Sexually Exploited Minors – How does this happen and what is being done?
Written by Sarah Fisher
The sexual exploitation of children dates back to ancient times, over countries and across the continents (Lloyd, 2005). Today, sexual exploitation affects all nations. The United States was estimated to have 200,000 – 300,000 adolescents sexually exploited in 2001 (Estes, 2001) and this number has undoubtedly risen with increased technology and globalization over the last 13 years. Internationally, there are deep-rooted issues related to each country that make it difficult for child sexual exploitation to be eradicated (Hepburn, 2010). For instance, child sexual exploitation cannot be addressed in India without also addressing issues stemming from the caste system. In the United States it cannot be addressed without also tackling immigration (Hepburn, 2010). Sexual exploitation takes place on all levels: between adults and children locally, statewide, nationally and on an international scope (Lloyd, 2005).
Societal responses over the millennia to child sexual exploitation vacillated from pitying the young victims to ridiculing and punishing the children. The common thread throughout the lengthy history has been that marginalized and oppressed children have partaken in the tragic practice: foster children, run-aways, children living in poverty, children who have a history of abuse and those without education remain the most vulnerable of children involved in this practice (Lloyd, 2005). Along with these sidelined children, American “racism, sexism and classism” creates a perfect storm for child exploitation (Lloyd, 2005, p.8). Today’s American culture of materialism largely promotes the flashing of fast money and self-worth is equated with material goods. In turn, the media perpetuates the lifestyle, producing popular songs and videos that venerate pimps and the quick money and goods children make from their own exploitation.
Black and brown children are especially (though not exclusively) vulnerable as a result of the media’s portrayal of young women of color as sexual objects. Our society, built on institutional racism, leaves many of these children with low self-esteem and lacking hope for their futures (Lloyd, 2005), some ultimately overcompensating by wishing most for material goods, causing them to be open to get it in whatever way they can. “Combine the power of these images with the girls familial and environmental situations, and even when a girl realizes that her boyfriend is actually her pimp, the choice to stay or go may not seem obvious to her” (Lloyd, 2005, 16).
In a 2005 study, it was found that though children constitute 40 – 50% of the overall forced labor population (Hepburn, 2010) females make up 98% of sexually trafficked people and males making up the final 2%. Sexual exploitation of children takes place in three forms, including sex for the exchange of money, child pornography and child sex tourism, where males travel domestically or internationally exclusively for the purpose of purchasing sex (Ending, 2013).
Recruiters can include the victim’s parents, extended family or circle of friends (Stopping, 2008). They can also be a similar age to the victim and receive money, drugs or other goods for the role they play in snaring children for exploitation. Gangs and organized crime are largely involved in the recruitment and sale of child sex. The victim’s peers can pressure sex in front of others as a recruitment tactic (Stopping, 2008). Some recruiters take an approach of caring, agreeing to “take care” of a child or to provide for basic needs, which would be attractive for runaways and foster children (Ending, 2013). Others use violence and force, even kidnapping children off the street to exploit them. In all cases, manipulation and coercion are used in the recruitment. Violence and withholding money and basic needs is most often used to keep the victims hostage. Alternating caring and beatings creates a bond known as the Stockholm Syndrome, causing the victim to loyally stay with their abuser (Ending, 2013). Further, exploiters choose children around age 12 or 13 who are “too young to recognize they are being manipulated and too old to see themselves as helpless children, [and] they come to endure, if not accept, their own exploitation because, rightly or wrongly, they do not see a better alternative” (Ending, 2013, p.23).
It is estimated that exploiting as few as four children in a year can net as much as $650,000 and that child sexual exploitation is on the rise not only because of the payouts, but also because of the much lower risk than selling drugs or weapons (Ending, 2013). Demographically, pimps are falsely stereotyped as African-American males when in reality they are typically White males (Ferranti, 2007). However, demographics change and vary depending on dominant culture in areas. In essence, anyone can be a pimp, male or female, of any culture or skin color.
