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The Psychology Behind Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation of Minors

Domestic Human Sex Trafficking

During Women’s Health Week (May 8-14/2011), one of the greatest modern dangers to women’s health worldwide – human sex trafficking and prostitution slavery – goes mostly ignored. The problem of human trafficking for the purpose of exploitation is immense, expanding, and difficult to manage. We can divide the exploitation into two major categories: domestic and international. Furthermore, domestic (within the U.S.) trafficking can be sub-divided between non-sexual, such as cheap human labor, and sexual. Sex trafficking commonly involves minors or the “under-aged”, with 12 years old as the average age of entry.

The exact number of domestic victims are unknown, but it has been estimated that around 300,000 American youths, mostly female, are at risk of becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation. The traditional or old way of viewing child/teen prostitution is to prosecute them as offenders, whereas a new, but slow trend in law enforcement is to view them as victims of exploitation, instead of offenders. Education for law enforcement is important in the transition of moving away from the traditional view towards the new and more correct model.

The old model focused on arresting the child/teen prostitutes as perpetrators, prosecuting them as criminals, and penalizing them with juvenile corrections or jail time, followed by releasing them back to the community (without proper intervention), which basically puts them right back into the hands of the pimps because the child/teen has no place else to go. The critics of the new model mock at the statement: No place to go? They also claim the child/teen prostitutes always have a choice.

If we critically explore in detail how a domestic child/teen gets into the life of prostitution in the first place, we’ll have a clearer understanding of why they have no place to go and why they really have no choice. A common group of victims are the “thrown-away” youths, whose parent(s) or families have abandoned them to fend for themselves and are thus subjected to the harsh reality of street life – crime and prostitution slavery.

A typical child/teen prostitute comes from a background of traumatic childhood, a home where she was abused physically, emotionally, and/or sexually. A very dysfunctional and abusive home so atrocious that the child/teen makes the move of going from a bad place to a worse place by running away. A runaway child/teen, like the thrown-away youth, is at very high risk of becoming trapped into prostitution slavery. For instance, an older or more experienced prostitute, known in law enforcement as the “bottom” girl or recruiter, befriends the runaway, offers food and shelter, and introduces her to the pimp, who is typically an older man: a “father figure” who showers the runaway with what she needs and wants most: positive attention, affection, love, and acceptance.

The runaway child/teen receives the initial compliments, flattery, and affection that fulfill her inner emotional need in addition to the shelter and food that fulfill her external physical need in order to survive on the mean streets filled with other exploitative adults. The trusted older man then encourages the vulnerable child/teen to prostitute herself in order to keep receiving her emotional need of acceptance and physical need of food and shelter. A typical trait found among children, teens, and even adults with a childhood background of abuse and/or neglect is the fear of abandonment, and another common trait is their habituation to being treated with degradation.

The pimp knows this well and uses both degradation, alternating with the threat of abandonment, to control the abused child/teen. The fear of abandonment is so great that the child/teen will prostitute herself and give all the money to the pimp, in exchange for maintenance of the status quo: the reward of emotional acceptance and physical shelter. This fear of abandonment is so fierce that the child/teen will accept punishment, i.e.  incarceration, in order to protect the pimp (her perceived “savior”) from the police, who are perceived as the “enemy”. The police are the enemy because they want the child/teen to give up invaluable information, i.e. to roll over on the pimp in order for the police to lock him up, which is the last thing the child/teen prostitute wants to do – to lose her only source of emotional acceptance and physical protection.

So, what can we do? If you are a woman or a man, who cares about the widespread problem of human trafficking and exploitation, what can you do to help curtail the problem of domestic sex trafficking? First thing is education. We must help educate the numerous members of the general public, who generally speak at lengths at the dinner table on a wide variety of topics, such as sports, the stock market, celebrities, theatre, travel, wine, cooking, and matters of leisure, but regard it a blatant breach of social etiquette to speak out on the matter of human sex trafficking. We also need to help educate the criminal justice system, to move away from the old perpetrator model and towards the newer victim model. For instance, a police officer who doesn’t understand or really accept the newer model will likely get frustrated and want to take it out on and punish the child/teen, who refuses to cooperate with the police and give up incriminating information on the pimp.

As we have suggested, incarcerating child/teen prostitutes is seldom the answer. It takes them temporarily out of circulation, but when they are released from juvenile detention/jail, they end up back in the hands of the pimp. A life in prostitution is very dangerous: physically assaulted and robbed by customers, being raped and/or killed by customers or other criminal elements, and contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.  Even if a child/teen wants to escape the dangerous life of prostitution and has overcome the degradation/abandonment cycle, the pimp then resorts to other effective techniques, such as manipulation, threats, e.g. “You come back with $500 by tonight, or I’ll kill you”, physical bondage or locked room, and physical assault and other acts of violence, including torture and gang rape.

