By Carisa R. Showden & Samantha Majic

Carisa R. Showden and Samantha Majic explore what is missing from current debates around youth sex trafficking.

The prevailing narrative of domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST) in the United States is harrowing but by now familiar. In Atlanta, for example, advocates who worked to open a treatment facility for “victims of child prostitution” shared Monica’s story. She was 12 when she was forced into prostitution when she ran away from her home. The streets seemed a better alternative than the abuse she was experiencing at home. However, she became trapped in a world of brutal child exploitation. From a bus stop, she was lured to a waiting car and then forced into the trunk of that car. She was driven around town from place to place. She was raped at gunpoint at each stop. This was part of her indoctrination into prostitution. She was eventually taken to a hotel where her clothes were taken from her. She was forced to stay naked in the room while the pimps sold the key to various men for $5 each to have sex with her. She was beaten, slapped, starved, forced to take drugs, and traded for sex. She was subsequently sold to a succession of pimps and drug dealers. (Boxill and Richardson 2007, 138)

Monica’s story, taken from court case files. While the details may vary in the media, in policy debates, or in the awareness and fundraising pleas by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the general outlines of this story remain the same: a young (often white) girl leaves or is lured from home, and an older (often brown or black) man, or group of men, groom her into a life of sexual exploitation. Sometimes she escapes on her own; often she is rescued when she is arrested for prostitution. Sometimes she remains free, but in other cases she returns to her pimp/trafficker and a life on the streets. Regardless of the details, she is young, innocent, female, and abused by bad men and their demand for sex and profit.

This particular story of gender, money, and venality has become the generalized narrative defining DMST in large part because it has been repeated so frequently across public domains. Politicians continually emphasize the scale of the problem (“100,000 to 300,000 young people are trafficked in the United States each year”),[1]  and the youth and innocence of the victims in policy debates. For example, in Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s (R-VA) testimony during the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act (JVTA) hearings, he stated that the bill would create “a comprehensive, victim-centered grant program to train law enforcement, rescue exploited children, prosecute traffickers, and restore the lives of victims. The bill also [provides] that child advocacy centers can and should use their resources to help victims of trafficking and other types of child exploitation” (emphasis added). Government agencies also, consequently, promote this story through efforts such as the FBI’s “Innocence Lost” campaign, whose associated advertising materials and reports use particular notions of race, class, and gender to generate sympathy for particularly “innocent” victims: most often white, middle-class, cis-gender girls vulnerable to a predatory man, who is usually portrayed as black or brown.

And beyond government, the mainstream media promotes this narrative to the public through a barrage of popular films and television shows about young girls forced into the sex trades. Journalists have also taken to reporting on and framing the issue in this way, to the extent that the “news media ha[s] narrowly defined sex trafficking as a particular type of problem”—namely, as one associated with crime, law, and human rights issues in which, often, exclusively girls and women are the victims (Johnston, Fried- man, and Sobel 2015, 240).  As a result, as Alexandra Lutnick (2016) explains, mainstream media outlets reinforce an existing “hierarchy of victimization,” where powerless young girls forced into trading sex are true, ideal victims (see also Andrijasevic and Mai 2016), while those who make active or strategic choices are viewed not as innocent but as complicit in their own suffering and thus not victims deserving of pity (Lutnick 2016, 82).

Although this “innocent girl–predatory man” narrative is not new, its contemporary iteration has shaped popular understandings of young people in the commercialized sex trades and thus has sparked new policy responses. According to the U.S. Department of State, sex trafficking occurs when a person is coerced, forced, or deceived into prostitution, or maintained in prostitution through one of these means after initially consenting, and it may involve young people or adults. Section 103 (8A) of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) specifically defines any person younger than 18 who engages in a sex trade—consensually or not, involving any geographic movement or not—as a victim of DMST. As a result, the TVPA now reclassifies all young people in the sex trades: they are no longer juvenile delinquents (Melrose 2010) but victims vulnerable to (predatory, dangerous) men acting as pimps, traffickers, and solicitors (colloquially known as “johns”).

The redefinition of young people who trade sex as victims of trafficking is not just an issue of semantics or public policy lacuna—it has become the cornerstone of the dominant narrative about the dynamics of, and people involved in, sex trafficking. One result is that, in media coverage and policy debates, the terms “trafficking” and “sex trafficking” are frequently used interchangeably, synechochically turning the whole (trafficking) into one of its parts (sex trafficking). This mirrors the slippages in the definitions set out in the TVPA in which the experience of all young people in the sex trades has been collapsed into “sex trafficking.” Consequently, public and political discussions of this topic often fail to distinguish among modes of entry into the sex trades and among the vastly different needs of the quintessential trafficking victim and the other young people who trade sex due to a range of structural vulnerabilities that they must navigate. Not surprisingly, as media coverage of “sex trafficking” has escalated, so has public concern with and debates about the issue. In response, governments and nonprofit and philanthropic organizations have devoted extensive resources to fighting sex trafficking, to the degree it conforms to the narrow category created through media and policy narratives.