The voice of a victim: “I was first forced into prostitution when I was 11 years old by a 28-year-old man. I am not an exception. The man who trafficked me sold so many girls my age, his house was called “Daddy Day Care.” All day, other girls and I sat with our laptops, posting pictures and answering ads on Craigslist. He made $1,500 a night selling my body, dragging me to Los Angeles, Houston, Little Rock — and one trip to Las Vegas in the trunk of a car. I am 17 now, and my childhood memories aren’t of my family, going to middle school, or dancing at the prom. They are of making my own arrangements on Craigslist to be sold for sex, and answering as many ads as possible for fear of beatings and ice water baths.” – An Open Letter from MC to Craigslist (Polaris, 2014).
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was designed and written to protect the inherent vulnerabilities of children throughout the world, giving them a voice, ensuring their survival and development (Santos & Bissell, 2006). It is the world’s attempt to eradicate practices such as child sexual exploitation, female circumcision and other brutal forms of child abuse. However, cultural relativism, where such practices are accepted parts of a particular culture and not in others, is challenged.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child has been accepted and adopted by more countries than any other human right, being quickly ratified by all world governments but two countries (Santos & Bissell, 2006). Basic children’s rights and the definition of a “child” as under 18 years of age are outlined in the Conventions and include entitlements to:
-A name and identity
-Be raised by his/her parents, in their culture, and to have a relationship with both parents in the event that they are not together
-Live free from abuse and exploitation
-Have children’s opinions heard and advocated for, if appropriate
-Protected privacy (Santos and Bissel, 2006).
The two countries that have not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child are Somalia (because it does not have a government to ratify a treaty) and The United States of America (Unicef, 2005). According to UNICEF, there are multiple reasons why the United States has not ratified the Conventions, starting with the US’s need, along with most other countries, to scrutinize the language and possible legalities in the document and in order to first make sure the Conventions can be upheld by the country’s laws. Further, the US says it has the capacity to focus on only one Human Rights treaty at a time; its priority currently being the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. In 1995, under President Bill Clinton, the Convention was signed, making a clear statement that the US intends to ratify (Unicef, 2005).
Aside from the reasons described above, there are numerous religious groups within the US, such as the Rutherford Institute, the Christian Coalition, the National Center for Home Education, along with US Senators like Jesse Helms (R – NC), who outwardly oppose the document. Amnesty USA points out that the basis for the Convention’s opposition are claims that, “The Convention usurps national and state sovereignty, . . . undermines parental authority, . . . would allow and encourage children to sue parents, join gangs, have abortions, The United Nations would dictate how we raise and teach our children” (Amnesty, 2013).Amnesty USA points out that none of these concerns are grounded in evidence and that, in fact, the CRC uses “gentle” language aimed to protect children and not to debase parents and families (Amnesty, 2013).
The United Nations documents that are most relevant to addressing sexually exploited children are the Convention for the Rights of the Child, as previously discussed, and The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), where the United States’ Human Rights efforts are currently focused (“Convention,” 2009). CEDAW, adopted by the United Nations in 1979, defines discrimination against women, “by persons, organizations and enterprises,” as any act that treats women unfairly or unequal to men, including lesser pay, no voting rights, and other forms of discrimination. This is the only convention that recognizes the reproductive rights of women and entitles women to their own culture as well as allows women to change their nationality and that of her children. A very important part of CEDAW is that it charges nations to “take appropriate measures against all forms of traffic in Women and exploitation of Women.” Since the majority of sexually exploited children are females, the United States’ participation in CEDAW could have a positive effect on combatting the sexual exploitation of children.
