Sex Trafficking as a Growing Epidemic

Sex trafficking is an international epidemic that is growing. This sweeping problem is not limited to adults. It preys on the young and vulnerable. This paper will focus a great deal of attention on how a person’s upbringing may make them vulnerable to becoming a victim of sex trafficking.

Before we proceed, it will prove beneficial to define sex trafficking. According to an international definition, “Sex trafficking is the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons under threat, force, coercion, fraud, deception, or abuse of power are sexually exploited for the financial gain of another.” Based on this definition, sex trafficking is when someone completely takes advantage of another person and forces them to become a sex slave for profit.

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Given that the problem is global, we might be led to think that this crisis is only on the other end of the world, or somewhere far away. In fact, it is a problem close to home. An instance of sex trafficking in Portland, Oregon involved an innocent, young girl named Elesia Lopez. A man paid her mother for the rights to make Elesia his sex slave so that her mother could buy drugs. As a result, she became pregnant at a very young age and gave her baby up for adoption. She later ran away from a homeless shelter that she had been staying at and once again became a victim of sex trafficking after a pimp took advantage of her. When she was 15 years old, she became pregnant a second time with twins. Elesia eventually escaped her pimp, but not long after, her pimp found her and beat her until she miscarried one of her children. The other twin survived but was born prematurely. Her pimp was sentenced to prison and now she is helping other youth who went through similar situations involving sex slavery. Elesia works with an organization called Sexual Assault Resource Center. Their goal is to put an end to sex trafficking, especially in Portland where sex trafficking is a major issue.

Sex trafficking is one of the many forms of human trafficking and is a major issue in American society as well as around the world. It is not a problem that surfaced recently. Rather, it has been around for decades. It is an underrated crime that should be taken more seriously by the community and by law enforcement.

Sex trafficking and its outcomes is no respecter of persons. This form of manipulation and abuse can have a severe impact on an individual’s life regardless of whether they are male or female, a youth or adult, a straight person or a member of the LGBTQ community. The sex trafficking industry is worth billions of dollars and continues to grow in profit and size.

In the United States, many people who are victims of sex trafficking are children and teenagers. As a result of sex trafficking’s devastating effects on them, children in the industry are said to live only until they are around the age of 7. Every year, hundreds of thousands of teens in America are in danger of being trafficked, approximately 100,000-300,000 teens to be exact, with 1 in 5 of them being male. The industry continues to grow and thrive not only because of the traffickers luring victims but also because of public demand. Because of this demand, traffickers are given more opportunities to continue this crime and gain profit from it; meanwhile, the justice system does not put forth severe punishment against traffickers. A few traffickers who were caught in previous years were sentenced only to approximately three years behind bars. Such a small penalty relative to the crime induces sex traffickers to continue down their corrupt path.

Contributing Factors to Victimization

Many factors can lead people, specifically children and youth, into sex trafficking. This includes vulnerability due to early childhood trauma, such as sexual abuse, typically at their homes. Feelings of neglect and isolation, amongst other things, also increase vulnerability. Youth who are a part of the LGBTQ community are more at risk for sex trafficking than youth who are not. This is because they likely feel neglected, isolated and marginalized in society. Youth who are runaways or homeless are at an increasingly high risk of being trafficked because they are in such a vulnerable situation without any strong support system.

Sex traffickers look for potential victims in any environment, including surroundings that  parents would deem safe areas, such as school grounds and establishments providing extracurricular activities. Sex traffickers look for victims in shopping malls, through connections with previous trafficked victims, via text and other social media platforms. Many girls who are victims of sex trafficking are said to live to be less than twenty years of age due to sexually transmitted diseases they have contracted from being in the industry. Victims of sex trafficking can be difficult to spot. Some appear in public places, blending in with ordinary people, whereas other trafficked individuals are concealed from society as a whole. Sex traffickers use certain things to their advantage when attempting to bring in new victims. This includes manipulation and false promises, especially when the victim is a foreigner. They are typically unaware of their new surroundings, do not speak the language of the host country fluently, and often are without sufficient means to support themselves in a new location, and so on. Once the trafficker has tricked them and roped them in, they tell their victims that they are in debt to them for previous expenses such as travel costs that they may have incurred, and therefore, use this to involve their victims in the sex industry until they can “pay off their debt”. The “debt” that these victims have to pay off are typically blown out of proportion and exceed the actual cost that they hypothetically owe the traffickers. Sex traffickers put up ads throughout social media networks and on various websites in order to sell their victims. Traffickers often lie about how old their victims are to clients, also known as johns. Although the age of the victim does not usually tend to matter to these johns, considering that most of these victims are young teenagers.

Commercial sex is another term that can be used for sex trafficking victims for what they experience, such as prostitution and pornography. Adults eighteen or over are not truly considered victims of sex trafficking unless they are proven to be forced or threatened into doing sexual acts for the purpose of commercial sex. Sexually exploited minors, however, are immediately considered victims of sex trafficking if they perform sexual acts regardless of any consent that may have been given for the purpose of commercial sex. It is worth noting that at times in the past, children in this situation were not seen as victims of abuse, but rather, viewed as violating the laws against sex trafficking/prostitution. This led to children being unwilling to go to the authorities for help. Another factor that prevented these children from going to the authorities was peer pressure. If a child went to find help, this would often ruin their ‘street cred’, simply because being considered tough was vital for street life. A child who did not appear tough would be more vulnerable. Their apparent weakness made them potentially more vulnerable to being victimized and abused. Fear of the authorities continues to steer children away from receiving the help that they desperately need. Pimps often use this fear as a method to manipulate the child to further instill abuse and gain more control over the victim.