This general, unitary narrative does capture part of the story of DMST. But we also see an echo chamber effect whereby a partial story now stands in for the much more complex and multivalent stories of young people in commercial sex markets. Because the innocent girl– predatory man narrative has clear victims, villains, and heroes and resonates with dominant views of gender (women and girls are vulnerable and need protection from bad men, and good men/the state are powerful sources of this protection), it effectively captures and addresses the anxieties of a global age. In the United States, these anxieties include a sense that the country’s own “innocence” is under attack from terrorism, concerns about a shifting global economy that has decimated working-class jobs and well-being, and challenges to the supremacy of the heteronormative nuclear family. That is, what is at stake in these debates is more than just the integrity of individual girls’ childhood or sexual protection; the innocence of girls is a metaphor for an imagined “simpler” (“better”) time in U.S. history.

In stating all of this, we do not deny that girls are trafficked into the sex trades or claim that the public and policy makers should not be concerned about this issue. Nor do we deny that there are real dangers and threats to young people who trade sex. Instead, we want to better understand and advocate for vulnerable youth of all genders. In our analysis, this means maintaining a commitment to ending exploitation and to understanding young people’s engagement in the sex trades through a gender lens. While these commitments also inform status quo trafficking narratives and related policy and research, we apply them in a way that emphasizes structures over individuation, particularly regarding gender and race. If the motivating concerns about the trafficking of girls are rooted in anxieties about global economic and political shifts, then a structural analysis is required. We thus argue for using an intersectional gender analysis to “operationalize” an anti-exploitation framework to address the social structures that facilitate sexual exploitation and to meet more of the varied and immediate needs of young people.

To do this, we first interrogate the dominant narrative to see how it has grown and influenced policy; and second, in light of this, we consider how well it stands up against a growing body of well-designed, peer-reviewed research on the topic that has emerged since the TVPA’s initial passage in 2000. What we find is that the simple, unitary innocent girl–predatory man narrative is divorced from the complex reality for most young people who are in the commercial sex trades. While a small subset of commercially sexually engaged youth have experiences that fit the dominant narrative, this story often substitutes for a much more complicated story of who is in the underage sex trades and how they got there. Therefore, if the goal of anti-trafficking research and public policy is to end the exploitation of young people, then we believe that it is important to consider not just the media-ready story, but also the stories of a wide range of the young people in the sex trades: what are their needs and vulnerabilities? What kinds of policy and community interventions could lessen the exploitation these young people face?

We argue that to be unequivocally anti-trafficking, we need to see and understand the broader picture of young people who trade sex. In this way, while we do critique partial research and flawed methods that have led to the dominant story—as we also critique “critical trafficking scholarship” that, to date, offers little in the way of substantive, service-oriented interventions for youth who need help now—our primary goal is constructive rather than critical. From the studies we analyze, we build an intersectional model—a “matrix of agency and vulnerability”—to inform and improve research, policy, and community interventions (Figure I.3).

Figure I.3. Matrix of agency and vulnerability (simplified model). Created by Elspeth Tory of RedFish Graphics.

Our goal with this matrix is to reorient the analytical stance of researchers, policy makers, and the public. As Sara Ahmed (2006) has written in a rather different context, when we radically alter the perspective from which we view something, we can provoke a sense of disorientation that enables us to unsettle our assumptions. As we argue below, the major analytical shift in perspective we initiate through this matrix is to place young people—rather than discourses of sex and sexuality—at the center of the analysis. Our hope is that this matrix will offer a way to rethink current anti-trafficking interventions from a thoroughly anti-trafficking and anti-exploitation stance while privileging the needs of young people.

Why Write This Book Now?

Our interest in sex trafficking policy narratives was sparked by Majic’s experience conducting fieldwork in January 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia, a city that many advocates and policy makers have characterized as a major hub for sex trafficking in the United States (Boxill and Richardson 2007; Craig 2015). In response to these concerns, policy makers at the state and local level there, as in many other jurisdictions across the nation, created and implemented a range of laws, policies, and programs to rescue and protect young people from predatory facilitators/traffickers and clients. Among the most notable of these was the “Dear John” campaign, an Emmy Award–winning public aware-ness effort that was led by the Atlanta Mayor’s Office and ran from 2006 to 2008. Directed at men who may purchase sex, the campaign aimed to inform them of how their actions were illegal and harmful to girls (Majic 2017).

