January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. There’s no better time to educate yourself on the vital issue of human trafficking, especially child sex trafficking. Being well-versed on how to identify, prevent and report these crimes can help save lives.
Human trafficking is the exploitation of people through force, fraud or coercion for their bodies and labor. While often hard to identify, the reality is that people everywhere are being bought and sold against their will. There are more people enslaved today than at any other time in history, with roughly 40.3 million people currently enslaved representing every age, race, gender identity, sex, ethnicity, nationality, immigration status and socioeconomic class.
Child sex trafficking occurs when a child under 18 is advertised, solicited or exploited through a commercial sex act. A commercial sex act is any sex act where something of value – such as money, drugs, or a place to stay – is given to or received by any person for sexual activity. While any child can be targeted, we know through research, data and survivor-lived experience that traffickers and buyers often target youth who lack strong support networks, have experienced violence in the past, are experiencing housing insecurity or homelessness or are marginalized by society.
How this happens
While media often portrays stereotypes of trafficking and traffickers, the reality is that perpetrators come in all shapes and sizes. Traffickers may be family members, foster parents, gangs or perceived trusted adults or romantic partners. In some cases, there is no identified trafficker, and it is the person buying sex from the child who is exploiting their vulnerabilities. For instance, if a child runs away, a buyer may exploit the child’s need for shelter by offering to provide that in exchange for sex.
Perpetrators prey upon vulnerabilities using psychological pressure and intimidation to control and sexually exploit victims for their benefit, often targeting missing children with false promises of love, safety and affection. They use threats of physical or sexual violence, substance dependency, shame or blackmail to instill fear and establish power. They might also take advantage of their need for food, clothing, money and shelter.
With increased reliance on technology for social interaction, especially during the global pandemic, perpetrators of sex trafficking are using the internet to entice more children online. Online enticement involves an individual communicating with someone believed to be a child, via the internet, with the intent to commit a sexual offense or abduction. In 2020, there was a 97.5% increase in reports of online enticement to NCMEC’s CyberTipline®.
Traffickers are also using the internet more frequently as a recruitment tool to reach a larger buyer network than in the past. Online platforms such as dating sites and social media can provide the opportunity for traffickers and buyers to establish contact with and gather information from vulnerable people. They identify potential victims and establish a relationship of trust with the sole purpose of exploiting them. This process of recruitment online can be a steppingstone to trafficking and further exploitation.
But not all hope is lost. There are ways in which we can prevent all forms of human trafficking, particularly child sex trafficking. We can harness the power of education by learning indicators and risk factors of trafficking, and equipping potential victims with information about healthy relationships, boundaries and general online safety skills.
Know indicators and risk factors of child sex trafficking
Survivors of child sex trafficking often are unable to identify themselves as victims or disclose their abuse because of fear, shame or loyalty to their abuser(s). It is not a child’s responsibility to ask for help. It is up to professionals and trusted adults in the child’s life to recognize the signs associated with child sex trafficking. Indicators or red flags should not be considered a checklist or an assessment tool. Rather, if observed they may be an opportunity to ask more questions, make a report to NCMEC’s CyberTipline® or connect the child to resources for prevention or intervention.
Indictors may include:
- Frequent missing incidents (children who run away often or for long periods of time are often running to or fleeing from an unsafe situation).
- Signs of sexual or physical abuse.
- Symptoms of neglect such as malnourishment.
- Possession of unexplained hotel keys, prepaid cards or material items inconsistent with the child's access to socioeconomic status.
- Frequent absences from school or withdrawing from activities they previously enjoyed.
- Abrupt disconnection from family and friends.
- Being overly frightened, annoyed, resistant or belligerent to authority figures.
Risk factors may include:
- Lack of resources.
- Involvement in child welfare or juvenile justice systems.
- Lack of acceptance of gender identity or sexual orientation.
- Housing instability/homelessness.
- History of trauma.
- Lack of supportive family or adult figures.
These are only a handful of risk factors and indicators of trafficking, you can learn more at www.missingkids.org/trafficking and at www.a21.org/human-trafficking. Understanding common indicators and risk factors may help identify opportunities to proactively intervene to prevent trafficking.
If you suspect a child is being trafficked, make a report immediately by calling NCMEC at 1-800-THE-LOST or visiting CyberTipline.org.
Stay tuned for our next blog about healthy and unhealthy relationships and child sex trafficking.