Sex Trafficking and Sexual Abuse -- How Similar Are Their Effects on Young Victims?

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A young woman stands on the street at night.

“The Trauma of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Youth: A Comparison of CSE Victims to Sexual Abuse Victims in a Clinical Sample.” Jennifer Cole, Ginny Sprang, Robert Lee, and Judith Cohen. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, online before print (November 6, 2014).

What it’s about: Not all abuse and traumatic experiences affect teens the same way. Researchers wanted to see if young victims of commercial sexual exploitation and youth who have been sexually abused or assaulted (but not exploited commercially) differ in the levels of trauma and the challenges they face. The researchers analyzed data collected from 215 young people when they received help from trauma centers belonging to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

Why read it: “Before sexually exploited youth can receive appropriate services, they must be identified as victims of [commercial sexual exploitation],” authors Cole, Sprang, Lee and Cohen write. This and other research seeking to identify the characteristics of sexually exploited youth, differentiate them from other trauma victims, and better understand how exploitation affects them helps social service agencies to identify and properly treat exploited youth.

Biggest takeaways from the research: The authors started with three hypotheses, all of which were affirmed by their data analysis. Compared to sexually abused and assaulted youth, commercially sexually exploited youth were more likely to have:

  1. Gotten in trouble with the law.
  2. Had a host of challenges including academic and behavioral problems and issues related to drugs, alcohol, sexual behavior, and mental health.
  3. Reported clinically significant post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.

A challenge for identifying commercially exploited youth, the authors suggest, is that both youth and clinicians may not fully understand what constitutes sexual exploitation. Youth may not see themselves as victims. Adults treating young people may not be aware of the many types of sexual exploitation beyond prostitution, including child pornography and exploitation by family members.

The authors recommend more research on how exploited youth’s trauma symptoms manifest, and how the particular nature of their exposure to multiple abusers and control by exploiters may affect that manifestation. Such research would help us to see how existing therapies might need to be tweaked to better suit the needs of commercially exploited youth, the authors say. For example, commercially sexually exploited youth in the study were more likely to behave in sexual ways inappropriate to their developmental stage. This sexualized behavior, the authors write, has been found to be particularly resistant to therapies, so more research is needed to deal with this particular consequence of sexual exploitation.

Additional references: Look for more articles on commercial sexual exploitation of children and sex trafficking in NCFY’s research library.

You might also be interested in “Most At Risk: Population-Based Approaches for Helping Trafficking Victims.”

And check out ­­­­Loyola University Chicago’s “Building Child Welfare Response to Child Trafficking Handbook” (PDF, 2.1MB), which includes rapid and comprehensive screening tools for identifying victims.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children & Families.

 

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