On a National level, The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (VTVPA) of 2000 is a United States federal law defining commercial sexual exploitation of children, or CSEC, victims as anyone under the age of 18 who has been sexually trafficked against their will, involving force, fraud or coercion (Hogan, 2008). VTVPA has called to action the increased consequences for international traffickers and has intensified the human rights of the victims (Hogan, 2008). The Trafficking Victims Reauthorization Acts of 2003 and 2005 are amendments that allow victims to bring about civil suits for damages incurred during their exploitation and offering services to victims, such as shelters and hotlines (Hogan, 2008). However, there appear to be a multitude of issues preventing the VTVPA from being a more effective effort. “Law enforcement is a local issue and criminal prosecution are generally a state responsibility (Buckwalter et al, supra note 13 at 425; Hogan, 2008).” In other words, at a federal level, prosecutions of one or just a few victims are not feasible, leaving the threat of this law watered-down since prosecution of every and all cases do not occur (Hogan, 2008). Another critique is that US human trafficking cannot be adequately addressed as laid out in the VTVPA without looking first at all of the issues and confusion concerning US immigration (Hepburn & Simon, 2010).
New York State (NYS) enacted the Safe Harbor Law in 2008, to protect minors from being prosecuted as criminals for prostitution when they have in actuality been sexually exploited (Mullin and Lloyd, 2008). The law takes into effect that children under the age of 17, or those considered minors in NYS, are incapable of consenting to sex in exchange for money and therefore cannot be accused of prostitution (Mullin and Lloyd, 2008). Prior to the Safe Harbor Act, minors who provided sex for a fee were treated and viewed as criminals, seen to be freely and willingly parading themselves on corners to make money and being prosecuted as such. What had not been taken into consideration prior to the Safe Harbor Act is that most likely there was a pimp in the shadows, watching the children, doling out beatings if enough money was not made, forcing girls and boys to use drugs and create and post their own online profiles advertising their services. The Safe Harbor Act recognizes that these minors are being exploited, so they are not prosecuted but instead are given safe houses to live in and other services that recognize that they are victims and not criminals (Mullin and Lloyd, 2008). One of the difficulties with the realities of Safe Harbor laws is that negative stereotypes are still associated with trading sex for money (Ending, 2013). Further, few shelters or residential placements are available specifically for this populations, causing access to collective legal, mental and physical health and social services to be difficult to access.
The sexually exploited children I have worked with are all girls, though I have worked along side Therapists who have worked with boys, mostly transgendered. Collectively, the girls have been children of color, a large percentage foreign-born and undocumented and some were from the Foster Care system. The children who fit into these descriptions were all victims of poverty and hardly fit into an outer corner of Sisneros’s Web of Oppression, below, flatly opposing positions of power and privilege (Sisneros, 2008).
For purposes of clarity, I will profile the family of one of the exploited children I worked with and profile how the Safe Harbor Act intersected with Social Work and her situation. I will refer to the girl as “Maya” to protect her identity. Maya story best illustrates how the Safe Harbor Act intersects with an exploited child and her family.
Maya was born in a country in close proximity to the United States, where travelled with her Mother and older sister when she was under age 8 and without papers. There are no details about her trip; whether it went smoothly or there were traumas along the way, such as familial separations as often occur. In the United States, she grew up in a Westchester County town with a high Latino population. There are not many details about how it was for the family to acclimate to their new culture, although it is clear that Maya and her sister quickly became Americanized. Her Mother, Ms. Z, took a job in a nearby bodega and though she had boyfriends, she never allowed any of them to cohabitate with the family. She had a baby girl 7 years ago, who now attends the local Elementary school where Maya and her sister went.
Maya and her family were referred to Social Services and then our sub-contracted service because 16-year-old Maya had been truant from school, was using marijuana and hanging out with negative peers, breaking curfew and sometimes being away from home for days at a time. The referring agency reported that Maya’s Mom was emotionally disengaged from her daughter and had only mechanically supported any efforts to get Maya back in school and on the right track. She had never notified the police when Maya was away for days. Our mission was to assess the referral behaviors, look for the functionality of ingrained familial patterns, and support the family to recognize areas where changes would reinforce Maya’s behavior to improve. Interventions would ideally take place around these areas.
In the ongoing family assessment, there were clear gaps in the information provided from Maya, her older sister, her Mother, the referrer and the school. The family had no supports or helpful extended family, so, as a unit, they were effectively isolated. The Mother reported having a brother who lived in the Bronx but who she did not speak with regularly and who did not want to play an active role with her family. This was an example of an information gap, where Ms. Z and her daughters could not explain why her brother was not involved, simply stating that they never got along.
