What Mainstream Media isn’t Telling You About the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the US

By Jodie Gummow for San Diego Free Press on November 16, 2013—
“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.”

For the rest of the original article, please click here.

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