“Trying to Find a Way to Survive”: Why Some Minors Are Vulnerable to Sex Traffickers

May 28, 2019
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by Catherine Trautwein Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowship

Like so many other teenagers, Kat had been fighting with her parents. Frustrated, the teenager became determined to leave her home in Maricopa, Arizona, and head to nearby Phoenix. All she needed was a ride.

Kat had been chatting with people she met on social media. Soon, she connected with a man who offered her a ride. So one night in July 2016, Kat climbed out her bedroom window — leaving behind a note to her parents that said she’d be in touch soon.

Once Kat got in the car waiting outside, though, the man did not bring her to her destination; instead, he brought her into the nightmarish world of sex trafficking. Over the next week, she was forced to have sex for money until a stranger saw her and called 911.

When many Americans think of sex trafficking, they envision a problem on faraway shores. But FRONTLINE’s investigation Sex Trafficking in America reveals it is a concern much closer to home.

The full extent of the problem in the U.S. is largely unknown — traffickers operate underground and estimates vary widely. However, the National Human Trafficking hotline has dealt with more than 11,200 cases referencing minor sex trafficking between 2007 and 2018.

Although survivors come from a wide set of backgrounds, experts say they have one commonality: a vulnerability to exploit, according to Megan Cutter, associate director of the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

“Particularly with minors, often what we’re seeing is an adult trafficker who notices maybe someone has run away from home or doesn’t have a support system within their family and kind of becomes that for the victim,” she said.

In some cases, like Kat’s, that vulnerability is a simple as needing a ride. Others are much darker. In studying the problem of minor sex trafficking, researchers have found common elements like a history of childhood maltreatment, often sexual abuse.

“A lot of that has to do with the lessons that abused children learn. That if you’re sexually abused you’ve learned that your body doesn’t belong to you,” said Elizabethtown College professor Susan Mapp. “When that occurs within the trafficking relationship, it’s normal.”

Child maltreatment, which also includes neglect, doesn’t only normalize violence and emotional manipulation. It may be the reason that a young person is driven from the home to begin with.

“Most kids don’t run to the street. They’re running away from some harm,” said Georgia State University law professor and trafficking expert Jonathan Todres. “We see this also with LGBTQ status because sometimes, kids come out to their parent and they’re not accepted. That pushes them to the street where they’re then vulnerable to exploitation.”

Traffickers might start out just by offering a young person a place to stay, according to Mapp. In her book, “Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking,” a service provider described the outside of a homeless shelter as a “shark tank” — traffickers would loiter there, waiting for young people that the facility can’t take.

“Once you’re on the street — you don’t have a high school diploma, you might not even have an ID. Even if you could get a job, you couldn’t get a job that’s going to give you what you need to live,” Mapp said. “Trying to find a way to survive, they can be brought into trafficking.”

While experts noted there is no one composite picture of a trafficking survivor, they note that there is a particular risk for young people of color. Mapp says that non-white youth are more likely to grow up in neighborhoods with low resources, which could coincide with high crime rates and commercial sex activity.

However, when it comes to demographics, sex trafficking knows no limitations. “In terms of race, sex, and gender, it really doesn’t matter — people will sell what they think they can sell, just like any consumer market,” Mapp said.

At the highest level, experts say the issue of sex trafficking requires facing larger societal problems — including discrimination, bias and stigma — head-on.

“Trafficking involves people being bought and sold, and that only occurs when there’s a view that some people don’t count or they matter less,” Todres said.

“At some point we have to confront the underlying attitudes and behaviors that make some people more vulnerable to exploitation and that drive the demand for goods and services produced by exploited individuals.”

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