So in the early assessment, there was suspicion that Maya might be exploited when she left for days at a time. Her Mom professed to not know anything: whom she was with, her whereabouts, why she left or what she was doing. Her older sister gave vague information, saying she guessed Maya was out using drugs. Maya, however, started to bond with workers of the program and agreed to go through a contingency-management program to address her substance use. Her Mother agreed to take part in the intervention by drug testing her and giving rewards or consequences, depending on her urinalysis results. As it turned out, Maya was motivated, reviewing her triggers to drug use and actively planning how to avoid them. Her Mother was often not home for session appointments since her work schedule changed often. She could be described as aloof in her involvement with the program and helping her daughter, as the referral source originally reported. As a result, Maya’s older sister agreed to take on a more active role with monitoring and helping her quit using drugs and alcohol. The older sister seemed to be always home and used to taking on the parent role with both of her younger sisters.
One of Maya’s triggers to using drugs was simply going to the store down the street to buy her daily pack of cigarettes. She explained that an “old friend” always found her and encouraged her to use marijuana when she went anywhere outside. Her sister agreed to get Maya her cigarettes daily so she did not have to go out and be tempted. We thought maybe this was her drug dealer trying to lure her back as a customer or to sell for him. Over time, we found out that this “friend” was Maya’s pimp and for her to get away from using drugs and alcohol, she needed to stay away from him and “the life” as she called it.
Maya is a bright, bubbly, petite young woman who appears much younger than 16. Her gregarious personality, her dimpled smile and quick wit drew everyone toward her and the belief that she would be successful some day at whatever she chose to do. She ended up getting a job at a computer store and being escorted by her new boyfriend to and fro, so her local “friend” did not lure her into bad things.
Her Mother occasionally took part in the plan to keep her daughter sober. After Maya had a “slip” where she smoked marijuana with her new boyfriend (the “protector”), Ms. Z agreed to increase monitoring. A plan was put together with Ms. Z who agreed to make sure she was aware of where Maya was going when she left, that an adult would be present and that she was escorted, wherever possible, such as back and forth to work. Maya and her Mother were also going to the public pool that day to spend time together and to keep Maya occupied with something positive. Ms. Z agreed to meet the next morning to process how then plan went for the first 24 hours.
That afternoon, several hours after the session where the intervention had been set up, Ms. Z called and reported that she gave Maya permission to sleep over at the home of a woman they had met at the pool. Ms. Z explained that she trusted the woman because she had a young child, so assumed she must be responsible, and she had also gotten her phone number in case she needed to reach Maya. She said she made sure that Maya knew she would only get permission to go if she promised to be back home by our 10:00 session the following morning.
More disconnected information. Our team put our heads together with the referral source and questioned whether Mom may be cognitively limited, may have her own drug issues that interfered with helping Maya, or maybe she had some plans and it benefitted her to have Maya away for the night; we questioned a million things. Mom stuck with her story, even when it was pointed out that her decision to let Maya go somewhere over night with a person she did not know did not support the intervention that we thought had been agreed upon for Maya’s safety.
Maya did not come home for the appointment the next morning, nor did she come home by that evening. Mom called the stranger’s cell phone throughout the day and spoke with Maya, telling her to come home. Maya kept promising she would come home by a certain time and then wouldn’t show up. Our team Googled the woman’s cell phone number to find out where they might be, who this woman was. Up popped a multitude of Internet postings of Maya, skimpily clad, with names like “Hot Dominican Mama” and “Puerto Rican Sweetie,” all connected to the woman’s cell phone number. The postings spanned over 10 web sites, exploiting Maya and countless other obvious minors. Maya’s Mom seemed totally surprised when we told her what the cell phone number was linked with, so she agreed to involve the police, but Maya showed up just prior to her going.