Thus, the criminal justice system must protect, instead of arrest, child/teen prostitutes. The law enforcement officers must be patient because child/teen prostitutes will protect the pimps from the police, but detectives must continue to try to educate the children and teenagers about the pimp’s true motive and why the child/teen prostitutes are easily manipulated because of their fear of abandonment until the day comes when they are mentally ready to leave the pimp. Law enforcement must then step in and protect the child/teen from the pimp because child/teen prostitutes cannot get away from the pimp, without third party involvement. That’s why it’s common for pimps to frequently relocate their child/teen prostitutes across the state line: It produces jurisdiction problems and makes it harder to find the child/teen. Therefore, federal agencies that have interstate jurisdiction can play an important role, but they need to cooperate with the various local law enforcement agencies in order to track down and rescue a child/teen prostitute.

Another important group to educate is the victim – abused children and teens. The latest neuroscience research has shown the importance of early intervention: professional counseling provided to the abused child as soon as possible after the traumatic event(s) has the best chance of minimizing the psychological and emotional harm, whereas delayed or no intervention results in teens and adults with many significant mental, emotional, and physical health disorders. Unfortunately, most child/teen prostitutes fit the second category and thus police officers must learn to control their anger and frustration when the child/teen prostitutes repeatedly refuse their help and instead protect the pimp. The child/teen victims can’t really help it, as the fear of abandonment is so deeply engrained into their psyche that the victims really do not have much of a choice, if any at all. Victims of abuse/neglect have what mental health professionals commonly refer to as “attachment disorder”.

The situation of child/teen prostitution is very similar to most domestic violence cases, where the victim cannot or will not leave the offender. The typical perpetrators know how to alternate degrading the victim with threatening to leave, i.e. abandon the victim. As they degrade and abuse the victim, the stronger the vicious cycle gets – fear of abandonment leads to the acceptance of more degrading and humiliating behavior, which in turn leads to greater fear of abandonment, followed by tolerance of even greater amount of degradation and abuse. That is why the victim can seldom leave the abusive relationship by herself; instead external intervention is required from a third party, and the average abuse events is well over 30 before the victim finally leaves the abuser.

Another important fact to realize is that the abusers also typically have a background of childhood abuse/neglect. Thus, child abuse/neglect can lead to the emotional development of adults who become victims, offenders, or both (e.g., the “bottom” girl, a victim herself, who has been associated with the pimp the longest and has thus earned his trust, and she knowingly seduces and recruits youths for the pimp). Allan Schore, PhD, calls it “affect dysregulation and disorders of the self”. Finally, we need to look at the issue from the perspective of supply and demand, just as in illegal drug trafficking. Who would you target for investigation and surveillance? How could we deter activity anywhere along the supply chain from manufacturing, trafficking, and dealing? Who are the consumers, and how can we deter them from demanding the supply?

When we look at the issue of the consumers of child/teen prostitution, we have to reconsider what a psychiatrist coined over a century ago: Sigmund Freud’s sexual neurosis. Why are there so many people, especially men, with sexual neurosis who enjoy and want to have sex with children and teens? Unless we address the consumer side of the problem: widespread large number of men who demand sex with children and teens, not just arresting, prosecuting, and incarcerating them, but how to diminish the development of men with sexual neurosis in the first place, there will be ongoing high demand for child/teen prostitutes worldwide. Next time, we’ll discuss the broader issue of foreign and international human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation, and offer additional advice for what civilians can do to help combat the problem of domestic and international human sex trafficking. Sex trafficking can happen anywhere: any large U.S. city, small town, or in your neighborhood, just down the block.

Tobey Leung, MD, FAAPMR

Board Certified Physiatrist

Criminal Profiler

Grandmaster (10th degree black belt) Ninjutsu

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  1. 3 Comment(s)

  2. By Greg on Jun 10, 2011 | Reply

    A very well thought out article. It is such a hard problum to stop the cycle of abuse. It seems to me that the breakdown of the family is the root of the abuse which leads to the downward spiral of the victim. You are right in that we must get law enforcement to deal with it in a new more effective way to break the cycle of abuse.

  3. By Oscar Lindhardt on Apr 28, 2014 | Reply

    Dear Tobey Leung

    My name is Oscar Lindhardt and I found your article very interesting, so I thought that I might use it for my exam in english. I have about human trafficking, so I wanted to know where you have your sources from?

    Thanks in advance
    Oscar Lindhardt

  4. By Christine on Oct 23, 2015 | Reply

    We Dream. We dissociate. Some of us forever. To seek other states, other lives, other souls. Let us share our experiences and seek solutions to combat human sex trafficking and prostitution slavery. Let our failures teach us.

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