“If everybody had a perfect childhood…the world would be a nearly perfect place. And by ‘perfect’ I don’t mean something you see on an old sit-com. A perfect childhood simply means experiencing unconditional love, having your basic needs met and having equal opportunity to create yourself without the hindrance of external oppression, in the present and in the future.” 1
In recognition of National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, we sat down with Shannon Lovato, ASW to discuss the issue of human trafficking in youth and common myths and misconceptions. Lovato has personal experience volunteering for the past several years to combat the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC). She has a passion for creating a space of healing and hope for all victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking. As you read this piece, please be advised we have chosen to use the pronoun “she” throughout the blog, however, youth of any gender can fall victim to human trafficking.
Human trafficking may not be as obvious or easy to recognize and may look different than what you may think. There are several myths and misconceptions that people have. Hopefully, the information shared in this blog will dispel some of the most common ones as well as offer guidance on how to have healthy conversations around this topic.
Myth: Human trafficking victims are kidnapped by strangers.
The image of a child being kidnapped or taken by a stranger is oftentimes the most common image that comes to mind; however, oftentimes, trafficking victims are lured by someone they know or trust. Traffickers use grooming to build trust with their victims. They prey on vulnerabilities. They will look for the young girl who doesn’t have a high self-esteem and who is looking for love and belonging. They will create this fantasy for her by using phrases like, “I’m going to love you forever; we’re doing this together; we can have a better life.” He acts like a “Romeo” pimp, and because of this, the young girl will think she is in a real relationship and that this person truly loves her and understands her better than anyone else. The “Romeo” pimp will take her out, promise her the world and tell her they are going to be a family with unconditional love.
Then suddenly, the pimp will ask her to sleep with people for money. It will start off as a one-time thing, but then she is sleeping with someone every night and then with multiple people every night. This will create confusion for the young girl because this person, whom she loves, is now asking her to perform sexual acts with strangers. She will start to feel ashamed, embarrassed and angry, and she will have no one to share her feelings with. A main tactic of a pimp or madam is to isolate their victims, manipulate them and create fear through violence or threatening to hurt their family so they won’t leave.
The use of social media or video game systems to chat and send messages is one of the more recent methods used by predators. A young teen or tween might have two accounts; one account she shows her parents and another secret account. Part of prevention is paying attention to the warning signs and asking, “Is she secretive about social media? Is she awake until one in the morning?” If so, who is she talking to? Having conversations about social media and paying attention to what teens are posting and who they are befriending is more important than ever.
Myth: Trafficking victims are held against their will.
While this may be the case in some instances, more often the victim stays for a variety of reasons. Some lack access to resources to get away (i.e., transportation, money or a safe place to live) or they fear for their safety. Some victims may be so emotionally manipulated and abused that they do not even realize they are being forced to stay. It may be difficult to understand why a victim didn’t speak up sooner or try to run away, but the invisible restraints can be a powerful tool used by traffickers.
Myth: Only women and girls can be victims or survivors of sex trafficking
The United Nations Office on Drug and Crimes 2022 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, released in January 2023, notes that the percentage of boys identified as victims of human trafficking more than quintupled between 2004 and 2020—a much larger increase than for men, women, or girls. While women constitute about twice the percentage of identified trafficking victims as men (42 percent to 23 percent), the percentage of trafficking victims who are boys and girls is almost identical (17 percent and 18 percent, respectively).
Boys are reluctant to disclose being sexually exploited due to shame and/or stigma about being gay or perceived as gay by family and peers, which prevents them from properly being identified as victims. Additionally, a lack of adequate screening by law enforcement and other social services agencies rooted in the belief that boys are not victims of commercial sexual exploitation only exacerbates the stigma.
Help and Prevention
Pimps and madams promise a fake unconditional love. Part of a caregiver’s job is to show true unconditional love by providing support when their child confides in them. This doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences to the choices they made, but it does mean there is a safe space for them to talk with a caregiver and to share what might be going on in their lives. Talk about what a healthy relationship looks like and what it means when a boyfriend or girlfriend, who says they love you, asks you to do things that make you feel uncomfortable. What happens when you say no and they don’t respect you? Create that space so they feel safe coming to you when they need to. It’s lovely to eat dinner around the table, but if that doesn’t work for you, try to find a way that does.
In connection to this, a lot of value is placed on appearances. Oftentimes a young girl may think, “My looks are all I’m good for.” Instead, start to build value when she is two or three-years-old. For example, if she is building a tower out of blocks, show genuine excitement for the great job she did. This can be transferred to sports, dance or any hobby she enjoys. Notice if she is working hard and recognize her for it. Build up her self-esteem in a way that is healthy and effective. Validate her feelings and let her know it is okay to be sad or angry and, most importantly, it’s okay to say no. Teach her how to use her own voice and to stand up for herself.
Human trafficking, which is the exploitation of people for sexual servitude, forced labor, or financial gain, is rampant in many countries and is thought to generate over $30 billion worldwide. Here in the U.S., the FBI estimates that of the over 27 million people are victims of sex trafficking, and 30 percent of children are victims of sex trafficking. Foster children are particularly vulnerable to falling victim to sex trafficking and other forms of human trafficking. Children without families to make them feel loved and cared for are particularly vulnerable to exploitation by sex traffickers. Foster children in large cities like New York and Los Angeles are at the most risk of being targeted. Traffickers will sometimes send one of their girls into group homes to lure other girls to leave. Many girls who end up leaving foster care are trafficked into prostitution where they are routinely subject to physical abuse and violence.
- The FBI estimates sex trafficking in the U.S. involves 100,000 children.
- 60% of child sex trafficking victims recovered through FBI raids across the U.S. in 2013 were from foster care or group homes.
- Experts have extrapolated that the average age for girls entering the sex trade is 12.
- The average age of children involved in prostitution when recovered by law enforcement is 14. 2
Want to join us in the fight to end human trafficking? Here’s how you can get involved and start making a difference today:
Awareness – Know the indicators of human trafficking so you can report it and save a child’s life.
Action – Report suspected human trafficking by calling 1-866-347-2423. Use your voice to raise awareness on social media. Volunteer with local organizations working to end human trafficking in your community.
Editors note: This blog was originally published in January 2020 and has been updated with additional information.
Shannon Lovato is a clinical therapist in The Guidance Center’s Long Beach Intensive Services Program where she helps children and families learn to manage mental health issues and behaviors that have become challenging to face alone. She is especially passionate about helping families to heal from the generational trauma of abuse, addiction, and oppression. Along with her role at The Guidance Center, she volunteers as a victim advocate with a Child Abuse Response Team to support victims of child sexual abuse during forensic exams and interviews. Before joining The Guidance Center, she worked with college students with disabilities as an Instructional Aide. Lovato earned a Bachelor of Arts in Social Work with a minor in Sociology and a Masters in Social Work from California State University Long Beach.