Maya was in rough shape. She had a black eye, a fat lip, her clothes were all stretched out, and she looked dirty and hung over. She reported that she was hanging out with “friends” and that someone must have put something in her drink the night before because suddenly she felt woozy and then didn’t remember anything until she woke up lying in front of a video camera propped on a tripod. She had been drugged, kidnapped, taken to a hotel near a major bridge and raped, beaten and she said she thought she might have recognized one of the men.
Maya went to the local police precinct to make a report. We reported the web sites to the police and also registered the telephone number and websites we found with online detectives that research postings of exploited children and linked their information to the local detective in charge of the case. Maya was distraught about having been video taped and when she was home alone later, had taken a handful of Advil in a suicidal gesture. She was taken to the Hospital; her Mom met her there, stayed for about 30 minutes before asking the hospital “permission” to go back to work. We stayed with Maya until her discharge so she wasn’t alone.
So we referred Maya to our agency’s “Safe Harbor” program. She was assessed by the specialized program staff, deemed appropriate and given temporary shelter and services that educated her on being a victim and helped her begin her recovery. After the recent events, Maya, in a moment of weakness and trust, said her Mother was a prostitute and that Maya had been part of the family business. After that, we were pretty sure that Maya’s Mom set her up with the woman at the pool, since Maya admitted she and her Mother both known the woman for a long time as a “bad woman.” Child Protective Services (CPS) was called as a result of these suspicions and Maya’s admission that her Mom knowingly let her go overnight with a known “bad” person and due to possible risk to the 8-year-old in the home of a woman who prostituted. Ultimately, CPS was not able to get any concrete evidence that Maya’s Mom was a prostitute or involved in what happened to Maya and Maya rescinded her story.
Maya stayed away from her home for about 2 months, residing at the shelter and participating in Safe Harbor services. We officially closed our work with the family after Maya moved out of her Mother’s apartment, but we remained loosely involved in bubbly Maya’s future because we believed so much in her and her glaring strengths. We connected her to an independent living program in the community where she could have her own apartment, overseen by staff who would help her budget and prepare overall for living on her own. However, Maya ended up declining and disappearing quietly into “the life.”
In Maya’s situation, the Safe Harbor Act allowed the police and service providers to see her as exploited whereas ten years ago she would have been viewed as a willing prostitute who deserved to go to jail. We saw in Maya her great struggle to break free from her pimp, who appeared almost every time she left her home, to lure her back. He likely offered her drugs, a better life, material goods that she wanted. She likely received great pressures from her Mother to go back to “the life” to help support their family, Ms. Z ultimately choosing for Maya to be exploited rather than live a life of minimum wage jobs. However, these suspicions remain theories, unproven by hard facts.
Although Safe Harbor, VTVPA and the Convention on the Rights of the Child all aim to combat sexual exploitation of children by recognizing the children as victims rather than criminals, increasing services to help them heal, providing shelter, hotlines, places to report suspected minor sexual exploitation, it seems this is just grazing the issue. Clearly, more needs to be done. Laws need to be expanded to address the recruiters, the exploiters and perpetrators (or “John’s”). They need to fear the repercussions of exploiting children, as much or more than they fear laws addressing drug and weapons charges. They, too, should be provided with services, when they are caught, to address the underlying reasons for their coldhearted crimes and lifestyle. John’s should also be harshly prosecuted and jailed to be rehabilitated through addressing the cause for their need to dominate helpless children. Tackling the recruiters, exploiters, and perpetrators from legal, social and therapeutic points of view will help decrease the demand for child sexual services. In an ideal world, the media, music and websites would support these changes.
There are several evidence-based interventions targeting children and their parents to prevent child sexual exploitation, including the Triple P Positive Parenting Program, The Incredible Years and Kids Learning about Safety (Pirneci, 2012). Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TFCBT) has been established as an effective evidence-based intervention for children exposed to trauma, including sexual exploitation, physical and emotional abuse, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and more. Due to its efficacy, 19 states implemented its statewide use with traumatized children (Sigel et al, 2013). This cognitive-behavioral intervention in its simplest description provides psycho education, addresses the thought-feeling-behavior triad, and teaches relaxation techniques and exposure to reacclimatize the patient and their family to the trauma-free world (Sigel et al, 2013). It is proposed that this be used with child victims of sexual exploitation due to it’s efficacy and widespread usage.
