July 30, 2022 is World Day Against Trafficking in Persons. This day was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly to raise awareness about victims of human trafficking and for the promotion and protection of their rights.
When it comes to child sex trafficking, misinformation about what the crime looks like can have real consequences for spotting potential victims and getting them help.
You’ve probably all seen some of the common imagery used to depict child sex trafficking– very young girls in handcuffs, tied up in dark basements. You may also have come across viral social media posts about conspiracy theories about how children are being bought and sold.
Often well-intended, but sometimes misguided or uninformed theories surrounding child sex trafficking can manipulate what our idea of child sex trafficking looks like in reality. When these stories pick up steam on social media, they could be teaching people incorrect information – limiting their ability to recognize the actual red flags and indicators of child sex trafficking if they ever witness them.
“The reality is that trafficking is horrific,” said Staca Shehan, vice president of the Analytical Services Division at NCMEC. “We don't need to compound that with a fear of things that are not likely to happen. This is harmful because myths and misconceptions increase barriers for identification.”
In 2021, of the missing children who had runaway and were likely victims of child sex trafficking 65.8 percent were children of color or Indigenous and 79.8 percent were between the ages of 15 and 17 when they went missing. This is the reality of child sex trafficking that we see every day at NCMEC. When the examples, imagery, and talking points do not reflect this it reduces the likelihood of these children being recognized as victims of exploitation in need of help and support.
The Reality of Child Sex Trafficking
A trafficker can be anyone who buys or sells a child for sex, including family members, foster parents, gangs and perceived trusted adults or romantic partners.
It is common for discussions about child sex trafficking to revolve around a narrative in which a young female is controlled and exploited by a pimp. This is often referred to as pimp-controlled trafficking. While this type of trafficking does occur, there are many versions of this crime. Taking a singular view can exclude experiences shared by survivors, including those that are male, LGBTQ 2 Spirit or Indigenous.
Boys are being targeted and trafficked.
Yes, it’s not just girls. Boys are also victims of child sex trafficking. NCMEC analyzed a group of boys between the ages of 11 and 17 who were reported missing between 2013-2017, all trafficking victims or at high risk for trafficking victimization. The 565 boys reporting missing to NCMEC who had run away comprised 5 percent of all likely child sex trafficking victims reported to NCMEC during that five-year period. We know there are many more male survivors being targeted and exploited. The first step is increasing awareness and busting the myth that this crime only impacts girls.
When we don’t talk about all the ways in which children can be targeted and exploited through sex trafficking, we’re not only doing a disservice to our communities, but it’s also creating opportunities for traffickers to take advantage of misconceptions about things like gender. It can even discourage boys from asking for help due to an increase in stigma and shame. The more we acknowledge and understand that boys are being targeted for trafficking too, the more we will be able to recognize and combat this form of child abuse.
Children can be trafficked in their own homes.
A much less frequently discussed, but common form of child sex trafficking, is familial trafficking. In familial trafficking a child is trafficked by a relative or a person who is considered family, often referred to as “auntie” or “uncle,” but they’re not related to the child. At NCMEC, we’ve seen that these child victims of familial sex trafficking are not typically missing. These children continue to go to school and engage in activities because the appearance of being a “normal” family is directly linked to their safety. Neighbors, teachers, school counselors and medical professionals are most often the key individuals with the ability to notice concerns and raise the red flag.
In addition to unique safety concerns, this form of child sex trafficking also often includes additional barriers to disclosing the abuse. The child may fear being removed from the only home they have ever known. They may worry that if they tell someone, it will negatively impact the non-offending family members in the home. They may also face serious physical repercussions if they disclose and are not believed.
Societal, environmental, familial and individual risk factors put some children at higher risk.
While any child can be targeted by a trafficker, research, data and survivor-lived experience have revealed traffickers and buyers often target youth who lack strong support networks, have experienced violence in the past, are experiencing homelessness or are marginalized by society. This can include children in the child welfare or juvenile justice systems, missing children and homeless youth, especially those who were forced from their homes due to non-acceptance of their gender identity or sexual orientation.
One in 6 of the more than 25,000 missing children reported to NCMEC in 2021 who had run away were likely victims of child sex trafficking. And 19 percent of the children reported missing to NCMEC in 2021 who had run from the care of social services were likely victims of child sex trafficking.
