Civil Liberties

10 Surprising and Counterintuitive Facts About Child Sex Trafficking

Here’s what mainstream media isn’t telling you about the commercial sexual exploitation of children in the United States…

There are fewer crimes in society that trigger greater public outrage than sex trafficking of children.   Trafficking is a serious problem in the United States, yet many of the stereotypes surrounding the issue and the counter-productive approaches to fixing the problem, make it increasingly difficult to address the real dilemmas and oppression of those children in need of help.

At present, the commercial sexual exploitation of children has become a staple of often scary tabloid and other media coverage.  The sensationalist sex trafficking narrative commonly depicted in mass media by celebrities and activists doesn’t always reveal the full story of this complex and misunderstood phenomenon, which is often buffeted by data and themes that detract from potential remedies.  Here are 10 child sex trafficking statistics that you most likely didn’t read….

1.    Boys make up 50 percent of the sex trafficked victims in the U.S

The modern response to commercial sexual exploitation of minors has been driven by a centralized view of the victim: predominantly a girl, rescued by law enforcement, who doesn’t engage in self-help. This more popular ‘sex trafficking narrative' has tended to focus on the plight of women and young girls, while young boys have been essentially left out in research, policy and practice.  Yet, studies show that boys are as equally affected by sex trafficking as girls and along with transgendered youth are considered a high-risk, hidden population.

According to a 2008 John Jay College study in New York, Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in New York’, as high as 50 percent of commercial sexually exploited children in the United States were boys alone.  These findings coincide with a more recently released study, “And Boys Too” by End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purpose (ECPAT-USA), which discovered that boys make up almost half of the victims. Of the 40 informants contacted in the ECPAT study, 18 said they would serve boys.

2. Most children who are sex trafficked don’t have a traditional ‘pimp’

While most of us are familiar with the conventional pimp portrayed in the media who preys upon and kidnaps children off the streets, in reality, this is not typically how children enter ‘the life’ of prostitution. 

In fact, the John Jay study revealed that most children are not ‘pimped’ in the traditional sense but instead recruited by familial procurers or friends known to them who do not manage their work but rather facilitate them by offering shelter or referring them to buyers in exchange for clients or a share of their earnings.   Licensed independent clinical social worker Steven Procopio explained these exchanges to AlterNet:

“Children can have pimps, but generally as the boy [or girl] ages out into his/[her] late 20s, he/[she] may rent an apartment with several others in the life and in exchange for those younger kids having shelter and a room to sleep, they work for the older boy/[girl].  Another scenario is the fee-for-service drive-by-pimp – a guy will drive his car, ask a child if he wants to make some money for the evening, pimp him/her out and then at the end of the night the child may never see that person again.  In other situations, families may pimp out their kids to support their drug addiction,” he said.

3. Many youth show a surprising amount of agency and control over their work

Perhaps most difficult to reconcile in the minds of human rights activists intent on “rescuing” under-age sex workers is the fact that many of these kids don’t believe they need saving and consciously make the decision to work in the sex trade.

Anthony Marcus, Associate Professor of Anthropology at John Jay College, and part of the ground-level research team for the New York and a subsequent Atlanta study found that many youth who engage in commercial sex do not view themselves as sufferers, but rather perceive their ‘work’ as a curious and fascinating lifestyle:

“By definition, a sex trafficking victim is a person suffering extreme distress in a relationship that is exploitive. However, one of the surprising things we found about the street sex market is that young women have a surprising amount of agency.  We encountered so many young women who had expired their pimps who were brutal or bullying them,” he told AlterNet.

4.         For most exploited children, their trafficking situation is not the greatest trauma they’ve endured – the majority has a history of sexual abuse and neglect

While most youth entered ‘the life’ of prostitution between the ages of 11-14, their sexual exploitive situation began usually between the ages of 6-10 and documented as a child abuse case, according to Tina Frundt, sex trafficking survivor and founder of anti-trafficking non-profit Courtney’s House.

What’s more, between 70–90 percent of commercially sexually exploited children in the United States have been sexually abused prior to entering ‘the life’ and are runaways with a history of complex trauma that usually begins with a dysfunctional or neglectful family, as Procopio explains:

“These kids enter the system for various types of reasons.  But the underlying reasons are that they come from homes where they are subject to multiple traumas in their childhood, sexual abuse, substance abuse or domestic violence.  In other scenarios, the youth is asked to leave because of gender identification,” he said.

Moreover, 30 percent of children who are trafficked reported sexual abuse by someone in their family and 14 percent disclosed sexual abuse by both someone within and outside of their family, a Williamson & Prior 2009 study revealed.

5.         Trafficked children are treated as criminals despite federal law classifying anyone under 18 years of age a victim

Despite statutory rape laws in every state explicitly stating that children under 18 cannot legally consent to having sex, (in conformity with the federal Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Actof 2000) most states still allow minors to be arrested and charged with prostitution crimes.

Kate Mogulescu, attorney at Legal Aid Society who has represented hundreds of indigent clients aged under 21 facing criminal prosecution for prostitution, outlined her frustrations with the system at a recent seminar on “The Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Trafficking on Minors” in New York:

“Our criminal justice is deeply flawed.  There is a fundamental perverseness about it because you have to be arrested and charged for prostitution first even if you are under 18.  It has always been ‘the state versus the trafficking victim, who is considered a defendant and that just doesn’t go away. 16 and 17 year olds are prosecuted as adults even though technically the law regards them as victims,” she said.

Moreover, the U.S Department of Justice found that law enforcement officers are more likely to arrest underage boys engaged in commercial sex rather than refer them to social service providers, as they do with girls.

