Youth Sex Trafficking: America’s Hidden Slavery

To a parent of a teenage daughter and son, it was unthinkable. I couldn’t believe this was happening in America, let alone the very city where I reside. But every day thousands of teens are sold for sex in America. And these teens are of every socio-economic segment, every race, every gender, every religion. As much as I preferred to steer clear of such a dark issue, it was a matter of social justice I couldn’t ignore once I learned of it. So I got educated.

What is Sex Trafficking?

Sex trafficking generally stays out of sight because “the merchandise” is often marketed on the Internet and “the date” is confirmed via text messages or phone calls. But according to federal law, a minor under the age of 17 is considered a victim of sex trafficking when involved in a commercial sex act, stripping, or appearing in pornography.

But aren’t these “victims” just promiscuous youth that want to have sex? It’s a common misconception. Many people think teens who become sex trafficked choose that life. But the majority of cases prove that wrong. Here’s a general path.

Social media becomes a place where youth share their heartaches and burdens. They want to be known, to be transparent with someone. And there is a “someone” who will listen, encourage, be their friend. Once that “someone” (aka pimp or recruiter) creates dependency in the relationship, they lure youth with false promises of romance, an offer for a tattoo, the chance to appear in a music video, quick money, or drugs and alcohol. These are the things teen minds think will take them from their current harsh reality.

By the time a pimp begins manipulating a teenager, the child may have endured sexual abuse, neglect, and physical and verbal abuse. So at a time of great emotional vulnerabilities (remember what junior high was like for you?) they run from something bad to what seems better to the teenage brain.

And for a short period, it might feel better. Glamourous, even. But then it turns. It turns hard.

They are informed that “since you received shelter, food, alcohol, whatever—you have to repay me. And here’s how: you will have sex with ten to twenty buyers a night to bring home at least $1000. I want every penny – or I will tell your mom what you have been doing. Or I will hurt you baby sister. Or backhand you with a pistol. I own you now.”

Beyond the physical trauma of countless rapes, STIs, abuse by buyers and pimps, the onslaught of shame replays constantly in their mind: “I am worthless. I guess this is what I am meant to be.”

But God sees each as his precious creation. A child He created for a purpose. He is the Good Shepherd that leaves ninety-nine sheep in the pasture to rescue the one lost in the ravine.

Rescue and Prevention

My education about the issue led me to serve on the board, then become a staff member of Traffick911, a non-governmental agency dedicated to freeing youth from sex trafficking. We work in three ways to create change in this hidden injury to youth:

Prevention – We educate and bring awareness to thousands of adults, parents, and youth each year on the realities of sex trafficking and how pornography primes the demand for sex buying. By shining light, this slavery is no longer hidden.

Identification – Through Juvenile Detention Outreach, Internet Surveillance teams, and the training of first responders and professionals, we identify hundreds of trafficking survivors and provide law enforcement with viable leads to pursue the traffickers. Guilt and shame keep many from sharing what has happened. Understanding they have been victimized and are not criminals can be the first step toward life change.

Empowerment – We provide trauma-informed case management, advocates for wrap-around services like counseling, educational catch-up, and life skills, and walk with survivors for the long journey to wholeheartedness. Consistency of relationship without judgment is needed and welcomed by injured souls.

We work hard so that trafficked youth see themselves as God sees them—as his beloved creation. As young people of great worth.

But better than seeing a life restored is protecting lives from ever being exploited.

A Parent’s Role

Our roles as parents are vital in helping children (our own and other youth in our sphere of influence) be aware of dangers and remain safe. It’s time to step up, Mom and Dad. Be the first to bring this issue up. Dovetail historic conversations about transatlantic slave trade with how people are enslaved today. Leverage news stories about trafficking (labor and sex) as conversation starters about the dire consequences to trafficked individuals. Talk about the loss of control over your own life and dreams would feel like. Model compassion and understanding for victims with your children.

Go the next step beyond conversation. Monitor online and mobile phone use and online relationships by your children and each other. Be models of accountability and wise media choices. Make your home a place of unconditional love. Beware of how children hang on to a message delivered by a parent. Eliminate shaming your children when they misbehave. Shame says, “You are worthless.” Where guilt says, “I did something wrong. And I need to get right with the one I offended.” Know the friends your children hang out with. Know their families as well.

None of us will parent perfectly, but we can go a long way by keeping the channels of dialogue open. We can make your home the safe place to discuss sex—and yes, sex trafficking. It will be uncomfortable, but better an ounce of prevention than a pound of cure.

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