Social Workers and Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children

Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, commonly referred to as CSEC is a form of Human Trafficking that affects minors and youth around the nation and around the world. CSEC is a broad term that includes any form of sexual exploitation of a minor under the age of 18 who may be a Foreign National, Immigrant, or  U.S. citizen, including prostitution, pornography, stripping, erotic/nude massage, escort services, phone sex lines, private parties, gang based prostitution, interfamilial pimping, and various forms of internet based exploitation. In the U.S we also refer to it as DMST (Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking) which is trafficking of U.S. Citizens or permanent U.S. residents. DMST is often referred to as Trafficking in our own back yard!

Human trafficking and its various forms are a hot topic in society today as more and more information regarding the realities of this modern day form of slavery are being learned as this underground activity continues to impact children and youth daily.  News and stories of human trafficking and exploitation is in the media often and local, state, and federal lawmakers are proposing and passing legislation at record speeds to address the issue.  One such notable law is HR4980; The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act that was signed into law on September 29, 2014. This law aims to prevent sex trafficking of youth in foster care, educate service providers on the issue, and provide resources for victims.

CSEC, as a form of human trafficking, is one of the fastest growing crimes in the U.S.  The exact number of CSEC victims in the US is not known and estimates of children who are at risk for commercial sexual exploitation vary widely.  However, statistics throughout the U.S are staggering with upwards of two hundred thousand children being said to be vulnerable to or at risk of involvement in some form of sexual exploitation. CSEC affects both female and males and young people who identify as LGBTQ.

Even though CSEC is currently a widespread issue it seems that many social workers are unaware of this tragedy and its impacts on children and families. Although the Trafficking Victim Protection Act (TVPA) and its reauthorizations state that young people under the age of 18 cannot legally consent to commercial sexual acts, they continued to be referred to as “prostitutes”, and charged with a criminal act.  Although some law enforcement agencies hold a point of view that arresting these young people, and detaining them in jails and juvenile hall allows the youth time away from the exploiter and to detox per se from both any substances they may have developed an addiction to and their trafficker, as trauma bonds (see below) are common among these victims. Others argue that being arrested and sitting in a jail cell and/or detention facility can in itself be a traumatic experience for someone who is being exploited and forced to perform unspeakable acts.


There are a variety of wide spread myths associated with Trafficking and including the following:

Trafficking does not require the crossing of a state or international border, although transport may be involved, the legal definition of trafficking does not require transportation. Trafficking is a crime against a person not a crime against a border.

There is a perception that trafficking victims are immigrants or foreign nationals, the reality is that the federal definition of trafficking includes both US citizens and foreign nationals and both are protected by the TVPA.

Physical restraint, kidnapping, or force is not required for it to be legally considered a trafficking crime. Psychological means of control such as threats are sufficient.

There is a long held societal belief that persons involved in the sex trade (including minors) choose or consent to be involved in trafficking, especially sexual exploitation such as prostitution. In reality a victim cannot consent to be in a situation of human trafficking. In fact initial consent to commercial sex or labor prior to acts of force, fraud, or coercion (or if the victim is a minor involved in sex trafficking) neither consent nor payment is relevant to the crime.

Information adapted from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC)


It is not uncommon for a trafficking victim to have sexual encounters with multiple clients per day, which results in multiple forced sex acts each year and research indicates that between 60-80% of CSEC victim’s also have a past history of sexual abuse.  Therefore, youth who are exploited through CSEC experience complex trauma. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network describes complex trauma as: “exposure to multiple traumatic events, often of an invasive, interpersonal nature, and the wide-ranging, long-term impact of this exposure. The events are severe and pervasive, such as abuse or profound neglect. They usually begin early in life and can disrupt many aspects of the child’s development and the very formation of a self. Since they often occur in the context of the child’s relationship with a caregiver, they interfere with the child’s ability to form a secure attachment bond. Many aspects of a child’s healthy physical and mental development rely on this primary source of safety and stability”.

Many young people who are commercially sexually exploited may develop a “trauma bond”, with their exploiter.  Trauma bonding occurs as the result of ongoing cycles of abuse in which the intermittent reinforcement of reward and punishment creates powerful emotional bonds that are resistant to change. Trauma bonds are formed through acts of violence and threats of violence. Traffickers alternate violence and kindness to increase bonding. Traffickers isolate victims from familiar people to increase bonding. Traffickers use shame and the stigma associated with prostitution, rape, and loss of virginity to intensify the trauma bond by convincing the victim that they are the only person that loves them despite their lifestyle. This manipulation tactic makes it very difficult for young people to exit, “The Life” of commercial exploitation as trafficking in any form follows a similar cycle of violence to the one that is often observed in domestic violence situations. The dynamics of the abuse are centered on power and control. The cycle includes the abuse phase where this victim is physically, mentally, and verbally abused. The guilt phase where the trafficker may say they are sorry but indicates that they only committed the abusive act due to the victim’s behavior. Finally there is the honeymoon phase where the trafficker will show kindness and affection towards the victim. As in Domestic or other Intimate partner violence situations the cycle is then repeated.

