Accusations against high-profile people such as Epstein temporarily raise awareness of this significant human rights violation. But regardless of the outcome of this case, the ugly truth is this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Child sex trafficking is a critical issue affecting more than one million children worldwide, many of whom are left to suffer in silence.
And this industry produces $99 billion in profits a year for traffickers.
Who is targeted?
While trafficking often implies “transporting” across borders, trafficking can very often be a domestic matter with little to no transportation. For example, one study found more than 80% of sex trafficking incidents in the United States involved US citizens.
A child can become a victim of commercial sexual exploitation when they’re vulnerable, and some of the risk factors include: substance abuse, poverty, exposure to family violence or criminality, running away or told to leave home, abuse and neglect (including sexual victimisation), involvement in delinquency, poor mental health, and involvement in child protective services.
While these are some common risk factors, it’s important to note that there is no definitive set of risk factors – or single risk factor – that can determine whether a child will become a victim.
How are victims recruited?
Traffickers may recruit victims through “guerrilla pimping”. This involves aggression, threats and violence to engage and enslave the victim.
In other instances, recruitment through what appears to be kindness and compassion is shrouded in manipulation from food, money, shelter or drugs. This is referred to as “finesse pimping”. These exploited children, often victim to abuse and neglect in childhood, are promised shelter, love, and protection.
And some children might fall victim to “survival sex”, with no other option to attain food, money, shelter, or drugs. Such vulnerability places these children in high-risk situations where they may be manipulated and forced into exploitation.
Traffickers quite frequently use “recruiters” to identify vulnerable youth. While these recruiters might be other adults, victims themselves can eventually become involved in the recruitment. “Friends” may recruit peers into the commercial sex trafficking population through their social networks.
In fact, some research has found almost half were recruited by “friends” into the commercial exploitation industry as opposed to adults “preying” on susceptible youth. Recruitment to the industry by friends is particularly dangerous, as youth are less suspecting of their peers compared with adults.
In some instances, youth involved in sex trafficking will even be given financial incentives, to introduce their friends to the exploitation population. Epstein allegedly used this tactic, paying his victims to recruit other girls.
As a consequence, victims can suffer long-term physical, psychological, and even neurological trauma, which can continue for their whole lives.
And the impacts of the trauma can also affect others, including families and wider society.
Why can’t victims just leave?
Once recruited, it’s difficult to leave. Experts have drawn parallels between the theoretic constructs of human trafficking to that of intimate partner violence, in terms of power and control.
In particular, the victim may be isolated as well as controlled emotionally and physically. The victim can easily become entangled through such controlling techniques or even through “traumatic bonding”. This is where the victim has appreciation towards the trafficker for being able to live, coupled with entrenched fear.
In some instances, a victim recruited through “finesse pimping” might feel indebted and obliged to stay with the trafficker.
Other tactics to maintain control can include food deprivation or forced drugs. And older victims have reportedly been threatened that if they don’t cooperate, or if they don’t earn a certain sum of money that day, the victim’s child will be sold.
The ability to maintain total control over the victim may also be compounded by their vulnerability to manipulation (for example, by virtue of age), and potentially complicated by substance use problems, learning disabilities, and poor mental health.
With sex traffickers being strategic in their recruitment and ability to entangle the victim physically and psychologically, it’s not difficult to see how victims become entrapped.
Authors: Larissa Christensen, Lecturer in Criminology & Justice | Co-leader of the Sexual Violence Research and Prevention Unit (SVRPU), University of the Sunshine Coast