300,000 Children Enter the Sex Trade Annually — in the U.S.

At an UJA-sponsored conference on Monday, a Georgia attorney told of the case of an 11-year-old girl held in prison for four days after being arrested for prostitution. Her 50-year-old male client was given a $100 fine and let go immediately.

In the U.S., around 300,000 children are reported to enter the sex trade each year, with the average age of females entering the sex trafficking trade at 12-14 years old. 

Sex trafficking is a worldwide problem that touches all of our communities, yet most people are unaware that this is a massive industry. Human trafficking is a 32 billion dollar a year industry. By definition, and contrary to common belief, trafficking does not actually require the movement of people: it is slavery that "subjects children, women, and men to force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation." On Monday, the UJA-Federation of New York held a powerful conference on the topic. Opening speaker Rabbi Levi Lauer highlighted the importance of changing the language: in his words, sex with a prostitute should not be considered sex — it is rape of a sex slave. Life as a sex worker more often than not involves physical abuse, death threats and an abusive relationship with one's pimp. Most men who pay for women have no idea of the industry they are feeding. This is not a light matter, and it's not ok to pretend it is.

The majority of victims have been victims of abuse or sexual assault previously in their lives; 70% of sex workers have had an experience in foster care. Almost all are female, but there are some male and transgender victims. A large number are undocumented women, being promised a better life and tricked into fake marriages, abusive relationships or a guise to bring them to another country before stripping them of their documents and enslaving them. Many traffickers purposely impregnate the women and hold the child hostage in order to continue to coerce the mother.

But, most recently, a large growing number is college students struggling with debt. A number are middle class, some even still in touch with their families, who remain unaware of what their child is experiencing. Professionals working with sex workers will tell you that they never suspected various cases. These women look just like your daughter, or your friend — there is no stereotypical face, despite what the media and society leads us to believe.

The only thing in common: a vulnerability that has been preyed upon. A pimp once told a detective that how he identifies potential girls is to go to the local mall, approach a young girl and tell her she's very pretty. If she looks him in the eyes and says, "thank you," he walks away. If she looks down and says, "no I'm not," he knows he's got her.

Some people will argue that prostitution is a choice and one has no right to judge someone else for choosing to go back to their pimp or to continue that life. Yes, some women will answer this is a choice — but choice is relative and it is important to remember the types of situations that push a woman into this situation: extreme poverty, a history with sexual abuse, abusive relationships, forced drug addiction. The list goes on. Many sex workers will tell you themselves that she/he is doing this by choice. But months later, when something tips the scale, those same sex workers may reach out for help, and recognize that they were victims. Survivors consistently say that they convinced themselves this was their choice as a means of coping with the abuse. And the first time they were coerced, they weren't thinking about the beatings, or being made to feel like they were stripped of their humanity.

Professionals will cite over and over again that planting the seed to let these women know that help is waiting if they ever want to leave the business is crucial to saving lives. Something as simple as posting the "hot line" number or letting women know that if they ever want to talk, they can call. Those actions led a number of survivors, resistant at first, to eventually be ready to get help.

A 20-year-old girl told us today that she had been to over 100 doctors appointments during her three years on the street, and no one said anything. Victims that take written materials back to their pimps are often killed or severely beaten for "protesting." Our awareness and methods as health care workers need to change.

In New York, sex trafficking is still considered a non-violent crime. There is nothing nonviolent about coercion through physical abuse, forced drug addiction and rape. Cops offer to exchange sex with the female for not writing them up. Across the world, victims are arrested and the clients and pimps are barely held accountable. Our laws need to change.

A study of male clients in Chicago suggested that if clients were arrested, they would immediately stop. A client for 20 years said the minute he was arrested, he never bought sex again. 

Out of 113 male clients interviewed in Chicago, the majority was upper or middle class, married and had children, and were white. 54% had paid for sex as a college student. Many described having low self-esteem, feeling horrible and suicidal after the experience. Some repeat customers described looking for a way to fill a void, but feeling empty regardless.

There is a sex trafficking industry because there is a demand. We need to change the demand.

These victims are not sex toys. We often think about sex workers as a stereotypical and we dehumanize them in our minds — rarely do we relate to them as sharing the same kinds of interests, hopes and background. But these are females that want to go to college, that have families — that are HUMAN too.

These are your sisters, your daughters, your cousins, and your girlfriends.

The clients — they are your brothers, your friends, your sons, your husbands.

Don't just read this and ignore it. Do something.

Talk to your daughters and instill in them enough self-confidence that they don't feel like the only person who made them feel special was the older man at the mall who captivated them by telling them they were pretty.

Talk to your sons about sexual abuse and give them the confidence to never need to take advantage of someone more vulnerable, or pay to find someone willing to sleep with them.

Talk to your friends and educate them.

Take action.