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Child Sex Trafficking: California’s Huge Problem, and What It Means For Teens

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
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California has a huge sex trafficking problem, especially when it comes to adolescents. According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC), the largest majority of the human trafficking cases reported in the U.S. each year originate in California.

In fact, San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco are three of the ten worst child sex trafficking cities in the U.S. (California Against Slavery). Human trafficking is one of San Diego’s worst criminal issues —second only to drug trafficking.

What is Child Sex Trafficking?

Child sex trafficking is the exploitation of minors (defined as children under 18, though teens over 18 can be victims as well) for prostitution. According to the U.S. Dept. of State, “if a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age,” it is considered sex trafficking. The average age of a victim is between 12-14 years old. An estimated 300,000 adolescents every year fall victim to sex trafficking. However, experts assume the numbers are much higher due to the secretive nature of trafficking.

Who is Vulnerable?

Many teens who fall prey to sex traffickers are adolescents who ran away from home due to family issues or because they lack a safe/permanent home life. While on the streets, they’re often lured into prostitution—usually within two days. These adolescents are often promised money, food, gifts a place to stay, and/or drugs. Pimps also try recruiting adolescents through coercion, which can include psychological manipulation or the use of gifts. Sometimes, the teens don’t realize they are getting into a sex trafficking ring. Many times, these runaways are girls, but sex trafficking victims can be boys, too.

Other adolescents vulnerable to sex traffickers are those in the foster care system. Exploiters target these children because they know they have no stable home life or emotional connection to family. Teens living in foster or group homes are vulnerable especially if they’ve been abused in the past. Offering acceptance, love, connection, and financial stability, the traffickers try to seduce these adolescents. Even if adolescents want to leave, they often can’t. Their exploiters may threaten to beat them, starve them, hurt their family, or any other sort of punishment. Oftentimes, the traumatized adolescent may have a complicated relationship with their abuser. They may even think the abuser protects rather than exploits them.

Drugs and Sex Trafficking

Sex and drug trafficking are often interconnected. After recruiting an adolescent, traffickers may try to supply the child with heroin, crack cocaine, marijuana, or any other type of drug in order to get the adolescent addicted. Once addicted, the adolescent is easier to manipulate. They’ll often keep working for sex in order to feed their drug addiction.

But it can also go the other way around: teens who use drugs can fall into sex trafficking. Desperate to feed their addiction, they will do almost anything to get money for drugs. Knowing this, pimps will even sometimes hang out in drug circles or go to heroin or methadone clinics to recruit teens, offering them money in exchange for their body. In this way and others, substance abuse (particularly opioid abuse) goes hand-in-hand with sex trafficking.

Social Media and Sex Trafficking

According to THORN, a nonprofit focused on preventing child sex trafficking, more than 70% of sex trafficking happens online. This means that children are both recruited and prostituted on the very sites your teens may be visiting.

Predators target adolescents and teens on social media (like Kik), chat rooms, and gaming websites. Common Sense Media states that the chat feature of multiplayer games (like Minecraft, Clash of Clans, or World of Warcraft) are often breeding grounds for child predators. These predators may appear caring and considerate in efforts to seduce the vulnerable adolescents, a process called grooming. Sometimes, they will pose as other teens, to get the adolescent to send them sexual material.

Also, exploiters will often find public photos of adolescents or teens (if the teen shared them publicly to social media) and spread them around. Sex traffickers can get ahold of these photos and then target these adolescents.

How Can You Help?

To prevent your teen from being contacted by child predators or falling prey to sex traffickers, make sure you talk to your teen about online safety. Monitoring your teen’s social media usage is your responsibility—even if your teen is reluctant to share what they’re doing online. Tell your teen to maintain profiles on “private.” Never share personal details or photos with people they’ve never met. There are also ways to block certain sites (or features of sites) from your child’s phone.

Learning more about child sex trafficking, and raising more awareness, are other things you can do to help this widespread issue. If you notice an adolescent or teen who you think may be a victim of sex trafficking, you can try to help.

While the U.S. Dept of State does not advise attempting to rescue a victim (as the trafficker may try to hurt you or the adolescent), they do encourage calling 911 or the National Human Trafficking Hotline. You should do so even if you’ve talked to the teen and they seem reluctant to accept any help or assistance. The adolescent may be too fearful to accept any help from others, either because they don’t understand the situation they’re in, they’re afraid of retaliation from their abuser, or because they’re under the influence of psychological manipulation or even drugs.

How can you recognize a teen who has fallen victim to sex trafficking?

Shared Hope International and the Department of Homeland Security list a number of signs. Here are some of them:

  • Change in personality—the teen could seem tired more than usual, or more stressed
  • Change in appearance—the adolescent could look consistently dirtier or more disheveled than usual, or could be wearing less appropriate clothing. Often, a disheveled girl travelling with a much older man may be a victim of trafficking.
  • Strange, new tattoos—a trafficker may sometimes “brand” a victim with a tattoo
  • Bruises (these can be from physical or sexual abuse)
  • Unexplained absences from class
  • Lack of personal possessions or a stable home (the teen may be vague about where they live), or living in a home with unsuitable conditions
  • Unexplained cash, or hotel key cards
  • Starting to use drugs and alcohol (to cope with the trauma)
  • Acting out sexually
  • Mental health issues—especially depression, anxiety and thoughts of suicide
  • The adolescent often seems attached to a controlling older male or “boyfriend”

If you’re a victim of trafficking, or you suspect someone you know may be a victim of trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888 or text “HELP” to 233-733.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

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