My name is Angela, and I am five years old. I love my older cousin. He always brings me my favorite candy, Butterfingers. Sometimes he takes me to the park to play games. We play doctor, and we take our clothes off to make sure we are healthy. Sometimes I don’t want to play that game, but I don’t want him to be mad at me because I like him. He says that I am special, and he only plays doctor with special children. It’s like a special secret just between him and me.
Unfortunately, this story is not unique. Similar stories are repeated every single day in every community across the world. It is so prevalent, that one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before the age of 18 according to the CDC. This reality alone is harrowing, but it is worsened by the fact that childhood sexual abuse is the highest risk factor for commercial sexual exploitation, which is another term for sex slavery.
An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 adolescents in the United States are at risk for commercial sexual exploitation every year.1 Most people are shocked to find that sex-trafficking so widely affects American children. Rachel Lloyd describes this reality in her book Girls Like Us:
It’s often not until you explain that this phenomenon is what is commonly called “teen prostitution” that recognition dawns. “Oh, that…but that’s different. Teen prostitutes choose to be doing that; aren’t they normally on drugs or something?” In under three minutes, they’ve gone from sympathy to confusion to blame. Not because the issue is any different, not because the violence isn’t as real, not because the girls aren’t as scared, but simply because borders haven’t been crossed, simply because the victims are American.
The average age of entry into the commercial sex industry is 11-14 as reported by the US Department of Justice. They are not bad children. They are hungry children, starved of true, life-giving and healthy love. And they are vulnerable by the very fact they are children, and they are made even more so due to their adverse family and community circumstances. Pimps and traffickers know this. They thrive on this.
Over 90% of exploited individuals have experienced sexual abuse as children.2 And this is what they come to expect. This is their normal. Abuse, neglect and abandonment prime children, especially young girls, for predatory men. These traffickers lure children with the promise of love, of family, of provision, of stability. These offers are a lifeline to many who have never or rarely known goodness.
In addition to abuse and family dysfunction, there are other risk factors that significantly increase a child’s susceptibility. The largest are socioeconomic status, race, gender, education and neighborhood.
From this we see that the women in prostitution and other sectors of the sex industry, such as strip clubs and pornography, are robbed of choice and trapped as victims. They suffer an alarming amount of abuse, rape and trauma. They often suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other psychological, physical and emotional reactions. These women are our sisters, our mothers, our daughters.
So how do we respond? What can we do? The organization that I work for is one that addresses these issues. NightLight International is a faith-based organization that addresses the complex issues of commercial sexual exploitation in four main areas: prevention, intervention, restoration and education. Stay tuned for the next blog post, the last of this three-part series, which will describe NightLight’s response and some tangible ways for how you can confront exploitation.
Human trafficking can work only if the victims remain invisible to the public eye. We have to remove the veil of ignorance.
-Anna Rodriguez, Organization of American States, as quoted in the book Not for Sale.
Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. Isaiah 1:17
1 University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work, The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children In the U. S., Canada and Mexico, 2001.
2 University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work, The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children In the U. S., Canada and Mexico, 2001.