The process of breaking down a victim from having healthy adolescent sexual boundaries to having commercial sex with strangers is often referred to as grooming or seasoning.

It is a systematic process that has been documented and replicated by traffickers/ pimps nationwide.

Risk Factors:

Risk factors may be individual, environmental, or social. Running away from home is one of the highest risk factors associated with CSEC. History of sexual abuse, dysfunctional family environment, poverty, and developmental delays also place young people at risk. Young people from all socio-economic statuses have been lured into CSEC as in terms of brain development they have a highly active limbic system and an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex which may lead to poor decision making and high risk behaviors.

Traffickers and Recruiting

A trafficker is anyone who illegally promotes or exchanges goods or services for money. Traffickers come from all walks of life, all cultures, and all economic statuses as the goal of trafficking is monetary gain, power, and control.  Traffickers can be associated with sophisticated international organized crime networks or small criminal networks and local gangs. Traffickers may be male or female, family members, and friends. Traffickers may appear to be affluent and seemingly upstanding members of the community. Traffickers use a variety of techniques to entrap children and youth into commercial exploitation. Traffickers often enlists recruiters who work to ensnare persons for traffickers, they are often other women or other persons known and trusted by the targeted victims.

In 2006 a study was conducted entitled, “The Psychopath as Pimp”.  This study found that psychopathy was an important feature of perpetrators involved in pimping/trafficking behavior, it found that over one-third of the 22 perpetrators examined met the diagnostic cut-off on the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised.


Demand is a major issue of the commercial sexual exploitation of children, however there has been very limited research, exploration, and prevention efforts towards ending the demand side of trafficking. Vanessa Garza, Director of the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Division, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families wrote, “While we can and should work towards creating awareness, identifying, rescuing and providing much needed services to victims, we also need to be seriously concerned with the prevention of demand and supply that continues to perpetuate the tragedy of human trafficking”. Efforts to end demand includes the creation of John Schools. Standing against Global Exploitation (SAGE), created a Johns School program intended to educate buyers of child sexual exploitation and deter future demand from those individuals. Additionally, NCMEC has conducted public awareness campaigns to reduce supply using public service announcements to empower teens to make safer online choices.


The connection between the Internet and the sexual exploitation of children is vast. The online sexual solicitation of children involves sexually-oriented interactions over the Internet; the production, collection, and distribution of child pornography; unwanted exposure of children to pornography; and child-sex tourism and prostitution. The enticement of children over the Internet for sexually-oriented interactions occurs through various methods of contact, including chat rooms, instant messengers, email and various forms of social media interactions. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, approximately 1 in 7 Internet users between the ages of 10 and 17 fall victim to unwanted online sexual solicitation.

Sex trafficking websites that offer a virtual “line-up” of available victims, provide contact information, and list services and associated fees are appearing with evermore frequency and are created by those promoting sex with adults and minors. Traffickers use the Internet to post photos to entice “Johns” and to schedule dates online.

Online advertisements for potential CSEC victims commonly contain a mobile phone contact number. Logistical information such as time, place, pricing, and types of services are also communicated through phone calls or text messages on mobile phones. An increasing number of websites develop mobile applications that allow posting of advertisements that can be done primarily via mobile phone, as can viewing and responding to these advertisements.

Traffickers also use pre-paid and pay as you go, disposable mobile phones because these phones and services do not require a contract, personal identification, or credit check for purchase. Mobile applications such as KIK, offer youth and predators anonymity and makes it difficult for law enforcement to track activity.

Social Work’s Role:

So what can those of us in the field of social work do to help eradicate CSEC in our nation and in our world? First we as a profession need to understand that these young people are victims and most of them are being forced to participate in commercial sexual exploitation. Many of the adult women who participate in commercial sex entered, “the life” as a trafficking victim while under the age of 18. Other suggestions include; become familiar with the language of trafficking to be better equipped to identify and address the issue if you encounter a victim and someone who is at risk of becoming a victim. Help victims learn to move from victim, to survivor, to thriver by providing trauma informed services. Work collaboratively with other service providers such as therapists, law enforcement, educators, medical professionals, substance abuse counselors, etc. to form multidisciplinary teams to provide a holistic approach to service provision. Create opportunities to educate others in social work and other professions regarding CSEC. And finally listen and give a voice to the victims and survivors.


Submitted by: Anzette Shackleford, LCSW, Academy for Professional Excellence and Lecturer, SDSU School of Social Work



Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. (2006). Combating the Sexual Exploitation of Children. Washington: University of Nebraska-Lincoln.Smith, L., Healey Vardaman, S., & Snow, M. A. (2009). The National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: Americas Prostituted Children. Arlington, VA: Shared Hope International.

Stolberg, S February 5). Wildly Popular App Kik Offers Teenagers and Predators Anonymity. New York, New York, USA.. G., & Perez-Pena, R. (2016,The National Child Trauma Stress Network (NCTSN):

Psychopath as a Pimp:

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC):

Administration of Children and Families: Office of Trafficking In-Persons:

Shared Hope International:

Polaris Project:

Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking; Americas Prostituted Children;

Combatting the Exploitation of Children: