I recently watched the documentary Very Young Girls. It has prompted to me to want to bring to light a topic that we, as a society, often ignore: the sexual exploitation of young teenage girls. The movie focused on the lives of teens who had been seduced, and even kidnapped, into the lifestyle of prostitution. The message that was driven home by this amazing and disturbing movie was that the people who were selling their bodies were the victims, not criminals.

The average age of a person who starts working in the sex industry is 13-14 years old. Yes, 13 or 14. Still in middle school, naive, and very much a child. Girls (and boys) who end up in this work often come from homes where they were abused or neglected. A pimp who approaches them may start by telling how beautiful they are and how they can provide them with a family and love. The pimp looks for lack of eye contact and other signs that the child may not feel loved and supported (a well supported teen may look them in the eye and say ‘thank you’ or tell them to get lost). For the 13 year old child who hears this message, they may eagerly get into a car with the man offering hope. Those positive compliments are quickly distorted into manipulation. The pimp offers ‘love,’ then says ‘if you love me, you’ll help me make money.’

The child is now inaugurated into a world of rape, drugs, money, disease, physical assault; yet it can be extremely hard to leave. Where do they go? For many of the youth, they escaped abusive homes, or by now are outcasts with friends and family being extremely ashamed. Families may not even be looking for them. The teen may have missed so much school, they are no longer enrolled. As the reach age 18, they may have been arrested, so now have criminal records and cannot get hired or rent an apartment.

I have worked with youth in a juvenile correction facility and at a clinic for homeless youth. In both places, I heard very similar stories time and time again. Teens were in the sex industry to survive. It was not a lifestyle they chose. They told me of dreams to be a doctor or a teacher. They want to finish high school and go to college. They want to have children and families. Yet, even though they may not have chosen to work the streets, they saw no alternatives that provided consistent food, shelter, clothing, and human affection.

Sex trafficking is not just a problem in Thailand or Eastern Europe. It is right at our doorsteps. If you live in Seattle, drive down Aurora and see the motels and teen girls walking the streets. In Federal Way, take a trip along Pac Highway. Who do you see? Go to downtown Seattle or Portland and notice the youth congregating around bus stops. When we, as a community, open our eyes to the abuse that is happening around us, maybe we can start to put an end to it.

So what can we do to help end the exploitation of children and teens in the US? First, become aware that it is happening. Change our focus from one of prosecuting teens as criminals, to that of helping teens as victims of abuse. Support programs, like YouthCare in Seattle, which promote education, lifeskills, and vocational training for teens as well as providing food and a place to bath. The Bridge Program at YouthCare provides shelter for minors who have experience sexual exploitation. Support legislation that emphazises more prosecution on the pimps and johns (people who pay for sex). Be aware of the internet and it’s role is sex trafficking.

Of course, if you’re reading this blog, you are probably a loving and responsible parent to your teen. But not all teens are as fortunate. Know your child’s friends. If you notice one of your teen’s friends doesn’t have a supportive family, be a role model and ask about safety and relationships.  In your own household, teach your teens confidence in themselves. Talk about relationships and what a supportive and safe relationship looks like. It is not coercive or isolating. Communicate how much you care about them and promote the positive things they are doing in their lives. Support their career dreams and hobbies! I have yet to hear a teen in the sex industry tell me they had truly loving parents.