Imagine being a young girl who—from very early childhood—was sold for sex by her father to support his drug addiction. A young girl who took a decade to figure out that her life wasn’t “normal” and that her father was lying when he said that “only special little girls” got to stay up late and go to “parties.” A young girl who figured her father, who said he loved her, would just stop hurting her when she asked him to stop. Instead, he feared she was beginning to understand what was happening and left.
That young girl was me. I was sexually abused and exploited by my father from a very early age right here in the United States. Pennsylvania-born and raised. My father “advertised” me primarily to truckers through a CB radio and set up my “interactions” at truck and rest stops along the major highways near our home. He’d also occasionally host house parties in our backyard garage and offer me up for sex.
I went to school and played sports right alongside kids from “normal,” stable families and then went home to a family engulfed in intergenerational cycles of abuse, poverty, addiction, and mental illness.
Unfortunately, my story isn’t uncommon: 300,000 youth nationwide are at risk of being lured into the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC). A history of child sexual abuse and poverty are the two primary risk factors for domestic minor sex trafficking. Between 75 to 90 percent of kids who are commercially exploited have been sexually abused, often by someone they know and trust. Additionally, UNICEF ranks the U.S. second among industrialized nations for children living in poverty.
While these statistics may sound staggering, what’s more shocking is that kids are often unable to get the support they need. Children who are sexually exploited often face a social stigma that somehow labels them as the “bad kids.” I experienced this directly—teachers and coaches ignored these warning signs or stopped asking questions when I had black eyes, unkempt hair, and defiant outbursts. What’s more, well-meaning youth agencies and clinicians are often not able to provide the type of help and stability sexually exploited children need. Lack of adequately trained staff, long-term safe housing, and employment opportunities keep CSEC victims at risk for returning to their exploiters. Predators are expert manipulators who know just the right promises to make to children who do not feel like they belong or deserve to be anywhere else.
I was lucky enough to be referred to a therapist my senior year of high school, thus beginning my journey away from my family. Then in my mid-twenties I was introduced to a leading trauma specialist and fully unraveled the abuse, abandonment, and exploitation. I’ve since made it a life mission to speak up for and alongside CSEC victims and survivors who, historically, have few people looking out for them in a comprehensive way. Direct service agencies provide invaluable support and safety to exploited children. However, I strongly believe CSEC is most effectively combated at a systemic level, when those working on the front lines are working in partnership with advocacy and research organizations.
Groups like ECPAT International and its U.S. affiliate ECPAT-USA are dedicated to stopping CSEC, and work to raise awareness of, and advocate for, this issue, ensuring a movement is implemented in the US and around the world to change conversation and legislation around CSEC. They are fighting the problem at its core. In fact, ECPAT was the recent recipient of the 2013 Hilton Humanitarian Prize for its work on this issue. Dorothy Rozga, executive director of ECPAT International, stated, “the Prize is an impetus for ECPAT to accelerate action as we seek to build a world where no child is a victim of child prostitution, child pornography or trafficking for sexual purposes.” I hope the Prize does accelerate ECPAT’s work both here in the U.S. and around the world.
I’m inspired by this commitment to combat CSEC at a deeper level as I truly believe that social stigmas towards CSEC, particularly the notion that exploited children willingly choose abuse, can hinder the implementation of the programs and resources necessary to eradicate this complex atrocity. Without addressing how the struggles children often face before being exploited—such as poverty, unstable housing, and family abuse—isolate children and leave them vulnerable to exploitation, we can miss crucial opportunities to intervene before manipulative exploiters begin the grooming process. From certain rehabilitation organizations to the American justice system –commercially sexually exploited children are being discriminated against and, thus, leaving them vulnerable to revictimization.
For example, I have experienced a few organizations who directly work with CSEC survivors who have the attitude, “these are helpless girls, they must be rescued and they must be grateful they are being rescued, and if we work with them, and aren’t we fabulous for rescuing them.” This “rescue” mentality perpetuates the myth that one person or event can “save” a child from exploitation and completely discounts the very determination and skills that have kept her alive. In fact, on average, seven attempts must be made before a survivor fully exits sexual exploitation (the same as domestic violence). CSEC survivors have been betrayed, let down, and lied to most of their lives—often for the material and physical gains of others. Let’s ask “Why doesn’t he just stop?” instead of “Why doesn’t she just leave?”
Then there is the American justice system. The central issue facing the justice system is whether it views and treats prostituted girls and boys as victims or offenders. How can that be? According to the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a person under 18 who is “induced to perform” a commercial sex act is a victim of a severe form of trafficking (22 U.S.C. 7102). Yet, under most state prostitution statutes, a person engaging in a commercial sex act is committing a crime, even if that person is under the age of 18. It’s a complete contradiction.
Things are starting to change. We are finally seeing a level of awareness by social workers, police, FBI, health care workers and others, that these are children who need help, not punishment. This is why ECPAT-USA’s work in guidance, policy recommendations, and advocacy strive to improve the response to exploitation—which is of upmost importance for combating the issue of CSEC. It needs to be combated at the systemic level. Carol Smolenski, Executive Director of ECPAT-USA says, “But it is not easy to fix. The child welfare, family support and criminal justice systems all need to be reformed because they do not have the tools, resources and training to adequately address this issue, and therefore these children become highly vulnerable to being recruited into the sex market.” In essence, federal and state legislation is what needs to change— it is of vital importance for these children and those who could be future victims.
As a survivor, I firmly believe we must address child sexual abuse and poverty in the United States if we can ever hope to eradicate CSEC. The reality that one in four girls and one in five boys is sexually abused and that one in four children live in poverty in America is unconscionable. Add in the additional elements of CSEC’s “perfect storm,” such as sexualization of children, demand, victim-blaming, and inadequate resources, and an end may seem virtually impossible. Yet, I still hold onto hope that we, as a culture, can (and must) provide the basic human rights and developmental needs forall children, particularly sexually exploited youth, to be healthy and safe.
Elaine, now 43 years old, is a successful social scientist-activist who works at a major university in Boston where she focuses on research and training programs on Relational-Cultural Theory, the U.S. Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) and children's human rights. She is happily married, with an adopted child. Note: her name has been changed in this article to protect her identity as her abusive father is still alive.