At NCMEC, we’re also seeing the influence of gangs in child sex trafficking. Gangs will recruit children, often because they feel like children will not be held legally responsible for crimes. We have even seen children being recruited by gangs and while being sexually exploited, they are forced to commit violent criminal acts.
Gang-Controlled child sex trafficking cases are complicated. “Many times, trafficking victims within gangs don't recognize themselves as victims,” said Sara, who works on NCMEC’s child sex trafficking team.
“We’ve seen examples of girls made to feel like they are an official member or that they are connected to or associated to the gang. But the truth is, they're not, the gang or gang member just wants to profit from their exploitation.”
Trafficking and Social Media
Based on the reports received at NCMEC we have seen that without a doubt as new technology evolves, traffickers and those looking to exploit children find ways to leverage that technology to accomplish their goals. We see every day how social media and phone apps are being used in ways they were not intended to target, recruit, control and advertise children for sex.
In a scenario of pimp or gang-controlled trafficking, historically a trafficker had to find opportunities to meet and engage children in a public, real-world setting. They would have to spend time building rapport and engaging in recruitment strategies that would capitalize on risk factors and vulnerabilities. With the explosion of social media and phone apps in the past 5-10 years, it’s now much easier to identify and target children online.
In familial trafficking scenarios, those family members controlling and exploiting the child are also able to use these online platforms to connect with buyers and potentially also disseminate/sell child sexual abuse material of the children.
How the Public Can Help
While child sex trafficking is a crime that often takes place behind closed doors, there are physical and behavioral indicators that we should all be aware of and look for. You can read more about those here.
“The public plays a huge role in combating child sex trafficking,” said Tiffany, program manager of NCMEC’s Child Sex Trafficking Team. “What’s important is that you don’t talk yourself out of or try to explain away what might have caused you to notice an indicator. If you suspect a child may be a victim of sex trafficking, report what you observed.”
Here’s how to make a report:
- Visit CyberTipline.org or call 1-800-843-5678 (you do not have to give your name).
- Try to recall details like where the incident took place, information about the adults and children involved, what they looked like and how they were acting, whether there was a vehicle and the vehicle’s description.
- If the victim appears to be in immediate danger, call 911.
NCMEC has call center staff available to speak with you in English or Spanish and can use a translator to assist with any other languages. Please don’t hesitate if something seems off. You may be wrong, but what if you’re right? What if you are the only person that recognized the indicator? Prioritize the possible benefit to the child over the possibility that you may be wrong.
After the Recovery
When a child is removed from a trafficking situation, it’s a pause in that victimization and an important opportunity to provide the services they deserve and need.
“Safety for survivors of child sex trafficking doesn’t only mean freedom from physical harm, but also emotional safety – feeling seen, heard and understood by the adults caring for them,” said Samantha Sahl, supervisor of NCMEC’s Child Sex Trafficking Recovery Services Team. This newly created team provides resources to child welfare workers, foster parents and youth-serving providers who are working to meet the needs of survivors. This team works with child welfare professionals on effective strategies for youth engagement and safety planning with youth while they are missing and at the time of recovery.
It’s important to learn from survivors.
To strengthen our existing efforts to prevent, identify and serve survivors of child sex trafficking, NCMEC launched the Child Sex Trafficking Survivor Expert Working Group. These expert consultants are working with NCMEC to ensure our programs are informed by the lived experience and professional expertise of those who have survived this type of abuse.
“What the survivor expert working group has done is break down the barriers around all too familiar narratives about trafficking,” said Melissa Snow, executive director of NCMEC’s Child Sex Trafficking Programs. “They have helped us ensure the information we share is reflective of a diverse group of survivors, their experiences, unique needs, and stories. Working with this group of professionals pushes us as an organization to ensure all efforts on this issue are survivor-informed, child-centered and trauma-informed.”
It takes all of us to stop child sex trafficking.
Be responsible. Do your part to educate yourself about this crime and pay attention in your community. Don’t let misinformation about what trafficking looks like keep you from seeing all the many versions of this crime. There is no one version of what child sex trafficking looks like. Combatting child sex trafficking begins with being informed. Educate yourself with the tools to better understand the problem and how to recognize it.
Ready to learn more? NCMEC offers an online child sex trafficking training that’s free and available to the public. This training offers three modules and builds a comprehensive foundation on the issue of child sex trafficking for all audiences including law enforcement, child welfare and concerned citizens.
Visit www.missingkids.org/trafficking to learn more.