In the course of her research about on the campaign’s development and impact, Majic interviewed various advocates and government officials who were involved with the Dear John campaign specifically and issues of sex trafficking more broadly. It became increasingly apparent to her that Dear John and other anti-trafficking policy initiatives in the city and state largely reflected the narrative that focused on rescuing young girls and punishing men. For example, one day, during an interview with a service provider-advocate who had long been involved in anti-prostitution work in the city, Majic noted the gendered nature of Atlanta’s efforts to fight young people’s engagement in the sex trades and asked whether, in light of the growing body of research showing that boys were also engaged in the sex trades, the city’s efforts were adequate. The respondent acknowledged this fact about boys, stating that she had only recently begun to see them in court and that there were not adequate services for them. However, she went on to add, her organization needed to direct its limited resources to where “people are the most damaged”—these people are girls. And, she said, to her knowledge, boys who trade sex are more likely to “self-exploit.” Recounting this interaction is not meant to dismiss this interviewee’s efforts on behalf of young people who trade sex; instead, it highlights the disconnect that often exists between the dominant, gendered narrative and the more complex empirical findings about young people who trade sex that is increasingly documented through research.

Indeed, despite the increasing resources devoted to anti-trafficking efforts and the good intentions of media and NGO activists, a growing chorus of questions and data challenges the simple, gendered narrative behind these efforts. Even with the prevalence of horror stories in the mainstream media and the repetition of the claim of 100,000–300,000 young people being trafficked each year in the United States (Kessler 2015a), there are no reliable estimates of the total numbers of girls (or boys or transgender youth) who trade sex, consensually or otherwise. Currently, prostitution arrests provide one of the few semi-reliable estimates of the number of youth engaged in the sex industry, and government crime report data indicate that 8,177 young people were arrested for prostitution-related charges nationwide from 2003 to 2012 (Lutnick 2016, 78). Moreover, arrests of young people have actually increased since the passage of the TVPA in 2000, even as these individuals are, by law, DMST victims (Lutnick 2016).

This gap between (federal) victim status and (local) police practices of continued criminalization led abolitionist groups such as the Polaris Project and Shared Hope International to push for “safe harbor laws” that reiterate service provision rather than arrest as the most appropriate intervention for young people who trade sex. Unfortunately, as Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco (2015) documents, these efforts have failed to make a dent in arrest rates. And once young people come into contact with the criminal justice system, the innocent girl–predatory man narrative continues to shape how their experiences are interpreted and whether government agents and social service providers will hear their stories.

In the United States, police are inconsistent in their treatment of youth who trade sex, with studies of law enforcement case files indicating that between 31 percent and 40 percent of juveniles involved in sex trades (or alleged to be involved in sex trades) are viewed as delinquents (Halter 2010; Mitchell, Finklehor, and Wolak 2010). Further, data from the FBI indicate not only that prostitution-related arrests have increased since the implementation of the law but also that the arrest of girls specifically has driven this increase, suggesting a “sexual double standard that penalizes girls” (Lutnick 2011, 22–23). This is not particularly new. As feminist criminologists have noted, “In the United States, girls have historically been jailed for being ‘sexually immoral,’ running away, and being in need of supervision” (Chesney- Lind and Merlo 2015, 80). Compared with girls, boys who trade sex are more likely to be charged for nonsexual “quality of life” crimes, especially “disorderly conduct, drug possession, jumping the turnstile in the subway, or trespassing” (Curtis et al. 2008, 89).

Given the disconnect between the narrative and the experiences of youth who trade sex in the United States, we build on the work of many “critical trafficking scholars” who demonstrate that the dominant narrative seems to operate largely as a gendered moral panic about sex, disguising “varied ideological projects, such as the socio-emotional politics of contemporary capitalism, prostitution abolitionism, the politics of migration, contemporary understandings of child- hood, and other socio-legal concerns” (Marcus and Curtis 2016, 482, internal citations omitted). While “moral panic” is a term often too easily lobbed at any argument with which one disagrees, the emergence of the innocent girl–predatory man narrative ticks all the definitional boxes: facts are distorted and exaggerated, and although incidents do not often happen in the way the dominant narrative suggests, the framing and dominant under-standing of a phenomenon changes (Cohen 2009, 119) so that a mass movement “emerges in response to a false, exaggerated, or ill-defined moral threat to society and proposes to address this threat through punitive measures: tougher enforcement, ‘zero tolerance,’ new laws, communal vigilance, [and] violent purges” aimed at a clear “scape- goat” (Lancaster 2011, 23).

