental need for love and it is natural for children to seek and fulfill their need for love and nurturing. They don't have the cognitive savvy that adults have when making decisions about what true love and nurturing really means. Responsible, attentive, and supportive households must provide a safe-haven and homes riddled with conflict do just the opposite. These homes are cause for children to look for love in all the wrong places.
Children who runaway from home and homeless children are the most likely group to be victimized. Runaways quickly run out of resources (food, shelter, money) and are looking to survive. Their defenses are down and they are easily lured into money-making activities. Runaways may be told that they will be provided stable housing and a glamorous lifestyle in the career of their dreams (modeling, acting, dancing, etc). Often runaways are trying to escape an abusive or neglectful environment and they run into the arms of a pimp who promises a life of fame, fortune, adoration, and power. These promises are obviously never kept and the child is trapped in a life of danger and exploitation. It should be noted that children in foster care are a large percentage of runaways, and therefore are at a greater risk.
Why Don't People Talk About It?
In our culture of social media and the information highway, everyone has an opinion on everything and access to unlimited information. With that being the case, why aren't people talking about sex trafficking? Is it fear? Do people think that it can't happen to them or their children? Is there a lack of awareness? Do people blame the victim thinking that victims "should know better"? Whatever the case, the most important thing to remember is that it can happen to you. Even though some groups of children are more vulnerable than others, why take a chance on your children and the children in your life?
What Can Be Done?
Awareness and education are key factors in preventing commercial sexual exploitation of children. The issue is complicated on both the supply and the demand side and requires the cooperation of federal and local government task forces to eradicate this inhumane phenomenon. However, everyday citizens can be a part of the change first by becoming aware, starting a conversation, and sharing factual knowledge. Get involved in non-partisan legislation which impacts the issue, and finally if you see something, say something. The National Human Trafficking Hotline is 1-888-373-8888. One phone call could save a life (NHTRC, 2011).
Clinton, H. (2012). Trafficking in Persons Report, 10th ed. U.S. Department of State. Retrieved from: http://www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/2010/
Estes, R. J., & Wiener, N. A. (2001). The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania, School of Social Work, Center for the Study of Youth Policy.
Kerry, J. (2013). The Trafficking in Persons Report June 2013. U.S. Department of State. Retrieved from: http://www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/2013/index.htm
Kristof, Nicholas. (2011). What About American Girls Sold on the Streets? The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/24/opinion/24kristof.html
NHTRC. (2011). Increasing Awareness and Engagement: Strengthening National Response to Human Trafficking in the US. National Human Trafficking Hotline.