August 31, 2001

America's Silent Emergency: The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children

By Yvette tenBerge

Americans have long believed that the commercial sexual exploitation of children happens mostly to infants and adolescents in distant countries. These words conjure images of the infamous red light districts of Bangkok, Thailand or Rio de Janeiro, Brazil ­ places that we want to believe exist anywhere but in our own cities, towns and neighborhoods.

Panel of researchers, human-service and law-enforcement leaders at the bilateral conference on sexual exploitation of minors.

According to the results of an extensive, three-year study conducted in the United States, Mexico and Canada, however, tens of thousands of children throughout North America are the victims of juvenile pornography, prostitution and sex trafficking each year.

More than 300 human-service and law-enforcement leaders from Mexico and the United States gathered at the Scottish Rite Center at 1895 Camino del Rio South on Wednesday, August 29 for the first ever bilateral conference on the commercial and sexual exploitation of minors.

Although the research entitled "The Silent Emergency: The Commercial Sexual
Exploitation of Children in the United States, Canada and Mexico," will not be released in its entirety until September 10, Dr. Richard J. Estes, the professor of Social Work at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia who headed this study, aimed to dispel myths about "one of the most neglected forms of child abuse in North America today" before formally releasing the report.

"There are seven, very large myths in the United States about the commercial exploitation of children. These range from the notion of it being an issue that is `not a problem here,' to the notion that the perpetrators are small groups of men that are `out there somewhere,'" said Dr. Estes, whose findings show that 80 to 85 percent of all cases of sexual exploitation involve white, working-class children, not impoverished minority children, as many would expect.

After combining thousands of interviews with victims, the people who sell them and their customers, Dr. Estes offered up his profile of the "typical" perpetrator. "The men who are regularly exploiting children are between the ages of 17 and 75. They are educated and not educated; some are doctors and lawyers, priests and other clergy, judges and teachers. These men are not necessarily the perverts who are depicted on television with big eyes and spittle running down their chins," said Dr. Estes, reporting the discovery that most shocked he and his colleagues.

"We found that 97 to 98 percent of the customers of these boys and girls are men. Half of these men are married men with children, and in some cases, their own children are the same ages as the children they are exploiting."

Although a great deal of information has been gathered over the past 20 years about the sexual abuse of children in general, before this study, the research that had been done specifically on the commercial exploitation of children was limited.

The sexual abuse of a child is defined as sexual activity of any type between a child and an adult or, in some cases, between a child and another child. In instances in which a child is commercially exploited, though, there is an exchange of money or of something else of value, either with the child or with someone else, in exchange for sex with that child. In the majority of commercial exploitation cases, the trafficking of children across state lines and international borders is involved.

"You have Americans going to Canada, Mexicans coming here, and Guatemalans and other Central Americans going into Mexico. Mexico and the United States share a distinction: not only are we major producers of children who are exploited, we are also a major destination country for other children," said Dr. Estes, cutting to the heart of the conference. "We really need to view all children in the North American region as our children, collectively."

Dr. Richard J. Estes

This in-depth, three-year international study examined the sexual exploitation of children in the three countries of the NAFTA region. The Mexico portion of the study began in August 1999 and was headed by Dr. Elena Azaola of the Center for Advanced Studies and Research in Social Anthropology, Mexico City. In selecting the six cities to be studied, tourist populations and proximity to a border were key.

The committee selected Acapulco and Cancun because they receive more than two million domestic and foreign visitors annually. They chose Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez and Tapachula because they are some of the most important border cities in Mexico, and they focused on Guadalajara, a large, urban area, because it has almost four million inhabitants.

"One of the most common elements of the cities in which the sexual exploitation of children is more frequent is that they have an important number of people who are rootless. These people are just passing through, or they have arrived with the intention of only settling down temporarily. Some have left their family far away, and they are practically alone," said Dr. Azaola, presenting the findings of the two and a half year study that had her and her team combing the streets, brothels and bars. "In sum, we consider the presence of groups that lack links to the community to be one of the most important elements that contribute to the weakening of social bonds, a very common feature in the exploitation of children."

The research conducted in the United States occurred in a similar manner, but on a much larger scale.  Among the 17 cities selected were "sun and sand" cities such as San Diego, Las Vegas, Miami and New Orleans, and "connection" cities like Detroit and Chicago. As with the criteria used in selecting target cities in Mexico, these cities were chosen for their high number of tourists and conventioneers who comprise the majority of customers. Researchers conducted interviews with more than 200 children, as well as customers, men who had been arrested or incarcerated for soliciting children for sex, both male and female traffickers and pimps.

Their work has been laborious, and finding people willing to speak candidly was often difficult, but ask the people and organizations working to bring attention to sexual exploitation what their biggest obstacles have been and the answer is unanimous. Although two of the speakers at the conference spoke about the work that they are doing to help girls as young as 13 who are forced to work as prostitutes in the migrant camps of North County and about the work that still needs to be done to help the homeless boys and girls living in Balboa Park in San Diego, Dr. Estes articulated the frustration that they all have felt.

"One of the biggest obstacles that all of us face is the invisibility of the sexual exploitation of children. It is the silent epidemic, the silent emergency. People either don't believe it exists, or they don't believe it exists in this magnitude," said Dr. Estes, who challenged those who doubt its existence in their own communities to get into their cars and drive to a few San Diego locations if they wanted to "see it with their own eyes."

Rick Castro, a Deputy Sheriff for the San Diego County Sheriff's Department in Vista, is currently working on a case involving a minor who was trafficked into the country for prostitution. She has been working in the migrant camps in the North County area, and he confirms another problem that law enforcement faces when tackling this issue. "One of the major obstacles in law enforcement is finding a witness. A lot of these victims are Mexican nationals that fear law enforcement, and a lot of these victims have children who are being cared for by their pimps," said Mr. Castro.

Dr. Estes spoke earnestly about what he hopes will come from the release of these findings. "Denial has been the name of the game for a number of years. Our research has been conducted very carefully and very scientifically. One can never predict the response of a political organization. On the day of his inauguration, President Fox sat on the streets of Mexico with street children, many of whom were being sexually exploited," said Dr. Estes. "I hope that our administration will also be supportive."

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