How can we combat sexual exploitation of minors on large-scale level? The Critical Social Theory is literally critical of existing social structures as unjust and oppressive (Mulally, 2010). This theory strives to create a society free from dominant-subordinate social structures (Mulally, 2010). The Critical Social Theory would best help explain the issue of child sexual exploitation on local, national and international levels in that it recognizes adult, male domination over the mostly female population that is exploited. In this dominant-subordinate relationship, males see young females as voiceless, especially those who have a history of abuse, are oppressed across various other levels. This relationship restricts the sexually exploited minor’s opportunities and other “cultural freedoms” (Mulally, 2010 p18). The theory further believes that when both the dominator and the subordinate make conscious internal changes to make a societal change, the dominant-subordinate relationship can be equalized (Mulally, 2010 p18).
I have learned an incredible amount by writing this blog. In fact, I feel like I could continue writing and researching every day since there is so much information and so many different angles to look at. Honestly, the subject is daunting when I think about what it would take to make changes, especially on a systemic level. The legal aspects are complex and include the local, state and national levels in every country of the world (for Countries that have laws to address such issues). International levels create additional complications. It seems, by the response to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as though countries of the world agree that children are vulnerable and need to be protected and provided for on all levels, including collectively. Deep-rooted issues within most countries, such as immigration in the USA and the caste system in India, need to be addressed to get to the core of child sexual exploitation. Societies need to stop glorifying and promoting issues that revolve around dominant-repressed relationships on which most countries are based. Perpetrators of violence and pedophilia and their suppliers need to be prosecuted, rehabilitated (if possible) and monitored for life. Victims need to be provided, cared for and treated for their awful traumas. Prevention needs to be put in place everywhere!
In Our America
Lisa Ling Documentary on sexually exploited children in the United States (43 min.)
Convention on the Rights of the Child
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)
FBI: A Parent’s Guide to Internet Safety
Girls Education and Mentoring Services (GEMS)
Services dedicated to sexually exploited children
A website dedicated to combatting human trafficking
New York State Office of Families and Children (OCFS)
What is human Trafficking?
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
Cyber tip line
National Public Radio (NPR) Audiobyte: Courts Take a Kinder Look at Victims of Child Sex Trafficking
For a world without slavery
Unicef, Convention on the Rights of the Child
United Nations Website
Reporting Internet Predators
Suspected Internet predators can be reported to the Attorney General’s Child Predator Section by calling the Child Predator Hotline at 1-800-385-1044. Internet safety tips are available on the “Operation Safe Surf” section of www.attorneygeneral.gov. Organizations interested in materials, speakers or presentations should contact the Attorney General’s Education and Outreach Unit at 1-800-525-7642 or via email at email@example.com.
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Estes, R., and N. Weiner, (2001). The commercial sexual exploitation of children in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.
Ferranti, Colleen, (2007). Sexual exploitation: a forensic evaluation of juvenile prostitution. John Ferranti publisher.
Hepburn, S., & Simon, R. (2010). Hidden in Plain Sight: Human Trafficking in the United States. Gender Issues, 27(1/2), 1-26. doi:10.1007/s12147-010-9087-7
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Lloyd, R. (2005). Acceptable Victims? Sexually Exploited Youth in the U.S. Encounter, 18(3), 6-18.
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Mullaly, Bob (2010). Challenging oppression and confronting privilege. Canada: Oxford university press.
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Sigel, B. A., Kramer, T. L., Conners-Burrow, N. A., Church, J. K., Worley, K. B., & Mitrani, N. A. (2013). Statewide dissemination of trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy (TF-CBT). Children And Youth Services Review, 351023-1029. doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2013.03.012
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States Fight Sex Trafficking of Kids. (2014). State Legislatures, 40(6), 5.
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