Human Trafficking Into and Within the United States: A Review of the Literature. Minor Victims of Domestic Sex Trafficking


Minors, including American children, are among the most vulnerable populations.  A look at the characteristics of minors exploited through prostitution and prostituted adults who were recruited as minors (Raphael, 2004) provides useful information to help answer the question, Who are the victims of domestic sex trafficking?  Minors are deceived, manipulated, forced, or coerced into prostitution every day.  Nationally, the average age at which girls first become exploited through prostitution is 1214 years old, but direct service providers around the country report they have been encountering increasingly younger victims over the past decade (Estes & Weiner, 2001; Lloyd, 2005; Spangenberg, 2001).  For example, service providers in New York City report that the average age that girls enter prostitution has dropped from 14 to 13 or 12 years of age in recent years (Spangenberg, 2001).  The average age that boys and transgender youth begin prostitution is even younger: 1113 years old (Estes & Weiner, 2001).

Risk Factors for Minor Domestic Sex Trafficking Victims
  • Age
  • Poverty
  • Sexual abuse
  • Family substance/physical abuse
  • Individual substance abuse
  • Learning disabilities
  • Loss of parent/caregiver
  • Runaway/throwaway
  • Sexual identity issues
  • Lack of support systems

In terms of race and ethnicity, all subgroups of adolescents are at risk for prostitution.  The vast majority of male and female adolescents arrested for prostitution are White or Black (Flowers, 2001).  The only specific research conducted on a subpopulation of exploited minors shows that African-American girls and women are arrested in prostitution at a far higher rate than girls and women of other races involved in the same activity (Flowers, 2001; MacKinnon & Dworkin, 1997).  Although it appears that no socioeconomic class is immune to domestic trafficking, Estes and Weiner (2001) acknowledge that poverty (as noted previously for victims of trafficking in general) places adolescents at increased risk of exploitation. Though their sample was small (10 boys), Lankenau, Clatts, Welle, Goldsamt, and Gwadz  (2005) found that 100 percent of a studys subjects were born into homes characterized as poor or working class.  The correlation between poverty and trafficking has been corroborated by qualitative reports from law enforcement, social service providers, and others working in the anti-trafficking movements (Clawson & Dutch, 2008).  Further, Lloyd (2005) states that low-income girls are at greater risk of recruitment and may find it harder to exit.

One common characteristic or risk factor for prostituted girls is a history of childhood sexual abuse.  In 20 recent studies of adult women who were sexually exploited through prostitution, the percentage of those who had been abused as children ranged from 33 percent to 84 percent (Raphael, 2004).  For example, a study of 106 adult women in Boston who were incarcerated for prostitution-related offenses or had ever been arrested for prostitution-related offenses found that 68 percent of the women reported having been sexually abused before the age of 10 and almost half reported being raped before the age of 10 (Norton-Hawk, 2002).  Other smaller studies of prostituted girls affirm these figures.  For example, the Huckleberry House Project in San Francisco reported that 90 percent of the girls involved in prostitution had been sexually molested (Harlan, Rodgers, & Slattery, 1981).  Two other studies of juveniles estimated the percentage of girls engaged in prostitution who had a history of sexual abuse to be between 70 percent and 80 percent (Bagley & Young, 1987; Silbert & Pines, 1982).

Research has demonstrated that the younger a girl is when she first becomes involved in prostitution, the greater the likelihood that she has a history of childhood sexual abuse and the greater the extent of the abuse (Council for Prostitution Alternatives, 1991).  Further, the history of childhood trauma experienced by most girls involved in prostitution includes abuse that is chronic in nature and takes the form of physical abuse, emotional abuse, and/or sexual abuse by multiple perpetrators (Farley & Kelly, 2000). A 1994 National Institute of Justice report (as cited in Spangenberg, 2001) states that minors who were sexually abused were 28 times more likely to be arrested for prostitution at some point in their lives than minors who were not sexually abused.

In addition to a history of childhood abuse, prostituted girls are likely to experience other forms of family disruption.  Multiple studies suggest that girls involved in prostitution are more likely to come from homes where addiction was present (Raphael, 2004).  For example, one study of 222 women in Chicago involved in prostitution found 83 percent had grown up in a home where one or both parents were involved in substance abuse (Center for Impact Research, 2001).  Further, prostituted girls are more likely to have witnessed domestic violence in their home; specifically, girls are likely to have seen their mother beaten by an intimate partner (Raphael, 2004).

Some literature has begun to recognize a correlation between school-related problems, most notably learning disabilities, and sexual exploitation.  Current research does not allow us to distinguish whether the learning disability was present before or is a consequence of the exploitation.  However, the later the disability is diagnosed and an appropriate educational plan put in place, the greater the likelihood of the girl experiencing failure in school and/or low self-esteem, making her vulnerable to exploitation (Harway & Liss, 1999).

Another risk factor that emerges for youth at risk for exploitation through prostitution is the loss of a parent through death, divorce, or abandonment.  For example, in two separate studies of adolescent girls involved in prostitution, a third of the sample had a deceased mother (Norton-Hawk, 2002; Raphael & Shapiro, 2002).  This familial disruption often results in the childs involvement in the child welfare system, involving placement in foster care or group homes.  One study in Canada of 47 women in prostitution found that 64 percent had been involved in the child welfare system, and of these, 78 percent had entered foster care or group homes (Nixon, Tutty, Downe, Gorkoff, & Ursel, 2002).  The themes of trauma, abandonment, and disruption, begun in childhood, are central to the narratives of adolescent girls trafficked into commercial sexual exploitation.  Girls describe having had a profound sense of being alone without resources:  They [the women and girls] described their isolation, lack of connectedness, and feelings of separation as the single most important factor in making them vulnerable to prostitution to begin with (Rabinovitch, 2003).

The prostitution of boys is not as visible as that of young girls (McKnight, 2006).  According to Flowers (1998), boys primarily sell their bodies to survive financially, explore their sexuality, and/or make contact with gay men, with money a major motivator to continue prostituting.  Young prostituted males are also more likely to be involved in criminal or delinquent behaviors in addition to prostitution (Flowers, 1998); however, they are arrested much less frequently (McKnight, 2006).  McKnight also states that boys are more likely than girls to leave home due to a feeling of being unwanted or misunderstood regarding their sexual orientation.  Similar to girls, however, most boys exploited through prostitution come from dysfunctional homes and a large percentage have been the victim of some kind of abuse in the past (Flowers, 1998).

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