When I was 13, my father raped me.
He only did it once. He let his brother, my uncle, rape me many times.
They call us survivors because that’s what we learn to do.
We find a way of surviving, of getting through it. As a 13-year-old, I didn’t use all the correct labels, but words like “rape” and “incest” were the first. Which 13-year-old schoolgirl wants to claim words like that anyway? Sometimes, surviving involves escaping. I did that, too. As soon as I could, I left home and started a new life at college. I was lucky—a straight-A student.
For many others, escape means a bus station or the streets. A life of looking for love and finding it in the arms of a trafficker. Drugs, sexual slavery, arrest and incarceration. It’s primarily victims just like me who get incarcerated.
Being raped at home first by my father, then my uncle, with the tacit approval of my mother, I didn’t know how frighteningly regular I am.
I didn’t know that a fifth of America’s children are sexually abused.
I didn’t know that about one in every ten of us experiences the additional betrayal of parents who know and do nothing.
Desperate kids weigh the pros and cons of sex with their family for free, or sex with strangers for money. That was me when I was a kid. I just made different choices.
Nothing. Their silence. Their permission.
I didn’t know, and I don’t know if any money changed hands between my uncle and my father. I know his family was relatively wealthy. I know my father had just lost his job. I know my mother expected hers to end, too. I know we didn’t starve. And I wonder what I was worth?
I didn’t know that trafficking brokers, like my father, tend to rape their victims to sexualize them for the task ahead. It also helps victims build the psychological defenses needed to survive their future as sexual slaves.
I was incestuously raped. To me, it makes a difference if money is involved. To society, too. I’m sure there are no canceled checks in my father’s drawer bearing the proud memo, “Sex with your daughter,” but being sold adds an additional layer of abuse and trauma.
Today, I advocate for all child victims of sexual abuse. Trafficked or not.
There is a growing understanding of the scope of child sex trafficking and its damage. But treating child sex trafficking in a vacuum, without treating its causes, will ensure it continues for years.
Trying to end child sex trafficking by focusing on trafficked children is like eliminating cancer by only treating those suffering from it when it’s metastasized to stage 4.
The runaways from abuse at home fuel the child sex trafficking market. Without these desperate kids child sex
Abuse, like cancer, can be prevented. Preventing it saves lives and money and minimizes complications. Failing that, early intervention is the next best thing. Anything is better than the standard alternatives- drugs, suicide, poverty, abusive intimate relationships, and sometimes commercial sex work.
Kids are at high risk for being sexually trafficked if they have a history of sexual abuse, being in foster care, and running away from home; in other words, they have high Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) scores.
An estimated 300,000 American children have at least two of these risk factors. High ACE scores mean desperate kids. Kids desperate for family. Desperate for safety. Desperate for love. They are so desperate they’ll settle for the ugly caricatures of these things a trafficker provides them with. Desperate kids weigh the pros and cons of sex with their family for free or sex with strangers for money. That was me when I was a kid. I just made different choices.
Sexual slavery relies on a steady stream of disenfranchised, desperate, sexualized children. The runaways from abuse at home fuel the child sex trafficking market. Without these desperate kids, child sex slavery can’t exist on the scale it does.
Let’s think about that for a minute.
One in every five children can expect to be sexually abused before they reach adulthood. The Statute of Limitations on the crime makes laws against it largely unenforceable; nine out of ten offenders will never see a day behind bars. Remember that the next time someone assures you that their employees have all passed a background check!
We don’t do a good job of protecting kids from sexual abuse. Then, when they are abused, we rarely help them.
We know how to prevent most non-sexual abuse and neglect. Maternal home visiting programs like Healthy Families NY and Nurse-Family Partnership prevent abuse, neglect, and maltreatment by encouraging bonding and teaching new mothers life skills. These are the evidence-based programs that Nick Kristof argues for in his new book, A Path Appears.
The group of people home visiting is least likely to work for are women experiencing domestic violence. Domestic violence calls for best practices that slash domestic violence in the communities that use it.
The other cause of child sex trafficking is people who feel entitled to use a child for their sexual gratification and are willing to pay money for it. Buying a 14-year-old who’s billed as an 18-year-old, they convince themselves it’s consensual. They’re not pedophiles; their abuse is an extension of rape culture and male privilege.
Prepubescent children are usually trafficked by their parents or caregivers on a smaller scale. These children are usually raped by people who meet the criteria for pedophilia. People who are likely to sexually abuse children again and again throughout their lives. Eliminating statutes of limitations on child sex abuse and allowing adult victims access to the courts is the best way to ensure pedophiles are arrested so we save today’s children. Fixing legal loopholes that allow people who pay for sex from a minor to escape serious legal consequences protects kids, too.
Foster care is mainly reserved for children who suffer horrifying or chronic abuse, neglect, or maltreatment- kids with very high ACE scores and the skills traffickers want. Some anti-human trafficking groups try to prevent trafficking by teaching children in foster care and their caregivers to recognize and avoid traffickers. Others focus on bolstering a community’s emergency shelter capacity. Those are great ideas, but I like focusing only on stage 3 cancer. It’s better than focusing on stage 4 but still waiting too long.
We all need to push for programs and policies that prevent abuse from starting in the first place.
When children are “rescued” from trafficking, usually by arresting them for prostitution, there is growing awareness that they don’t have homes to return to. They need long-term, trauma-informed aftercare. This is wise and proper. But this wisdom rarely extends to non-trafficked kids.
Between 40-60% of child sexual abuse is committed within the child’s family. When sexual abuse is alleged during a divorce, the alleged abuser gets custody or unsupervised visitation 85% of the time. The allegations of abuse are viewed as a gambit for full custody by a malicious mother, even though research shows this happens less than 2% of the time.
There is no talk of “rescuing” these non-trafficked children or serious discussion of protecting them from abuse.
For many other incest survivors and me, getting paid to do the same sexual acts for strangers I was doing for the family for free was appealing. Even though I was a college-bound straight-A student, I had been taught my value in the world. Many sex abuse survivors echo that feeling. The logistics of working as a prostitute in a tiny, rural town and concern for my sister were the only things keeping me from that choice.
Sex trafficking makes good headlines. It’s shocking and gives us a perfect image of victims and bad guys. Slavery is bad. Sexual slavery is worse. We get that.
We are short-changing all our children if we are satisfied with them being abused and don’t want them trafficked.
All children deserve a safe home to grow up in. That includes protection from incest, maltreatment, domestic violence, and prostitution.
Far too few advocates realize that we can prevent abuse from starting. We can. And we must.
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Executive Director, Stop Abuse Campaign
A survivor of incest, psychological abuse and a host of other childhood trauma, Melanie now uses her talents to prevent Adverse Childhood Experiences. Melanie has over a decade of legislative advocacy regarding children’s issues, and she has been published in newspapers, magazines and blogs all across the country.