6.         Women make up buyers and traffickers as well

According to the John Jay study, most trafficked children predominantly serve white males between 25 and 55 years old, with a preference for older, wealthy white males.  However, 40 percent of boys and 11 percent of the girls surveyed said that they had served a female client, with 13 percent of the boys exclusively serving female clients.

Moreover, in family controlled trafficking situations, the trafficker can often be a child’s mother or grandma, who tells the youth, “we all make money together, we’re in this household and you have to contribute”, according to Tina Frundt.

This is consistent with other reports, which tend to suggest that women make up 35-40 percent of traffickers, as Cameron Conway highlights in his article, ‘Human Trafficking – The Other 20%’.

“I’ve heard from several high-ranking women in anti-trafficking organizations, that the sex traffickers, the actual criminals in the crime, are about 65% men. Such a statistic has a hard time taking root because there’s already the perceived and ingrained idea that men and men-only are the criminals”, he wrote.

7.         Online websites such as backpage.com can be a sex trafficker’s haven

Backpage.com, is a major enabler of online child trafficking through its adult section advertisements.  Last year, U.S. Senators called for backpage.com to ease facilitation of sex trafficking, which they argued prioritized the rights of pimps and not kids.

Nonetheless, the website continues to cop flack due to the incessant number of cases popping up whereby pimps use the site to arrange “sex encounters” with trafficked clients. Last year, three teens sued the website alleging that the site allowed them to be forced into prostitution.

Tina Frundt, who works alongside FBI investigators in locating online predators, says such websites are a feeding ground for traffickers:  “The traffickers are online all over backpage and it’s like kiddy porn but most providers are unfamiliar with the lingo and code words used by pimps and buyers so we’re missing it,” she said.

8.         Criminalizing commercial sex work and branding ‘trafficking’ as the same thing raises the stakes for victims

In the United States, any person under the age of 18 whether a girl or boy with any assistance from a third party, is by definition a ‘trafficked victim’, whether they consent or initiate contact on their own accord. 

According to Professor Marcus, attempting to criminalize all commercial sex work and/or conflate the term with “trafficking” actually aggravates the situation for children who are commercially sexually exploited.  A better solution, he says, is to normalize sex work:

 “This notion of ‘child sex trafficking’ has a dependency to make the stakes so high that people have trouble talking about their experiences. Most young people we met wouldn’t go to social service agencies to get help because social services records were tied to child sex trafficking and no one wants their ‘support network’ such as your girlfriend or boyfriend prosecuted.  For children being controlled by predators who are selling their body for money, the only way people find out about it is by getting information from those in the market. The solution is not increasing punishment or more policing or stricter penalties.  There is no bridge in the law between 16-17 years olds who are doing it by choice and the kidnapped child who is held captive.  This only makes it harder to find out who is coerced because everybody is afraid of the police.” he said.

9.          Most kids engaged in sex trafficking don’t consider themselves victims:

According to the Polaris Project, an organization against human trafficking, children who are sex trafficked generally do not self-identify as victims of a crime and thus do not immediately seek help due to a number of factors such as lack of trust, self-blame and the habitual instructions by the trafficker coaxing the child on how to behave around law enforcement.  In addition, traffickers chronically condition the child to believe that he/she is engaging in sex work out of true love to pay off a debt - “you would do this if you loved me”. 

Moreover, many children who enter ‘the life’ at an early age are brainwashed by their trafficker to believe that this is the only ‘job’ they are cut out to do, as Sheila White, Survivor Leadership Coordinator at Girls Education & Mentoring Services  (GEMS), writes:

“I too was in a place where I thought being in the life was all I was ever capable of doing.  In fact, I never saw myself as a victim of anything and I believed that I would always be defined by my past. It wasn’t until I came to GEMS at the age of 16 that my life and self-perception began to change. As time passed, I began to see a difference in myself; I began to believe, confidently, I could actually have a life after being in the life,” she wrote.

It is for this reason that sex trafficking survivor, Tina Frundt, says labeling survivors as victims is misleading:   “We are never a victim, even on the street. If we label kids that way we take away that notion that we had to survive on the street. We saw rapes, murders, things people never will ever be able to talk about and we survived and we continued on. We’re survivors and it’s the ‘victim’ mindset we must transition,” she said

10.       Sex trafficking funds and resources are misappropriated

While the United States has spent almost $1.2 billion fighting sex trafficking globally, much of those funds have been misallocated on advertising and anti-trafficking campaigns rather than spent on actual evidence-based research and rescue operations.

Furthermore, the tendency for organizations and anti-trafficking groups to inflate trafficking statistics and focus disproportionate attention on  “pimped girls” has meant that young boys, transgendered youth and those children of any gender who aren’t enslaved by the traditional “pimp” or subject to labor trafficking miss out.

Ronald Weitzer, Professor of Sociology at George Washington University and author of ‘ Sex Trafficking and the Sex Industry: The Need for Evidence Based Theory and Legislation,  explains this motif:  “NGOs have figured out that they can appeal to the public, donors and funders if they emphasize sex trafficking of girls, which has a very clear purpose in attracting government funding, public and media attention.  If resources are being misappropriated to less frequent types of trafficking then there is a danger that others who are victimized like hidden populations are being ignored.  Moreover, if labor trafficking is much more prevalent in the United States than sex trafficking as the International Labor Organization says it is, than it suggests we should alter the balance toward labor trafficking,” he said.

Jodie Gummow is a senior fellow and staff writer at AlterNet.