Child Sex Trafficking: Probably not what you think

This is what Shandel, then 13, said his friend told him at a party he had taken 12 years ago.

And that’s where it all began, ”Shandel, now 25, recalled. Gradually, the man he thought was the only man he loved or even cared for demanded more. Much more – and he said he would physically abuse him if he refused.

Even now, it’s hard for Shandel – who asked CNN to use only his first name because of privacy concerns – to talk to strangers about what he forced on the men.

He left an offensive situation at home – his father was on drugs and his mother “had her own affairs,” Shandel said. The man he left home was “the first person who felt he loved me.”

“In hindsight, it wasn’t love, it was love,” he said. “It was like I didn’t do these things, you don’t want to.”

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Shandel is among the many victims of the sex trade, the commercial sexual exploitation of children. While the term human trafficking evokes many images of children abducted on the streets, smuggled across borders and moving from one place to another, social workers and researchers say it is rare.

Many who work with children or study the problem prefer the commercial term the sexual exploitation of children against human trafficking, as it provides a much clearer picture of what is happening.

Most victims know their exploiters

The most vulnerable children are those living in poverty, often known to child protection services, in foster care, usually in unstable conditions, social workers and researchers say. Many were sexually abused as children before they became victims.

“As much as there may be stories of conspiracies targeting relatively safe, relatively less vulnerable people, the truth is on the hotline,” said Robert Beiser, director of strategic initiatives for sexual trafficking at Polaris, the national human trafficking operator. Hotline.

“Our data shows that people are being exploited because traffickers know that there are groups of people who have no support, no opportunity for accountability or justice for themselves,” Beiser said. “And people who, if exploited, are much less likely to have any problems as traders or sex buyers.”

And children are much more likely to know and even relate to their exploiters than to be captured by a stranger, experts say.

“Hollywood loves very dramatic kidnappings and similar stories, but that’s not usually the case in human trafficking cases,” said Jonathan Todres, a law professor at Georgia State University who focuses on child trafficking.

“Usually someone they know or someone they know. So a partner might introduce them to someone who ends up recruiting into a human trafficking ring.”

Focusing on foreigners seizing children or child trafficking, one misses the point, ”said Rachel Lloyd, who was trafficked as a teenager and later founded New York’s nonprofit GEMS, which helps survivors recover their lives. .

“There are girls who are kidnapped and forced into life, but that’s not the most common,” said Lloyd, whose organization helps hundreds of surviving girls and young women every year.

Rachel Lloyd, a survivor in the sex trade, founded GEMS to help other surviving youth.

“It’s not an alien threat the way we want to think about it. It’s about vulnerability and risk to meet a billion-dollar industry full of exploitative predators who are either Johns or simple predators who constantly meet the need for care.”

There are no reliable estimates of the number of victims

Researchers say it is impossible to account for how many children are exploited for sexual exploitation because there is simply no system to track it.

Depending on how the authorities identify them, children could be prosecuted as juvenile offenders, a child welfare case, a fugitive, says Samantha Vardaman of Shared Hope International, which is tasked with ending the sex trade.

“The label assigned to the child will determine if they will ever be included in the base number for commercial sexual exploitation,” Vardaman said.

The U.S. National Trafficking Hotline identified 22,326 victims and survivors of human trafficking last year. Of these, 14,597 were sex traffickers and 1,048 were sex and labor traffickers, or forced someone to work by fraud or coercion. According to the hotline, agricultural and domestic work is a common path to labor trade.

The average age of human trafficking was 17 years, and the number of seniors identified by the hotline is suddenly declining. The amount of younger victims was about the same as the number of 17-year-olds.

Many victims are fleeing the damage

Experts say the exploiters are almost always men, and the victims are usually women, although the boys are also trafficked. Initially, some girls think the man will help them in a better life.

“Maybe they’re dating them for a couple of weeks. Maybe they think they’re a manager who will shape their dancing career,” Lloyd said. “I’ve seen girls thinking they’re going to have a career in the entertainment industry.

Others thought the man was a landlord who offered them an apartment, he said, with a strong bait for a homeless girl or a woman who wanted to escape the domestic violence situation.

