When you hear the phrase “commercial sexual exploitation of children,” what do you think?

You may think that sex trafficking only happens overseas to young girls. Actually, commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking occur every day in the United States. Its victims are male, female and transgender youths living in cities and small towns across America. The average age of introduction into the commercial sex trade industry is 12 years old.

Do you think these children who are commercially sexually exploited or trafficked for sex are recognized as victims of crime and abuse?

Actually, commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking is child abuse. However, children and adolescent victims are often arrested for prostitution, detained or incarcerated and subject to permanent records as offenders in most of the United States.

Do you think that people who buy sex with minors or engage in the act of sex with minors are caught and punished for these crimes?

Actually, despite laws in every state that allow prosecution of these individuals, and despite the hard work of law enforcement and prosecutors in many jurisdictions, a majority of those who have sexually exploited children and adolescents have mostly escaped accountability.

What exactly is commercial sexual exploitation of children (or CSEC)?

Commercial sexual exploitation of children occurs when individuals buy, trade or sell sexual acts with a child. Sex trafficking is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act.

Children who are involved in the commercial sex industry are victims of severe forms of “trafficking in persons,” which is sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud or coercion and in which the person has not attained 18 years of age.

In short, CSEC is a form of violence against children.

Commercial sexual exploitation of children can involve street prostitution, escort services, pornography, stripping, private parties, gang-based prostitution, Internet-based exploitation and interfamilial pimping.

Given this information, you may now be asking yourself how a child becomes a victim of CSEC?

Children and adolescents are often targeted. Predators will quite often seek out vulnerable victims, such as runaways or children experiencing problems at home. Predators know that those children have emotional and physical needs that are not being met at home, so they step in and meet those needs.

Predators are not always strangers, they may also be a parent or family member.

Children and adolescents are often tricked. Predators will spend a great deal of time and money to gain their victims’ trust and loyalty. Quite often the predator will “groom” the child, buying them gifts, providing them a place to stay, plying them with affection and “love.”

On occasion these predators will also provide drugs and alcohol to the child in order to get the child addicted. They then use this addiction to further control the child and get them to do whatever is needed to feed their addiction.

Children and adolescents are often traumatized. Predators will use control (threats and violence) to manipulate their victims. They will often use love as a manipulating factor, having the child believe that it is the predator who truly loves and cares for them and that if they were to leave, no one else would want them.

Targeting, tricking and traumatizing children and adolescents makes them feel powerless and trapped. Many of these victims have no one to turn to for help and support, so they become further bonded to their abuser(s).

Sadly, most victims of CSEC also have a prior history of sexual violence victimization. Youths who live in shelters or on the streets may also engage or be coerced into trading sex for food, shelter, other basic needs or drugs.

Finally, you may ask yourself how to spot the signs of commercial sexual exploitation of children.

There are many “red flags” or signs to look for, such as visible signs of abuse: changes in physical appearance; unexplained absences from home, school or residence; multiple cell phones or pagers; involvement with a male who is older and controlling; a history of multiple sexually transmitted infections; unexplained tattoos; interest in pornography or sex trades; loss of interest in age-appropriate activities; drug use and/or addiction and disconnection from family or other caregivers.

Anyone having concerns about a child or adolescent regarding the commercial sexual exploitation of children may contact DHHS Child Protection: 1-800-452-1999; the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children: www.cybertipline.com; or the National Human Trafficking Resource Center: 1-888-373-7888.

Keri Myrick is coordinator and forensic interviewer at the Androscoggin Children’s Advocacy Center.

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