Confronting Commercial Sexual Exploitation and Sex Trafficking of Minors in the United States
Every day in the United States, children and adolescents are victims of commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. Despite the serious and long-term consequences for victims as well as their families, communities, and society, efforts to prevent, identify, and respond to these crimes are largely under supported, inefficient, uncoordinated, and unevaluated.
With support from the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council formed a committee to conduct a study of these crimes as they affect U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents of the United States under age 18. The committee was asked to make recommendations concerning strategies for responding to commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors in the United States, new legislative approaches, and a research agenda.
In its report, Confronting Commercial Sexual Exploitation and Sex Trafficking of Minors in the United States, the committee concludes that efforts to prevent, identify, and respond to commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors in the United States require better collaborative approaches that build upon the capabilities of people and entities from a range of sectors. In addition, such efforts will need to confront demand and the individuals who commit and benefit from these crimes.
Overlooked and Underreported Crimes
Although commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors refer to a range of crimes, for its study, the committee focused primarily on trafficking for purposes of prostitution, exploiting a minor through prostitution, and survival sex — which is the exchange of sex or sexual acts for money or something of value.
The committee based its deliberations on three fundamental principles: that these crimes should be understood as acts of abuse and violence against children and adolescents, that minors who are commercially sexually exploited or trafficked for sexual purposes should not be considered criminals, and that identification of victims and survivors as well as any interventions should do no further harm to these victims.
Numerous factors contribute to a lack of understanding and awareness of commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors in the United States. These crimes may be overlooked, as they often occur at the margins of society and behind closed doors; victims may not come forward; and those who routinely interact with victims and survivors may lack awareness or tools to properly identify and assist victims. Therefore, there is no reliable estimate of the incidence or prevalence of these crimes, and many victims go without help.
In order to better prevent, identify, and respond to commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors in the United States, the committee recommends increased awareness and understanding, strengthening of the law’s response, strengthening of research to advance understanding and to support the development of prevention and intervention strategies, support for multi-sector and interagency collaboration, and creation of a digital information-sharing platform. Whenever possible, the committee urges leveraging of existing resources to implement these recommendations.
Many professionals and individuals who interact with youth — such as teachers, health care providers, child welfare professionals, and law enforcement — are unaware that these crimes occur and often are ill-equipped with how to respond to victims, survivors, and those at risk.
The committee recommends that OJJDP — in partnership with the Departments of Education (DOE) and Health and Human Services (HHS) — engage relevant sectors in developing, implementing, and evaluating training activities for professionals and other individuals who routinely interact with children and adolescents on how to identify and assist victims and survivors. In addition, public awareness campaigns need to be developed with special focus on increasing awareness among children and adolescents to help them avoid becoming victims. These training activities and campaigns should be carefully designed to engage the public and service providers to act on the behalf of victims and survivors without doing further harm.
Strengthening Laws, Improving Understanding and Prevention
Minors who are victims of commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking in the United States can still be arrested, detained, and given permanent records as offenders. The committee supports laws that redirect young victims of these crimes from criminal or juvenile justice systems to the child welfare system or other agencies—and recommends that all national, state, local, tribal, and territorial jurisdictions develop such laws and policies.
In addition, despite the diligence of law enforcement and prosecutors as well as laws in every state enabling prosecution of individuals who purchase sex with a minor, function as exploiters or traffickers, or otherwise sexually exploit children and adolescents, individuals guilty of these acts have largely escaped accountability. The committee therefore recommends that all national, state, local, tribal, and territorial jurisdictions review, strengthen, and implement laws that hold exploiters, traffickers, and solicitors accountable for commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors. In particular, these jurisdictions should consider how these laws can be used to deter demand and prevent commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors.