Nothing foreign about it: The commercial sexual exploitation of children in America

When we think about sex trafficking, we tend to think of it as a foreign problem. Something that happens in eastern Europe, in south east Asia. Not something that happens in the American south, or on America’s east coast. But we’re wrong.
Last week at the No Violence Against Women conference, run by the National Council for Research on Women and UNIFEM, and hosted by Hunter College, I attended a presentation about the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) right here in America.
The organization A Future Not a Past, has been working on this issue for over a decade. It’s a problem that’s growing, and quickly. In New York in February 2010 alone, 2830 girls under the age of 18 were trafficked into commercial sex. In Georgia, it was 492 girls, up from 251 in February 2007. That’s 7200 men paying for sex with girls in the state of Georgia every month, and with the increased ease and anonymity of internet trafficking, those numbers are expected to rise over the next three years.

Kaffie McCullough, CSEC Program Manager at A Future, Not a Past, said that runaway populations are particularly at risk of being trafficked, and warned about the use of social networking sites to target adolescent girls (and the numbers we have available don’t take into account girls who are undocumented immigrants, who are also a vulnerable population). Because prostitution is illegal, it’s often the girls who end up being punished. But the girls, McCullough said, are not the problem. “We have to help legislators and law enforcement see these girls as victims and not as criminals,” she said. The real problem, she said, is on the demand side. The real problem is the buyers who are fuelling the industry and not being arrested.
Alex Trouteaud, an analyst who has been doing research on the economic patterns of CSEC for several years now, said that of the thousands of men paying for sex with minors in American every year, only 10% of them are “actively and openly and directly seeking” to have sex with an adolescent. But in a study that Trouteaud and his team ran, they found that 47% of men calling an escort service will continue with the transaction after they’ve been informed outright that the woman whose time they’re paying for is not in fact a woman, but a child.
So who are these men who pay for sex with children? Trouteaud says that in Georgia, 26% of them come from Atlanta’s urban core, while over 40% live in the affluent, largely white suburbs to the north of the city. “These are men from your subdivision,” he said. “These are men who, when they’re done with their golf game at the country club, order up sex with an adolescent like they’d order a pizza.”
While the girls are clearly not to blame, it would be foolish to attribute CSEC solely to the individual johns. “We like to think there’s something wrong in the hard-wiring of these men,” McCullough said. “What I’ve been trying to get people to understand is how sadly normal it is.” It’s a cultural problem, the panelists agreed, rooted in what we teach men about when it’s acceptable to have sex, and in how we sexualize young girls and their bodies, and teach men and boys to do the same.
Placing all the blame on the individual men (who, granted, are breaking the law and violating human rights, and ought to be punished accordingly) obscures the origins of the idea that paying for sex with children is acceptable. In reality, this problem is criminal, but it’s also cultural, and for that reason, we are all obligated to do something about it. “It’s easy to say it’s the men who are buying who are the problem and they need to change, said McCullough. “But I think we need to take a look at what we just accept and don’t make a stink about it.”
For more information about A Future Not a Past, check out their website.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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