One day after a story about child sex trafficking appeared on this website, a national magazine published an article disputing the pervasiveness of the problem.
The magazine tweeted: “Across the United States, well-meaning citizens are raising awareness about a child-sex-trafficking epidemic that doesn’t exist.” The publication then promised to unpack “how an internet conspiracy theory birthed a 21st-century problem.”
Is child sex trafficking an epidemic? Some experts believe it’s a growing problem. And they aren’t members of groups accusing politicians, movie stars, and others of pedophilia (one of the article’s themes).
Stories like this muddy the waters and lead people to believe the sexual abuse of kids isn’t cause for alarm. That’s too bad—incredibly so.
As evidenced by recent arrests of high-profile individuals and the Ghislaine Maxwell trial and conviction, child sex trafficking does happen. I’ve personally spoken with a victim and saw her fear. What’s more, I know a mother whose daughter was trafficked, and a friend who came within a hair of being trafficked herself as a young adult.
What We Can Do
As we observe National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, it’s worth looking at the myths and truths surrounding child sex trafficking and figuring out what we can do.
Yes, the numbers span the spectrum. An often-quoted, highly controversial study pegs the number at between 100,000 to 300,000 child victims every year. “It’s hard to get the numbers,” says John Long, executive director of the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking (USIAHT). “The problem is there is no one central organization collecting statistics.”
Even if one organization took on the job, “it’s an under-reported crime,” adds Rana Zakaria, a community educator for the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking, a counter-trafficking organization in East Tennessee. “It’s not like a trafficker is going to file a tax return. Furthermore, victims are scared to ask for help.”
So what can we do to protect kids from sexual exploitation?
Starts With Training
“It all starts with training about what it is, what it isn’t,” Rana says.
Although kidnappings do happen, traffickers are more likely to be parents, boyfriends, or people the victim trusts or has grown to trust. Anyone can fall prey, and that includes boys and girls from stable homes. However, LBGTQ+, homeless, and foster kids are especially in danger.
“That’s not a coincidence,” says the Polaris Project, which operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Generational trauma, discrimination and other societal factors put these particular kids at risk. Traffickers recognize these vulnerabilities and take advantage of them.
They find their victims outside large group homes filled with foster kids and on social media. Traffickers lure them with compliments, careers, love, the world. They spend months, if necessary, to methodically gain trust, isolate, and then exert control over their victims.
Maurice Edwards, a human trafficking expert and an investigator with the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office in Florida, described commonly used tactics in a training I took. The case he referenced involved a 15-year-old girl from a stable home. She met her trafficker at a gang member’s home where she’d gone to party with other friends.
After only one week of telling her she was pretty, the trafficker convinced her to have sex with other gang members. Before too long, the abuser was selling her to 15 to 20 different men a day. She considered him a boyfriend.
“She had no idea she was a victim,” Maurice says.
Her mother, who knew her daughter’s phone and social media passwords, caught wind of the abuse. She called the sheriff’s department.
Like this mother, parents should keep close tabs on their children’s activities. They should question them on where they’re going and with whom, the experts say. Furthermore, don’t take kids at their word. If a son or daughter says he or she will be spending the weekend with a friend, follow up.
What To Look For
After the first article posted last month, several readers contacted me. They wanted to know what to look for in a potential child sex trafficking case.
According to experts, victims often:
- Avoid eye contact.
- Appear fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, nervous, and paranoid.
- Dress inappropriately for the weather.
- Be unaware of their address or the day and month.
- Be unable to speak for themselves.
Other clues include infected tattoos or those that speak to trafficking (diamonds, bows, crowns or those that read, “property of” or “daddy’s girl”). Bruises, burns, scars and fractures could indicate abuse as do poor dental health and evidence of multiple, unsafe abortions.
Be alert, as well, to situations where adults promise job and career opportunities too good to be true . Victims often receive extravagant gifts and money and won’t explain how they got them.
Most important, Rana says, is to use your gut.
Remember, sex traffickers look like you and me. They could be sitting next to you in your church pew. If a situation doesn’t make sense, something could be wrong. Call local police, child services, the National Trafficking Hotline, and anti-trafficking organizations in your area.
“If you have suspicions of trafficking, call or report, but please don’t try to intervene then and there,” Rana adds. “You could be endangering yourself or the potential victim.”
National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888; Text 233733. Several organizations, including the ones mentioned in this blog post, offer online training and public awareness programs.
(Since January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, The Accidental Blogger will feature an article next week about the nation’s only safe house for formerly trafficked males and the root cause of the trafficking problem.)