Sexual Slavery: In Our Own Backyard

Human trafficking – the buying, selling, and trading of people by people – is the second largest criminal economy in the world. While modern day slavery is alive and well and represents the fastest growing criminal economy on the planet, the comment I hear most frequently is:

“Really? I had no idea…. It must not be happening in my neighborhood.”

The unfortunate reality is that it is happening. In your neighborhood. In my neighborhood. In everyone’s neighborhood.

But when we don’t know the signs, we miss seeing it.

In America in particular, the reality of sex slavery is obscured by our vernacular which has embedded into our culture the notions of “child prostitutes” and “happy hookers” replete with images of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. The fact is that the commercial sale of sex is not glamorous; it is quite dangerous. The average age of death for women selling sex is 34.[i] The homicide rate for such women is 51 times higher than the next most dangerous occupation (liquor store operator).[ii] For children, the odds are worse: according to the FBI, the average life expectancy is only seven years from the first forced sex act. And in the U.S., the average age at which girls are first sold for sex is age 12. Combining these two statistics, we are left with the horrifying reality that the children who are being traded for sex are often dead or dying by the time they reach an age where they can legally vote.

And what of the term “child prostitute” and the nickname “john” given her buyer? Such terms abound, and they do a severe disservice to us all by obscuring reality. There is no such thing as a child prostitute: children cannot consent to sex when under age 18, so how can they agree to sell it? It’s called statutory rape. But remarkably, if a pedophile decides to pay for sex instead of forcibly taking it, somehow we routinely fail to register this as a crime. Rather, we call her a child prostitute instead of a serial rape victim, fail to take her to the nearest rape trauma facility, and frequently compound the issue by slamming her into the back of a squad car and arresting her.

I do not overstate the case: here in California where I live, over the last decade, we arrested – that’s right, arrested – 4,251 children for prostitution. Two of whom were nine years old or younger.[iii]

Most men and women reading this article would be horrified if I asked you to contemplate that you or your spouse would be raped once between now and when you die. If I upped the number to fifteen times, most readers would be positively beside themselves. Victims of sex trafficking are often raped 15 times – and sometimes as many as 40 times – a night.

Each night.

If we are doing a disservice to child victims of sex slavery by referring to them as child prostitutes, neither are we are doing society any favors by referring to their buyers as “johns.” Men who purchase underage females for sex are predators. We unreasonably dignify this population by giving them the moniker “john.” The name “John” connotes our nice boss, our church-attending neighbor, our child’s amazing track coach. Study after study confirms that our choice of language shapes how we think and how we act. We would thus be smart to choose our labels wisely, particularly in this arena. If we referred to these men as “serial child rapists” instead of “johns,” I doubt America would be arresting the victims and letting the actual predators walk free to the degree that frequently occurs – or simply sending these men to “john school” as if their crime were no more reprehensible than rolling through a stop sign.

In terms of what we can do to fight slavery, the paths are many:  First, if something looks suspicious, call your local police department, or in the US, call the Polaris Human Trafficking Hotline:  888-3737-888.  Worst case scenario, you embarrass yourself by reporting a young girl who made a poor clothing choice.  But the best case scenario — which is far more likely — is that you saved a child from a lifetime of rape.  I think we can all agree the cost-benefit analysis clearly militates in favor of  speaking up.  Secondly, continue to get educated about modern-day slavery.  I have published an E-Book with up-to-date information that is child friendly for families to use on this topic (email me at to request a copy).  Third, ask your pastor, your child’s school, or your community group to host a trafficking expert to speak to these issues.  Fourth, donate — your money or your time — to non-profits like Justice Be Done that fight trafficking.

Ironically, the most pivotal first step that anyone can take to fight slavery requires no time or monetary outlay at all.  Simply acknowledge it.  That it exists everywhere, including our own backyards.  And when next driving by a “prostitute” on a street corner in LA or Chicago or New York or Atlanta, look more carefully. That person may well be a 15 year old dressed up to look older. And whether she’s underage or not, the studies overwhelmingly show she is not in business for herself: she has a pimp. And a quota. And she is required to sell her body five, ten, thirty times a night to make her quota.  All the money goes to her pimp. If she doesn’t make quota or tries to keep some of the cash for herself, she will be beaten, starved or killed.

If that’s not slavery, I don’t know what is.

In sum, we need as a society to start seeing the problem, because if we cannot see it, we cannot fix it.  The females on the street corner, for sale on, sleeping in subway stations or hiding in truck stop bathrooms: they are not child prostitutes, happy hookers, or enterprising females who’ve chosen to sell their body instead of purses and perfume.

They are slaves.

They are often the age of my daughter.  Or yours.

They are not a blight on suburbia.  They are rape victims needing help.

And I would submit that neither they – nor the criminals enslaving and buying them – have any place in 21st century America.

[i]  Newsweek, quoting Melissa Farley, Ph.D:  The Growing Demand for Prostitution[ii] American Journal of Epidemiology.  [iii] California Department of Justice: Criminal Justice Statistics Center, 2003-2012.