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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  • Comrade Kevin

    It’s a complicated problem. Not all that long ago, girls dressed like girls, and now they dress like sexualized women. Even in my relatively brief lifetime I’ve seen that shift.
    The whole focus, too, has completely shifted. Adolescent girls are being culturally valued, now more than ever, only for their bodies. It’s much harder to see an adolescent girl as a sexual object when one takes into account her emotional development and intellectual maturity. She then is a whole person and very much a child.
    But when you remove that crucial part of the equation, all one is faced with is the physical. This is why this sort of sexual exploitation is growing and why it exists in the first place.

  • savia

    The problem is that the girls are criminalized, but not the men who traffic them, and not the men who pay to have sex with them. There’s a great film, Very Young Girls, which investigates this problem in New York through an agency that is trying to help these young women. The most chilling part for me was seeing the girl sitting in court, in tears, facing a judge, and then seeing an entire room full of johns cracking jokes while they sit through being sternly lectured about their behavior, and are let go after that.
    This is the problem – women involved in prostitution are often not doing it by their own choice, and the various movements by feminists to value sex work are often counter-productive in this sense. I agree that sex work itself shouldn’t be criminalized, but that does nothing to stop the THOUSANDS of women and girls who are victims of trafficking and sex crimes at the hands of others. Both sides of the argument as it stands now tend to leave the women more vulnerable, rather than recognize them as victims of abuse. These women are typically found when they are most vulnerable, then brainwashed, emotionally blackmailed, and terrified of physical abuse or abandonment. Once they have made a living as a prostitute for a number of years, it kills their job prospects elsewhere, particularly if they have a criminal record because of it (and they are the ones with the criminal record, because they often try to protect the men who put them in this situation, because they have been brainwashed into believing it is their duty, or they are terrified).

  • figleaf

    “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.”
    Actually I think there’s a pretty wonderful reverse chicken/egg opportunity here. Unless the studies you mentioned are really different from others, the majority of child prostitutes are old enough to pass for adults. Or at least that appears to be the standard excuse for not prosecuting johns as pedophiles and forcing them onto lifetime sex-offender registries.
    And yet however old they are by law and very, very often by developmental standards child prostitutes are still children. So it’s baffling that prosecutors who are so often absurdly zealous about other crimes should so rarely level whopping-big charges against johns.
    The excuse “I didn’t know she was under 18″ doesn’t cut it in any other circumstance. And the opportunities for charges range from statutory rape to endangerment of a child to class III (extremely likely to repeat) sexual predation.
    And dear sweet mother of pearl think of the charges that might be leveled against someone who pimps or madams a child?
    It seems like even a small handful of prosecutions, even if they didn’t end in conviction, could have one of those laudable “chilling effects” on the use of sex workers who can’t show proof of age.
    I’ve written about this repeatedly on my blog but still never heard of anyone bothering to try it. I’m still curious what the obstacles are.
    I’m actually pretty sanguine about adults in sex work, but anyone who can’t legally sign contracts, vote, drink or (in some jurisdictions) drive shouldn’t be doing sex work either.

  • JustV

    I think that this article speaks to so much truth about sexuality in America, particularly how female sexuality is controlled, distorted and contorted from adolescence onward.
    As a black woman, I can say that there are attitudes in my community (DC) that directly lend to the victimization of young girls. I remember during the trial(s) of R. Kelly, so many people were of the opinion that if the girl (only 14) was not a fully clothed, straight-A student who was violently assaulted, then she was asking for it and deserved to be considered as a whore, etc. and therefore, Kelly couldn’t possibly be guilty.
    The attitude is even more on display when any section of American culture as an open discussion about date rape.
    This thinking is so demented and sad on so many levels.
    I see how clothing, food and even cartoons depict women and the objectification of women and girls as being not only commonplace, but expected.
    How can we expect men and boys to be able to draw a line and understand that it’s not healthy or OK to view a woman solely on the basis or her curves or lack thereof.
    As what defines sexiness and beauty becomes more an more skewed to youth and perfect (read young) skin and extremities, the victimization of young women will continue to rise.