What It's Like to Be 17 and Having Sex for Money
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“Child sexual exploitation is the most hidden form of child abuse in the U.S. and North America today,” Estes told reporters when his study was released. “It is the nation’s least recognized epidemic.”
The irony is that human sex trafficking has become a cause célèbre among many dedicated church and community groups, nongovernmental organizations, and a handful of politicians. But in most cases they focus on the international trade. The U.S. government admirably offers special programs and funding for foreign victims of trafficking but none for domestic victims. The Department of Justice estimates fifteen thousand foreign nationals are trafficked into the country each year for forced labor and sexual slavery. A human tragedy, no doubt, but by all accounts the number of American girls trafficked on American streets is at least ten to twenty times greater.
Yet the United States seems unwilling to recognize that the vast majority of victims of sex trafficking are not foreigners but the girls from next door. It is more comforting to think of prostitution being forced upon children from other countries, not our own. A photo of a sad girl from Mexico sold across the border for sex or the story of a Russian woman tricked into coming to America and trapped in a brothel makes for good fund-raising. But few seem to care about a black girl from the slums of Dallas or a white girl from the wrong side of the tracks in Vegas.
Richard Estes and his colleagues cautioned back in 2001 that their figure of three hundred thousand prostituted children was only an estimate; they called for a more sweeping, better-funded project to “produce an actual headcount of the number of identifiable commercially sexually exploited children in the United States.” But such a survey has not happened yet. When Congress looked into the matter six years later, it had to bluntly admit: “No known studies exist that quantify the problem of trafficking in children for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation in the United States.”
There is every reason to believe the “actual headcount” of children forced into prostitution could be much higher than three hundred thousand. Government and police statistics on prostitution, by definition, rely upon official reports of arrests and surveys of children who seek help in shelters and other locations. But many if not most young girls are too frightened, confused, ashamed, or otherwise unable to come forward and be identified as victims of prostitution. In testimony before a special congressional body in 2005, Chris Swecker, the assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division, cautioned that relying on crime reports “masks the true prevalence of the problem” since many of the prostituted youth are charged with some other offenses such as substance abuse. “Sex traffickers or pimps debriefed by the FBI indicate approximately 20 to 40 percent of the victims recruited into prostitution are juveniles,” he said, indicating that the number of youth sexually trafficked in the United States could be as high as eight hundred thousand.
The real scope of the problem can be gleaned from the number of runaways in America. The DOJ’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention estimated that about 1.7 million youths between the ages of seven and seventeen flee their homes every year in America. The DOJ classifies more than two-thirds of them as “endangered” because of drugs, criminal activity, and physical or sexual abuse. Those numbers will only increase as the recession and lingering hard times force more children onto the street at the same time as government services are cut back drastically.