As the investigation of U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz highlights, the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) and teens, also known as sex trafficking, is a pressing problem. Contrary to popular belief, CSEC does happen here in the U.S., it can occur without crossing state lines, and it can occur even if the person who sexually exploits doesn’t know that the child is a minor.

Linda M. Williams, Ph.D., is a senior research scientist and director of the Justice and Gender-Based Violence Research Initiative at the Wellesley Centers for Women. Dr. Williams and her research team examined pathways into and out of commercial sexual exploitation in collaboration with researchers, service providers, grassroots organizers, and young women and men who have escaped CSEC. 

Dr. Williams is available to answer questions about why and how CSEC occurs, the justice system’s response, and what can be done to eliminate CSEC. 

She says:

“The minors involved in sex trafficking, whether internationally or domestically, should be viewed as victims and not offenders. At times, our social and even legal responses to prostituted children and youth are the opposite, and in many states in the U.S., teens of a certain age who have traded sex for money can be and often are arrested and charged in criminal courts. The exploiters—both the procurers (pimps) and the users (sometimes called johns)—often escape arrest.”

“The power and authority that comes with the older age of the exploiter may be enough to draw a teen into CSEC. Psychological manipulation is the most common tool used. From the narratives of the young girls and women we spoke to, we learned that some offenders have an uncanny ability to identify and exploit the needs of girls, especially those with prior victimization histories or who have been thrown away, pushed out, or abandoned.”

“It is important not to lose sight of the cultural and societal frame that surrounds the commercial sexual exploitation of youth in the U.S. The attention of a desirable older male may overwhelm all caution in some young women—especially those whose family lives may have placed them at risk for the approaches of such men. Seduction by the exploiter is enabled by the notion that his behavior is part of a repertoire of appropriate male-female relationships.”