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Q. I've been hearing a lot about the commercial sexual exploitation of runaway and homeless youth in my state. How many youth are trafficked in the United States each year?
A. No one knows exactly how many young people each year are forced into prostitution, or commercial sexual exploitation. And without solid numbers, the commercial sexual exploitation of youth remains a hidden problem in many communities.
There are many reasons why counting trafficked young people is difficult. Many victims are reluctant to rat out their pimps, fearing violence or even death. Seeking to protect their clients’ confidentiality, many youth-serving agencies do not ask questions about this subject. A report conducted by Shared Hope International, an organization working to end sex trafficking and slavery, gives a long list of obstacles to determining the scope of domestic sex trafficking of children: “The lack of tracking, the common misidentification [of victims], the frequent plea agreements or declined prosecutions, and the stove-piped communications among and within law enforcement, juvenile justice and service providers prevent the capture of the complete picture,” the report’s authors write.
A frequently cited study on trafficking of children and youth in North America, “The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico,” estimated the number of youth “at risk” for commercial sexual exploitation to be between 244,000 and 325,000. But those numbers have been refuted by the Crimes Against Children Research Center, among others. The center’s researchers point out that the number of youth at risk is no stand-in for an estimate of youth actually involved in prostitution.
Throughout March, NCFY will continue to look at the issue of commercial sexual exploitation of youth, so check back for more information.