What Do We Suggest?

To shift the discussion out of a moral panic framework, we tackle four central questions: (1) Who are the youth who fit the government’s definition of DMST (younger than 18 and trading sex)? (2) What leads them into the sex trades? (3) What are the salient features of their experiences once they are trading sex? (4) What changes to research and policy could better address the exploitation and vulnerabilities they face? There is a wealth of rigorous, peer-reviewed research on these questions scattered across academic journals and some books; individually, these works look at bits and pieces of the story about why and how young people end up on the street, in the sex trades, or both. Together, this body of work disavows the unitary, individualizing account that dominates public policy debates and media coverage of young people who trade sex, but the narrative it offers is not simple or simplistic. Instead, it is complex and harder to hear than the dominant, reductive narrative. Yet it is no less important. In this sense, our book—like Lutnick’s Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking (2016)—serves as a synthesizing analysis of more methodologically robust research to tell the more nuanced story about youth in the sex trades. Our work in this book complements her efforts and adds a theoretical intervention into both research and policy.

This theoretical intervention constitutes our second purpose in writing this book. From offering a more accurate view of the young people in the sex trades and how they got there we build an alternate model for future research and policy development, which we label a matrix of agency and vulnerability. This matrix applies an intersectional lens to the complex factors of structurally produced domination that lead some youth into the sex trades and then shape their experiences once they are engaged in commercial sex markets. We use this matrix to demonstrate the varied needs of youth who trade sex and to give credence to how young people navigate their personal, social, and political terrains.

In the final chapter of our book, we offer suggestions for applying the matrix of agency and vulnerability to future research on and with young people as well as to public policy. Research and policy that disaggregates “sex trading by youth” from “sex trafficking of youth” is an important step in designing policies that can better target the causal mechanisms in both of these phenomena. As we explain in greater detail in the book, a conceptual framework in which all sex trading by minors is commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC)—or, more specifically, DMST—guides the current policy regime. Such a framework collapses, for example, the most horrific forms of sexual violation and (literal) trafficking of 10-year-olds with the decisions of 16- and 17-year-olds to engage in the hard work of trading sex to survive being kicked out of their homes and, e.g., unable to get gender-identity documentation that would allow them to access appropriate shelter services. Such services that are offered for these young people is devised with the first group in mind, and the second group largely ignored.

Based on the evidence we review from the best-available peer-reviewed research we could find, we suggest that a more effective and far-reaching “anti-trafficking policy” for the second group of youth would be aimed at providing them more structural supports such as free or subsidized access to gender-sensitive housing and skills and employment training, in addition to more support for local, peer- and community-based service providers and advocacy organizations that work with this population, especially since young people who trade sex garner many of their resources from their social-locational networks. There is ample evidence that for people who trade sex (and members of other marginalized communities), these organizations often reach and serve their communities more effectively because they know their needs better than do policy makers and nonlocal service organizations. By suggesting increased support for such organizations, we are not making a neoliberal devolutionary argument that favors nonprofit service provision over comprehensive welfare state reform. In stead, we see local, community-based organizations as complementing the structural policies and programmatic reforms we suggest (such as comprehensive housing policy). Because such organizations are often run by and located in the communities they serve, they can tailor their services to local needs and are trusted by community members.


[1] This claim is invoked repeatedly in public policy debates (see, e.g., the floor debates for the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act and Trafficking Victims Protection Act), media campaigns (e.g., Thorn: Digital Defenders of Children, formerly the Demi and Ashton Foundation), and news stories (e.g., Brown 2011; M. Fang 2013). There is no evidence to support these numbers, and the original research from which these numbers were garnered has been both misrepresented and widely criticized (see McNeill 2014 and Kessler 2015).

Extract from Showden, Majic, Youth Who Trade Sex in the US: Intersectionality, Agency, and Vulnerability, 2018, Temple University Press, Philadelphia. 

Carisa Showden is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Auckland. She is an expert in gender and sexuality studies. 

Samantha Majic is an Associate Professor in Gender Politics at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She is an expert in sex trafficking. 

Youth Who Trade Sex in the US: Intersectionality, Agency, and Vulnerability can be purchased here.

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author(s) views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

You might also like:

What lies behind the sex trafficking of Yazidi women?