Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) is a difficult but important topic on any day, and with July being Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, CSEC is even more important to discuss, as minorities are at a higher risk of being sexually trafficked.
What is commercial sexual exploitation of children?
The commercial sexual exploitation of children is sexual activity involving a minor in exchange for something of value, or promise thereof, to the child or another person or persons. CSEC is a form of violence against children and is considered child abuse. Children and teens who are being trafficked are not prostitutes; in fact, there is no such thing as a child prostitute and it is important to note that this is not a choice for these youth. Exploiters, in the form of pimps and madams, take on the role of caretaker or boyfriend/girlfriend for the purpose of building a connection and establishing a bond so strong that the youth feels the exploiter is the only person who loves them.
Why are minorities more at risk for being exploited?
Understanding the risk factors of youth being sexually trafficked is the first step in answering this question. The highest causes for children to be trafficked is running away from home or being homeless. Within 72 hours of running away, two out of three youths will be targeted for sexual exploitation. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 91 percent of homeless youth were approached by someone offering an opportunity for income that was too good to be true. Youth often run away to escape an abusive home, are forced out due to sexual orientation, are emancipated from the welfare system, or were raised on the streets due to their family being homeless. The National Alliance to End Homelessness reports that 25 percent of former foster care youth nationwide reported they had been homeless at least one night within two-and-a-half to four years after exiting foster care. In addition, LGBTQ youth make up 5-6 percent of the youth population but 40 percent of the homeless youth population in Los Angeles. During a survey of homeless youth in LA County, 42 percent were African American, 24 percent were Latino, and 14 percent were Caucasian with 14.4 years old being the average age for when they first left or were forced out of home.
In addition, multi-generational history of trauma, exploitation, and suppression is found within the history of many minorities. For American Indians, exploitation dates back to the colonization of the United States. Research has shown a high prevalence of domestic violence and sexual violence against Native American Women. According to the Urban Indian Health Institute, in 2016 there were 5,712 cases of missing American Indian and Alaskan Native women and girls. Only 116 of those missing were logged into the DOJ database. Additionally, there is often overrepresentation of both Native American and African American youth in the foster care system, and exploiters often target those in foster care. African American families also have a long history of exploitation going back to slavery and the continued racial biases faced in today’s world. Unaccompanied minors from Mexico, Central and South America face a higher risk due to cultural and social factors. Abuse and exploitation is often considered a taboo topic and goes underreported. There may be a fear of deportation for themselves or their family as well as language and institutional barriers that make finding help even more challenging.
Furthermore, in 2016 the Department of Mental Health Services gathered statistics of identified CSEC youth detained in juvenile hall in Los Angeles. Of the youth identified: 66 percent were African American, 28 percent Hispanic, and 6 percent Caucasian. In addition, 68 percent of all the youth had prior contact with the Department of Mental Health. In fact, according to the Westcoast Children’s Clinic 86 percent of CSEC youth are in the child welfare system and 79 percent have been detained in juvenile hall.
For those who have been sexually trafficked, every aspect of their life is impacted. Trauma creates long-term and pervasive impacts on their lives. Knowing they are sold night after night, it makes sense that youth experience issues with their physical health, coping with their thoughts and feelings, difficulties with being able to focus and learn. All they can think about is what has happened and how they view themselves and the world. They struggle to feel safe, and they can have a harder time forming relationships with others. Thus, it is not surprising that those who have been sexually trafficked have mental health challenges. The West Coast Clinic identified that CSEC youth experienced an increase in mental health diagnosis and issues. When surveying youth they found that 76 percent experienced depression, 58 percent struggled with anger control, 55 percent experienced anxiety, 51 percent had challenges with attachment (feeling connected to others, healthy relationships and boundaries with others), 46 percent displayed oppositional behaviors and 43 percent struggled with being able to regulate their emotions.
Those who target our youth for sexual trafficking are targeting youth who may not have someone to turn to for help. They target those who are looking for a safe place to stay, for someone to protect them and/or someone to love them. Research has shown that 65-90 percent of female youth who were identified as CSEC also reported being physically abused and 65-80 percent reported sexual abuse. When a child is sexually abused they often link sex and love, and exploiters utilize this to further abuse them. Exploiters disguise themselves to be people who understand, accept and will love the youth no matter what.
Yet, there is still hope when discussing CSEC. Research has shown that increasing the number of resiliency factors helps decrease the risk of youth being sexually trafficked. Resiliency includes helping youth learn how to say no, setting healthy boundaries in relationships, seeing themselves as worthwhile, having self-esteem, and getting an education. These youths are looking for acceptance, for love, for safety, to be understood and to be heard. One of the most important resiliency factors for youth is having a supportive relationship with at least one adult. We can be that one adult, the adult who encourages, who supports, who loves the youth for who they are. When we meet this need, it takes away the power of a potential exploiter who will promise unconditional love at the cost of selling themselves each night. A quote by a survivor states it best:
“Love yourself, know you are worth more, and you have people that will and can support you. Never give up on yourself, and you are beautiful. A diamond that was in the ruff and you will blossom into a phenomenal, flawless woman.” – Ashley, The Survivors Guide to Leaving
Janae Moss, LMFT, is the Program Manager for The Guidance Center’s Intensive Services Program in Long Beach, where she leads her team in providing the highest quality of mental health treatment to all individuals and families. She is passionate about increasing awareness about the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) and creating a space of healing and hope for all clients. Before joining The Guidance Center team in March of 2019, she worked as a Clinical Director and was an agency trainer for CSEC. Janae earned a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology, with an emphasis in Marriage and Family Therapy at Azusa Pacific University.