Emotional Health

Sex Trafficking and the Exploitation of Our Children

Children are purchased for sex at least 2.5 million times a year in the United States.

USA Today columnist Tim Swarens recently completed a multi-part investigation into what is one of the most disturbing problems facing our world today: the sex trafficking of children. It is a growing problem in the US and worldwide. It is estimated by the United Nations’ International Labour Organization  that 4.8 million people were forced to work in the sex trade in 2016, mostly girls and women. “Sex trafficking. . . is a $99 billion a year industry,” Swarens writes. “The exploitation of more than 1 million children accounts for more than 20 percent of those profits.”

Swarens’ investigation pointed to several reasons why this trade, ranking just behind drugs and arms trafficking as the most widespread of international crimes, is increasing. He cites rising global incomes, cheaper air travel and better internet access. “In short, it’s cheaper and easier than ever for adults to exploit children,” he writes.

While most of the money allocated to fighting trafficking goes to finding and stopping the traffickers, the “clients” face little or no risk. Authorities explain their resources are limited and they have to use them where they will do the most good. But Swarens and others point out that if the customers have no fear of reprisal, someone will find a way to supply them with the children they seek. Sex “tourism” has evolved to help men travel to countries where they can abuse children without any fear of consequences. Bjorn Sellstrom, the head of INTERPOL’s Crimes Against Children unit in Lyon, France, said “It’s fairly free of risk to travel to another country and abuse children.”

While men who are pedophiles and who specifically want to have sex with prepubescent kids, are definitely part of the group of customers, some men who wind up having sex with young girls describe themselves as victims of circumstances. Their defense is that they have no way of knowing that the girl that is advertised (usually on the Internet) is underage. Nevertheless, very few walk away, and almost no one calls the authorities. “ECPAT International researchers found that most  men who pay to exploit children are opportunists. They don’t set out specifically to buy sex with a child, but neither do they walk away when faced with the temptation,” according to Swarens.

Typically children are enslaved between the ages of 12 to 16, but some are much younger children. Some are kidnapped, while other vulnerable girls are targeted as easy marks. Promises of jobs, shelter, etc. that are extended can easily fool kids that are naïve and desperate. The researchers found that the average age of victims is 15 and that each child is purchased an estimated 5-6 times a day. Some victims were coerced into having sex with more than 30 men in a week, and some many more.

Even if they are rescued, the scars that are left on the victims are incalculable. Alex Trouteaud, director of policy and research with Demand Abolition, a Massachusetts-based organization that works to reduce demand for commercial sex,  says ‘That child will have to fight the stigma of what happened to her for the rest of her life. . .Meanwhile, the buyers will never be held accountable. It’s what we call the culture of impunity.’

Swarens explains, “Prosecutors note that they face several obstacles in pursuing charges, including the need to show that a buyer knew or should have known that the person he paid to exploit was underage. Victims — traumatized, frightened, frequently dependent on drugs and alcohol  — often don’t make strong witnesses. Prosecutors also must weigh whether putting a child on the stand, where defense cross examinations can be rough, will further wound the victim.”

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