Outcomes from sex trafficking can include sexually transmitted diseases and drug abuse, whether it began by force caused by the trafficker, or as a means to help cope with the abuse, as well as pregnancies, urinary issues, pelvic issues, dangerous abortions, and various forms of mental health problems, which can cause long-term damage to an individual.

Some studies have shown that many of these teens come from highly dysfunctional families, have spent several years in foster care, or have been homeless for long durations of time. Victims of sex trafficking may have experienced many forms of abuse from their families, particularly physical abuse. As a result, these teens search for a different life for themselves and often leave their family homes and end up on the streets. Once they leave their homes, they are vulnerable to being trafficked.

Traffickers prey on these teens’ desperate state and deceive them into thinking that they will offer them a better life and care for them. The pimps will give gifts to these vulnerable youth and provide for their needs until they trust them. Once these vulnerable youth are ‘groomed’ for sex trafficking, the pimps will begin selling them to johns. Teens who are coerced into sex trafficking often view their situation as their means of survival. They become terrified of leaving their pimp for fear that the pimp will physically hurt them and their families.

Regardless of protecting one’s street cred, it might be obvious for some to think that those being trafficked would flee to the police; however, according to some reports, trafficked individuals who were taken into custody by the police would often find that the police were unsympathetic to their situation, blaming the victims, claiming it was their decision to be in the sex industry. Moreover, pimps who were worried about their victims going to the police would do as much as possible to prevent this situation from occurring since it would negatively affect their ‘business’. Pimps would create a culture of fear by violently beating another victim as a means to ‘warn’ the other victims of what they will experience if anything were to happen that could potentially cause the pimp to lose profit. It has also been observed that those being trafficked have expressed greater fear of being in prison than staying with their pimp. Such fear was the result of extensive manipulation and trauma that they had experienced from being with a trafficker and being trafficked as a sex slave. After being manipulated and abused for so long, the fear of returning to a place or community where they had no support system was even more frightening than remaining as a victim of sex trafficking.

The victim eventually becomes completely dependent on their pimp, since the pimp severs all ties that the victim may still have had with loved ones; their last ounce of affection, no matter how toxic the situation may be, is rendered to the pimp. Even basic necessities such as food, water, medical care, and bathroom usage are allowed only when the pimp permits it. Despite this, the pimp tends to monitor how much of these vital resources the victim receives. The victim is no longer considered a human being nor is given the rights of one. Rather, he or she is merely a piece of property that is used for the benefit of pimps and their johns. The longer this continues the more the victim is expected to have an appreciation for their enslaver, even for something as simple as the pimp allowing them to live.

As noted above, youth who have experienced childhood sexual abuse in their family homes are much more likely to eventually become involved in sex trafficking. This is due to these teens running away at a young age. They become vulnerable to dangerous situations and entrust themselves to people who persuade them into sex trafficking and prostitution. Females in this situation have been shown to have a larger background of childhood sexual abuse than their male counterparts. Sexual abuse that begins at a young age in an individual’s home often leads to various mental health issues that increase one’s vulnerability to being manipulated and coerced once they are on the streets.

Research has also shown that youth who grow up in a dysfunctional family are often taught the fundamentals of future street life. Because of childhood sexual abuse and its impact on children, individuals experience neglect and isolation from their fellow peers. This stands in contrast to those who have had a normal upbringing. This leads troubled youth to associate with peers who have been raised in a similar environment, thus, creating a more compromising situation for the teen in question. Pimps acknowledge the minor’s vulnerability and use this to their ‘advantage’. The pimp will often play a role of a caring “boyfriend” and then utilize this to convince and force the teen to become a prostitute so that he can earn profit from them.

Although the way in which a child is raised may severely impact their chances of becoming involved in sex trafficking, sex traffickers do not have any limits when it comes to who they approach as potential sex trafficking victims. Furthermore, sex traffickers are willing to go to extreme lengths in order to manipulate their victims so that they can make large sums of money by selling children to adults who knowingly pay to have sexual relations with a minor.

However, sex traffickers do not victimize children alone. They are driven by society’s demand, including such things as pornography, clientele, and profit, thus securing a constant supply-and-demand cycle. The adults who contribute to child abuse will continue to do so unless further punishment by the authorities is administered. Sex trafficking, and its long term effects on people, specifically children and youth, is not taken seriously enough by the authorities and society as a whole. The longer this issue is ignored, the more likely the industry of sex trafficking will grow. This is especially so, when taking into consideration how much money sex traffickers gain from exploiting teens through manipulating and forcing them into being slaves. The cost to the victims is even more alarming, both physically and emotionally.

Sex trafficking leaves its imprint on all of us, one way or another. We are all oppressed and in need of liberation and healing. We cannot stand idly by, looking only at the facts and forces that make many people vulnerable to sex trafficking.

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