Fact: 83 percent of victims in confirmed sex trafficking cases in the United States are American citizens.
Sex trafficking is quickly becoming the fastest-growing industry in organized crime, and in the land of the free, business is booming. There are currently more people enslaved in the world today than there have been at any time in history. With undocumented immigrants extremely vulnerable to sex traffickers for a multitude of reasons, the international sex trafficking business is extensive and far-reaching, and the U.S. is a huge participant in this. But the problem arises when, almost any time sexual slavery in the United States is mentioned, people automatically assume it is only a foreign issue. But there is an entire class of victims who, for all intents and purposes, don’t exist. They are ignored by all forms of media, defy every assumption we make about the dark side of society, and remain invisible to the public. Who are they? American children. The kids who live in nice towns, have seemingly respectable parents, get good grades and are meanwhile getting sold into a cycle of abuse, terror, and danger on the side. Sexual slavery comes in many forms, but this is a kind that is rarely, if ever, discussed. Appropriately addressing sexual slavery in the U.S. is going to require a shift in the narrative presented to the public, and the narrative will have to counter the expectations and stereotypes associated with sex trafficking.
There are 300,000 children in the United States currently at risk for sex trafficking, and while many cases feature girls who have been sexually abused in the past, suddenly alone on the street and taken advantage of, the kids who become victims of sex trafficking cannot be contained to a single stereotype. Victims come from a variety of different backgrounds, regardless of socioeconomic status, region of the country, academic performance, or appearance. Not all of them are runaways, not all of them are underground, not all of them come from troubled homes, and not even all of them are girls. Boys make up to 50 percent of underage victims of sex trafficking, but are consistently excluded from any conversation regarding sexual slavery.
Transgender youth suffer similar neglect, with the addition of a greater risk of discrimination and violence by the police. And because many anti-trafficking programs have religious affiliations, victims who are members of the LGBTQ community are left behind. These are victims of sex trafficking that remain out of the spotlight, pushed to the side for the sake of portraying the narrative that is the easiest to maintain. But ignoring marginalized groups doesn’t make them go away. Turning a blind eye entire groups of victims because it makes people uncomfortable serves no one, least of all the victims—boys, girls, or kids at any point on the gender spectrum. It simplifies the issue to a caricature, a trope and a cliche.
So if these are our victims, who are our perpetrators? Who is the enemy? In many cases, not the big time drug lords you think of when you hear the words “criminal enterprise” or the classic pimp image. And it’s not just men either—women make up to 40 percent of traffickers. The secret shame of the United States is the flourishing sex trafficking that takes place in upscale suburbs and family-friendly neighborhoods, where it is often “upstanding” members of the community that are selling children for sex, or people you would never suspect of participating in the slave trade.
Like parents. The story of a parent passing their child around to paying customers or selling them online is not an unusual one. The police? Child services? Please. One thing that makes the sex trade so easy in these tight-knit communities is just that—they’re communities. Towns where everyone knows everyone else, including teachers, police, anyone who could help a child getting abused by their parents. Sex trafficking is possible because victims are coerced and exploited by vulnerability, and parents have access to their children in ways the imagined thugs kidnapping children don’t. Abuse victims are isolated, cut off from help, completely dependent on their abuser. If the abuser is a parent, it can be almost impossible to break free.
And really, who isn’t a perpetrator? Much of what makes sexual slavery so hard to stop is public perception and ignorance. By blaming the victims and ignoring what we have allowed to not just survive as an industry, but thrive, we perpetuate a multi-billion dollar business of suffering and violence—all run by the average American businessmen and women. Prostitution has been criminalized to the point where many minors are arrested if caught with a client, rather than the clients or the traffickers. (In many ways, this is is a classic case of misogyny, where most girls arrested for prostitution are classified as “bad girls” and “sluts.”) Any victims of sex trafficking, even minors, are rarely seen as what they are—victims—and are instead treated like criminals who need to be punished.
Domestic sexual slavery is a widespread problem that has largely been ignored or misrepresented, but it is a complex issue and finding a long-term solution needs to become a priority. This is not something that will go away on its own, and needs active attention and effort to enact change. Moving away from stereotypes and cliches perpetuated by the media and spreading more accurate information about the ugly truth of America might be a good place to start.
To raise awareness about the issue, learn how to make a difference here.
Read a personal account from a survivor of domestic sexual slavery here.
Madeline Poage is a Writing, Literature, and Publishing major from New Jersey. She’s a recent convert to tea drinking and enjoys Disney movies, punk rock, and realistic portrayals of women in the media.