RICHMOND, April 9, 2012 — Many people question why some sex trafficking victims stay with their traffickers. As a survivor, I know this simple question requires a rather complex explanation. I am a survivor of sex trafficking and of child abuse by a family member. My story demonstrates that an untreated case of child sexual abuse can lead to the sex trafficking of that child victim. My history of sexual abuse began when I was under the age of ten. To make this trauma worse, my parents instructed me to lie about it when confronted by a social worker at home. My parents seemed to believe that they needed to protect our family from the social stigma associated with child sexual abuse. But by squelching the truth, they in turn sentenced me to an adolescence of misunderstanding and distrust. My resilience and sense of self-worth further diminished. Without proper counseling, I harbored a secret of past abuse, a secret which slowly ate away at my self-confidence. The day I met my trafficker, I was shuffling behind my friends in the mall. I was feeling angry and depressed. I hated my parents and teachers. At the same time, I was losing my friends in the naturally changing social circles between middle and high school. My self-esteem had spiraled downward throughout intermediate and middle school. I endured several exploitations by older high school boys and men who prowled the neighborhood and local skating rink for unsupervised girls. By the time the trafficker spotted me in that New Jersey shopping mall, I had already been broken down.
As traffickers are skilled predators, they look for girls that are withdrawn and quiet. They prey upon minors with emotional brokenness as my trafficker did in late June, 1992, soon after my eighth grade middle school graduation. Child sexual abuse paralyzes many children with the inability to differentiate a healthy relationship from an exploitative one. I, too, thought that exploitive relationships were the norm. Prior to meeting my trafficker, I was already used to relationships based on deception. Many victims do not understand their fundamental right to say “No.” They often fail to understand ownership over their bodies. I didn’t run away when my trafficker demanded that I agree to prostitute. This was not because I wanted to stay but rather because I didn’t understand that I had another option. Scholars agree on a strong correlation between childhood sexual abuse and the sex trafficking of minor victims. In her podcast, Ending Human Trafficking, Sandra Morgan, R.N., M.A., the director of Vanguard University’s Global Center for Women and Justice (GCWJ), discussed predisposing factors for homeless and runaway youth who fall victim to traffickers “The reason kids are homeless often is because of preexisting abuse; Maybe there’s a history of domestic violence in the home,” Ms. Morgan says. “The child may have experienced sexual abuse. And in fact some of the literature now shows us anywhere from 65 to 85 percent of child victims of commercial sexual exploitation have a history of child sexual abuse in their own community or home environment. And so they may have run away to escape that and now then they’re in another situation where they’re being sexually exploited.” Kate Price, M.A. lectured in a Wellesley Centers for Women seminar titled, Longing to Belong: Relational Risks and Resilience in U.S. Prostituted Children. Price stated a link between the prior history of sexual abuse and the prostitution of minor victims. She stated it really is that history of betrayal that really is a risk, and oftentimes…the entryway, into how children even end up in prostitution. Price reports that at least 60 percent of sexually exploited children, which includes prostituted children, have a prior history of sexual abuse. Studies also show that roughly one in four girls—and one in six boys—will be victims of childhood sexual abuse. Gustavo Turecki, M.D., Ph.D. argues that a history of abuse is associated with the decreased function of a gene that is important in helping a person respond to stressful situations. As a survivor, I believe that, without proper therapy, child sexual abuse often leads to further sexual exploitation because an abused child is unable to recognize the difference between a healthy relationship and exploitation. April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. And, it’s long overdue that we draw greater attention to the critical link between childhood sexual abuse and child sex trafficking in the U.S. Prevention methods to reach out to vulnerable youth are critical in ending the sex trafficking of minors in the U.S. Holly Austin Smith is a survivor advocate, author, and speaker. She invites you to join her on Facebook or Twitter and to follow her personal blog. Holly is a guest writer on Communities @WashingtonTimes.com