Child sex trafficking, a form of human trafficking that’s also called the commercial sexual exploitation of children in clinical circles, boils down to this: the exchange of any sex act with a minor for something of value.
They might be solicited, exploited, or even advertised for sexual activity. Did you know that even purchasing sexually explicit material (pornography) that features youth under the age of 18 is considered trafficking? Youth can’t consent to sex work; most victims are manipulated into it.
Your favorite TV crime procedural drama will make you think trafficking looks like a huddle of starved kids locked in a shipping container. But the reality of child sex trafficking is a lot more subtle and nuanced:
It’s not just an “overseas” issue; it happens every day in the US. While it can involve kidnapping and smuggling across national borders, more often it happens both at home and online. We can’t think about it like it’s a worst-case-scenario that could happen while you’re traveling. Most victims are trafficked within the borders of their own country — an estimated 58% in 2016, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. In 2020, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) received more than 17,000 possible child trafficking reports across the 50 states.
Kids are way more likely to live at home and be trafficked, than to be kidnapped into trafficking. Some youths are sold for sex by a family member, some are lured with false promises of jobs, and some feel romantically involved with the person exploiting them. Most victims live at home, go to school, and interact with the public on a regular basis. Traffickers groom, seduce, and entice children by making a relational connection first, so that they have easier access to exploit them later.
Traffickers look for potential victims who are easy to isolate and use their existing vulnerabilities against them. It’s not the websites or physical locations kids go to that make them vulnerable. Kids are most vulnerable to trafficking when they lack support networks at home or at school, have experienced previous trauma, or haven’t been taught digital safety practices. According to NCMEC, children who run away have a 1 in 6 chance of being trafficked.
Understanding trends in how children are being trafficked can help us end it for good. For instance, if you’re a parent, one proactive step you can take is to teach your kids about digital safety and boundaries. If you’re a teacher, keep an eye out for students who seem socially isolated or have few friends. Look for the vulnerabilities in your community, and then take a step to strengthen them–together, we can keep kids safe from human trafficking!