By Saman Akhtar, Program Manager - Underserved Populations“Brianna was a “good girl” from a stable, two-parent home. And yet the three men watching her saw her as an ideal candidate. She had a dream to get out of her small town … needed to make money for college tuition. She was vulnerable and innocent. Naively, she was lured away from family and friends … and into a strip club, She quickly realized she was required to do more than just dance.” (Excerpt from Shared Hope International’s documentary, Chosen) Kristy, a repeat runaway, hitchhiked to Denver. It was through hitchhiking that she started prostituting. At the age of 12, “the only currency I had was my body, so I traded sexual favors for things I needed like a ride, a bed to sleep in, and food.” (Excerpt from Shared Hope International’s Stories of Hope: Kristy’s Story) These stories are not uncommon. Anyone can become a victim of human sex trafficking though certain populations such as youth are especially vulnerable. Also known as Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking victims, these youth are some of the most prevalent and underreported trafficking victims in the world. Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking or DMST is defined as the commercial sexual exploitation of minors under the age of 18 through buying, selling, or trading sexual services in exchange for anything of value (money, drugs, shelter, food, clothing). Some forms of DMST might include prostitution, pornography, stripping and other sexual acts. Risk factors for Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking include age, poverty, substance abuse in the family, physical abuse in the family, learning disabilities, loss of a parent or caregiver, runaway, gender or sexual minority status, and lack of a good support system (“Human Trafficking Into and Within the United States,” Clawson et al, 2009). When looking at victims of DMST, the average age a girl is first exploited is thirteen. The average age that boys and transgender youth are exploited is twelve. Nationally, close to 100,000 American children are exploited through prostitution each year. Furthermore, while youth of all races and cultures make up the majority of minor sex trafficking victims, African-American victims of trafficking are arrested much more frequently than trafficking victims from other races. Runaways are particularly vulnerable of becoming victims of child sex trafficking. According to the FBI, in 2006 there were over 36,000 boys and 47,000 girls younger than 18 years of age picked up nationwide by law enforcement and identified as runaways. Many of these runaways fall prey to traffickers. Traffickers often target runaways due to their lack of financial resources, a support system, and basic needs for survival that these victims are desperately seeking. Some of these runaways are fleeing a dangerous, volatile, or dysfunctional situation at home. It is reported that close to 77 percent of trafficked youth reported running away at least once. The more time these runaways spend on the streets, the more susceptible they are to becoming victims of sex trafficking. Most victims of child sex trafficking encounter numerous barriers and challenges that prevent them from seeking services. Very often, they face people or providers that lack knowledge about DMST or are unable to identify the minor as a victim. This creates higher levels of underreporting. Aside from this breakdown or gap in service delivery, the victims themselves might: - not consider themselves victims - be difficult to find - lack knowledge about available resources or services - distrust authorities - blame themselves - feel shameful about the trafficking - be suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) - lack means (such as emotional, transportation, resources) to leave the exploitative situation - feel confined in a shelter where they may not approve of the rules Fear is another key reason for the underreporting of sex trafficking. The victims may be brainwashed into fearing authorities, they may fear retaliation from their trafficker, or they may fear being arrested and prosecuted. The victim might also fear a lack of confidentiality amongst service providers or law enforcement. Finally, in a manner similar to how domestic violence survivors feel about losing their abusive partners, the victim may fear losing the pimp. They might feel a sense of security with the pimp, with this being the only attention they are used to receiving from the adults in their lives. Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking is continuing to develop at alarming rates. Educating our youth about the dangers of sex trafficking is just as vital as educating our communities, providers, and law enforcement about identifying victims of child sex trafficking. The more knowledge and understanding we have the more likely we are to identify these unhealthy and dangerous situations. This is critical in safeguarding our precious youth from the dangers lurking on our streets. For more information about domestic minor sex trafficking and human sex trafficking, please visit MCASA, the Polaris Project, and Shared Hope International. Click here for Additional Resources on Human Sex Trafficking including information, articles, and research used in this article. This article appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of Frontline.