7 ways to end the commercial sexual exploitation of children


When I wrote a post during Human Trafficking Awareness Month, I was exasperated once again with the “slavery” rhetoric of the trafficking movement (to catch up new readers on my opinion on slavery rhetoric, see the post, The trouble with trafficking).

In last month’s post, I dumped the emotional weight of seeing young people every day who are abused and rejected, the result of an entire system that has failed them—historically and throughout their own lives—and left them vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation.

An individual wrote me after reading this post and asks, “What can I do about this problem?” 

So, in this follow-up post, I’ve generated a (by no means comprehensive) list of the important things we—as individuals, as a society—must do to combat human trafficking, and no, it’s no small task:

  • 1. Create educational opportunity for all children: This means improving the entire education system, including a committed and substantial investment in strong and qualified teachers and in equipped classrooms in all communities. This means ending the school-to-prison pipeline. This means supporting school-wide, city-wide, state-wide and nation-wide policies that invest in education, positive school climates, restorative interventions, and support for teachers, administrators and students. This means being creative, holistic and thoughtful in how we approach education (for example, this school in California that is incorporating meditation into the school day with outstanding results or another that is using “restorative justice” techniques). This means looking at and finding ways to support the entire family system when it comes to considering children’s educational needs. This means creating safe, supportive environments for LGBTQ youth.
    • Why is education important? Education is the primary building block in children’s lives and a negative experience in school can have devastating results. Overcrowded, resource-poor and understaffed schools are a poor recipe for success, and a child failed by a broken education system has one more vulnerability that could leave her/him all the more susceptible to exploitation.
  • 2. Create employment opportunity for all people: This one should be obvious, and it means not just creating jobs to begin with but creating jobs that have a living wage, which also means breaking down the myths of poverty (“poor people are lazy” and “poor people have it easy,” for example). It means investing in the public transportation system, so people can get to work. It means funding programs that assist individuals to gain job skills and go back to school, complete their education, and receive other needed services, like trauma counseling and substance abuse counseling. Services, skills trainings, and education support help an individual to be a whole, capable person and, as a result, a reliable and valuable employee. Adults in poverty, especially those in need of employment, are often children who grew up in a world where they lacked access to opportunity, fell through the cracks in the system (perhaps, they were a “bad” student because while being abused at home, they acted out in class, didn’t complete homework and/or were distracted and unable to focus, yet their trauma was never addressed and they ended up truant, then dropping out before completing high school). Changing how we see, value, and fund programs that create economic opportunity for adults in poverty changes the system and creates a world where both children and adults are less vulnerable to exploitation in the commercial sex industry.  
  • 3. Support the healing of toxic and oppressed environments: The children most vulnerable to exploiters are children who grow up in the most oppressed neighborhoods. They grow up in communities, such as housing projects, where there is more violence, lack of access to good schools and even lack of access to good nutritious food. These toxic environments are a result of systematic oppression of groups of minority race people over decades, including exclusionary zoning and segregation. These environments were created with political intention and are maintained by racism and the majority society’s disinterest in poor and minority communities. To fight trafficking, one needs to fight for the healing and restoration of these communities, which includes sustainable community development and comprehensive and holistic approaches to improving health outcomes, housing, education, transportation, jobs and crime reduction in these areas. Ultimately, healing historically oppressed communities means we must fight racism, we must reverse oppressive policies, and we must invest in communities that white America has systematically ignored for decades. Do that, and we will really do something to prevent the domestic sex trafficking of children.
  • 4. Reduce violence: We need to combat all violence in order to help build a world where there is less trauma, less abuse, less poverty and more healthy households. This means we are to be advocates against domestic violence, sexual violence, gang violence, and police brutality. For example, we must take interpersonal violence seriously, not minimize survivors or blame the victim, and actively stand for stronger policies to protect those vulnerable to violence and punish perpetrators. Fighting violence includes expanding comprehensive and trauma-informed trainings on forms of abuse and violence to law enforcement, service providers, schools, and other groups. We need to build an informed society that is equipped to respond appropriately and effectively to prevent violence and heal survivors quickly. Doing this helps build a world where all people are protected and no one is left abused, un-helped, and vulnerable to exploitation.
  • 5. Support policies and legislators that uphold choice and opportunity: This means that policies that reduce choice, opportunity and otherwise disempower people are to be actively combatted. The best example I can give of policy that can help or hinder choice is around the issue of abortion. Denying women the ability to make their own reproductive health decisions is just one way we disempower and limit entire groups of people. I work with girls every week who are trafficked in the commercial sex industry and often are pregnant at age 15 or 16. I have walked with them to abortion clinics or to options counseling if they need help deciding what to do. I have supported them on the path to parenthood (enrolling them in parenting classes, trying to find mother-child programs) if that is what they choose. However, there is always the fear that their right to decide to have an abortion or not could always be stripped away from them by the vocal activists who believe these girls and women don’t have this right. Disempowering women by taking away their right to make decisions about their body is just one way that policy can re-traumatize a person who has already been traumatized enough in the commercial sex industry.
  • 6. Create programs for youth and for women that are supportive, empowering: The most harmful programs that exist are those that are disconnected from the realities of what teenagers, people of color, LGBTQ individuals and women experience and are not responsive to issues of sex and gender, development, and race. All programs—including but not limited to schools, court and justice programs, and social services—should strive to be empowerment-based. They should take a comprehensive approach to the individual, recognize and identify issues that impact that individual, including those related to identity, and provide real help in a compassionate and supportive way, such that the individual is given developmentally-appropriate choice, options and resources to grow and build her/himself as s/he participates in the program. That being said, building and maintaining such programs requires training, ongoing staff support, and the funding to do both (train and support staff). We must invest financially in empowerment-based programs and make a commitment to seeing that important structural and cultural change happens. We must work hard, so that we live in a world where all programming for people in need of services is grounded in lived reality and restorative techniques. 
  • 7. Get rid of words like “rescue” and “slavery” when talking about trafficking: We do not “rescue” people from “slavery” when we fight domestic sex trafficking, especially the commercial sexual exploitation of children. We empower young people to leave abusive relationships, and we support them to accomplish their dreams. We would do well to get rid of the “rescue” vocabulary. Instead of focusing on glamorous, one-time “rescue missions,” we need to recognize and commit to a long-term fight against the systematic problems – like poverty and abuse – that are actually rendering children susceptible to trafficking in the first place. If they can be supported into recovering from the factors that led them into the arms of an exploiter, we will actually be doing something to end trafficking.

As I close my list, I hope it is clear that ending trafficking means fighting a whole host of problems, and it does not just start and end with raiding a house and pulling out underage girls. It is about every issue that intersects to leaves a child and young person vulnerable to exploitation. As Rachel Lloyd, trafficking activist, likes to say, “You can’t pick and choose your social justice issues like you’re at a buffet bar.”

Commercial sexual exploitation ends when we end poverty and violence and create strong, healthy communities in place of communities that are neglected. Thus, if you fight for any issue I’ve discussed in this article—whether it is for a stronger education system or access to healthy food in the midst of food deserts—you are doing something to help combat the issue of domestic sex trafficking in America.

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