PIMPS AND ‘HO’s. “Johns” and “tricks.” Not the expected topic for an after-school workshop for middle schoolers. But as a social work intern with FAIR Girls, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit dedicated to preventing human trafficking, I am teaching these barely adolescent girls and boys about the type of trafficking that most endangers U.S. citizens and permanent residents. (FAIR stands for “free, aware, inspired, and restored.”)

Human trafficking is often portrayed as an international problem, not something that happens in the United States. But the heart-wrenching fact is that the average age of entry into prostitution and pornography for U.S. citizens and permanent residents is between 12 and 14 years old. A minor working in prostitution, pornography, stripping, or any other commercial sex work is by definition a victim of human trafficking, according to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. (If one is over the age of 18, he or she must prove “force, fraud, or coercion” to be considered a victim.) Some minors are sold by family members into the “life,” as it’s called. Many trafficking victims were sexually abused when they were younger. Other victims are recruited by pimps who spot them as they run to the corner store, leave school, or hang out with friends.

Runaways and homeless youth may be most vulnerable. Studies show that the majority of prostituted youth had been runaways prior to sex work, and some experts cite anecdotal evidence that youth will be approached to participate in sex work within 48 hours of running away from home. Seventy-five percent of teens involved in prostitution, stripping, or pornography have a pimp, who might initially present himself as a parent, friend, guide, or watchdog for those new to the streets, soon followed by physical and mental coercion and abuse.

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Responsible Adults

Editor's Note: In a recent New York Times op-ed, Nicholas Kristof slammed Village Voice Media’s Backpage.com for refusing to shut down its adult services section, which has repeatedly been linked to the sex trafficking of young girls. Check out a sneak preview of Associate Editor Zab Palmberg’s forthcoming piece in the March issue of Sojourners Magazine about the faith community’s response to Backpage: 

The Internet makes it easier to sell your old bicycle — but, as a growing interfaith coalition of clergy is emphasizing, it shouldn’t make it easier to sell children for sex.

Two years ago, under pressure from anti-trafficking activists and 17 state attorneys general, Craigslist shut down its “adult services” section. Now, researchers say, the leading online purveyor of “adult” classified ads — which, as numerous criminal cases have shown, include ads pimps use to traffic children they have entrapped — is BackPage.com, owned by Village Voice Media.