Center for Injury Research and Prevention

Forced to Sell Themselves: Child Sex Trafficking in the U.S.

January 30, 2017

With January recognized as Human Trafficking Awareness Month, conversations have been happening in schools, professional settings, and homes as awareness is drawn to the current public health issue of child sex trafficking. How can such a crime continue in today’s society?

Unfortunately, many misconceptions exist surrounding child sex trafficking, such as believing this is only a problem in other countries or the majority of victims are young foreign-born women, and these myths perpetuate the problem.

An estimated 100,000 youth are victims of sex trafficking in the United States each year, and another 300,000 are considered at risk. While any child can be at risk to be trafficked, those belonging to vulnerable groups, such as runaway/homeless, LGTBQ, or youth involved in the child welfare system, are more likely to be lured by traffickers with promises of love, money, food or safety.

In the News

A recent news story out of California told the story of an Uber driver, who upon overhearing his passengers’ conversation, realized a horrific scene was taking place: the adult passenger was transporting a teen to a hotel where she would be sold in exchange for sex. Recognizing the situation, he quickly involved the police, who arrested both the trafficker and the client and reunited the teen with her family.

While this story had a good outcome, all too often, youth who are victims of trafficking are treated as criminals rather than young people who need extra care and support. Federal laws like the Trafficking Victims Protection Act aim to increase the likelihood that youth will receive appropriate treatment and services, but more support is still needed on the state and local level.

In the Health Care Setting

In my practice as a pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist, and as medical director of the CHOP Adolescent HIV Clinic and the Gender and Sexuality Development Clinic, I see far too many young people who are victims of sex trafficking or who have been forced to have "survival sex"-- or trading sex for money, food or a place to stay. 

Most times in the healthcare setting, it is not as obvious to clinicians like me, as it was for the Uber driver. When asking about current living situations or relationships and sex (warning signs for trafficked youth), I hear stories from gay or transgender youth who find themselves homeless after being kicked out of their homes due to their sexuality or gender identity. When offered a warm place to sleep from an older adult, many accept in an effort to stay off the streets, only to realize sex is expected in return. And thus begins their recruitment into sex trafficking. 

As youth-serving professionals, we all have a responsibility to recognize the signs of a teen or even a child being trafficked for sex and we must take the necessary steps to ensure their safety. Visit the Violence Prevention Initiative’s child sex trafficking webpage to read about who’s at most risk, learn how to recognize the warning signs, and find additional resources for professionals as well as victims and their families.

Remember that in most cases it won’t be immediately obvious which youth are victims and that’s why it is necessary to conduct screenings and practice trauma-informed care with all adolescents. 

To learn more about this general approach, providers should consider using evidence-based resources like Reaching Teens: Strength-Based Communication Strategies to Build Resilience and Support Healthy Adolescent Development from the American Academy of Pediatrics. 

Please share this information with as many people as you can because no young person should ever be victimized in this way, and if they are, they deserve our help and support to become happy and healthy adults.

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