Most kids “don’t go out on the streets, but run away from some kind of harm,” said Todres, the law professor. “And at that moment, they feel that the street is a better solution. And that’s a really deep finding.”

One observation made by the staff of WellHouse, a survivors ’facility in Odenville, Alabama, was that many girls and women were sexually abused as children.

Alabama’s WellHouse helps survivors recover and prosper.

According to Carolyn Potter, director of The WellHouse, her father trafficked a child with an adult woman living there.

Carolyn Potter was the CEO of The WellHouse for six years.

“He just described his whole horror,” Potter said. “And then, when he was able to leave the family home and feel his brothers were safe … as an adult, he became human trafficking and immediately fell back.”

WellHouse is home to adults of commercial sexual exploitation on its peaceful 63-acre campus and many young women who have been trafficked for years, starting in their teens, Potter said.

As a client of the organization, it also employs children and will work in the spring of 2021 to provide a home for children. According to Potter, the average age of children is 14 years.

Commercial sexual exploitation the children are “really everywhere,” Beiser said. “People ask us a lot about what hot spots might be, and I think that means there are people who do bad things in one place. Who are vulnerable. We see that it’s almost exactly proportional to the country’s population.”

Although it is more prevalent in urban areas, rural areas are not spared and the internet has widened the network of exploiters, experts say.

It also pushed a lot of activity out of sight, Lloyd said, making it difficult to identify the victims.

Victims of the sex trade are often criminalized

When girls are picked up by the police, they are often charged with a crime.

Prostitution and buying sex is “a relatively equivalent crime in most states,” Beiser said. “Even though people in prostitution do this not to be homeless or to feed themselves. But no one buys sex out of some kind of survival need.”

A minor girl arrested for prostitution in 19 U.S. states can be “charged with prostitution and, as a result, convicted of a crime,” Vardaman says.

The issue is what Shared Hope International has been working on for many years, he said.

When Lloyd arrived in the United States more than 20 years ago, he worked as a missionary, primarily for women in the sex industry, and with teenagers and pretentious people who ran into the streets and even in prison all the time. Shortly afterwards, he founded GEMS from his kitchen table.

Progress has been made in some cities and states. Christine Raino of Shared Hope International says Minnesota has abolished criminal liability for child prostitution.

In Seattle and King’s County in Washington, there are almost no arrests for people living in prostitution, but “sex buyers have a significant responsibility, especially those who try to buy sex from children,” Beiser says.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars in such fines go directly to direct services for survivors of commercial sexual exploitation, Beiser said.

New York no longer charges minors for prostitution, Lloyd said. While this is progress, it is also an intervention point for social workers like Lloyd, he said.

“Over the past 18 years, we have seen tremendous progress in the ability to serve survivors, resulting from situations like this,” Beiser said. “And raising awareness of whether social inequality, and even criminal justice systems, is focused on criminalizing victims of human trafficking for crimes such as prostitution, rather than on sex buyers, who have full control over who is exploited. “

This progress includes an increase in the services provided by GEMS and The WellHouse. Both help women in education, safe housing and financial education.

And these places offer truly invaluable value to survivors: they can share their stories with other people who have gone through the same life-shattering experience.

Today Shandel is thriving. She works as a college graduate as a marketer, has a family, and helps mentor other GEMS survivors.

The Covid-19 effect

While it is difficult to understand the impact of the Covid-19 epidemic on the commercial sexual exploitation of children, it is clear that it endangers more children, Beiser said.

People who may escape human trafficking situations by looking for jobs or shelter find that shelters have reduced capacity or have been closed due to a pandemic, says Beiser, and “many nonprofits have had to close because they don’t get the resources what they need. “

“Since the Covid epidemic, the call for an emergency shelter has increased significantly,” he said.

“We will see an echo of what Covid has done to make people more economically vulnerable, unfortunately in the coming years if we do not put in place appropriate policies to help people.”

The epidemic also made it difficult to help survivors. At GEMS in New York, everything except the survivors ’housing has become virtual, Lloyd said.