We've heard and been repulsed by such stories before. Three years ago a young German woman, Natascha Kampusch, escaped from an Austrian cellar after being held captive for eight years. Nearly a year after her 2002 abduction from her bedroom and forced "marriage" to her kidnapper, Elizabeth Smart was rescued when an elderly couple recognized her after seeing her story on television. When confronted with the gruesome details of these crimes, we wonder how something like this could happen. What kind of person could treat a child so callously and brutally? At least, we often comfort ourselves, such abductions are rare.
Unfortunately that's not the case. Every day girls all over the world lose their innocence to heartless "owners" who are profiting from the sale of their young bodies in the sex trade. They "work" in brothels in Eastern Asia, India, Europe, and yes, in the United States. Just last week five people in Houston were arrested and charged with trafficking children—children they had forced into sexual servitude.
The U.S. State Department estimates that about half of the two million people trafficked across international borders each year are minors, the majority of whom are forced into commercial sexual exploitation. These children, occasionally as young as seven or eight, are sexually and emotionally brutalized until they are sufficiently broken to serve as many as 20 customers a day. Vulnerable to the lure of traffickers because they are poor, uneducated, and often orphaned, these girls succumb to tempting offers for seemingly lucrative jobs in other countries. When they arrive, however, in their new homes, they are stripped of their passports, their dignity, and their freedom. Their captors control them by physically and emotionally abusing them and by denying them access to money or other means of escape. Rarely can they speak the language of the country where they are being exploited; many are warned that their families will be murdered if they flee.
In the United States, where studies reveal that the average age at which a girl enters prostitution is 12 or 13, vulnerable populations include runaways, foster children, and illegal immigrants. Most have been sexually abused at home or on the streets. Trafficking recruiters lurk near Southern California high schools and target immigrant girls, threatening to turn their families over to Immigration Services if they don't begin to turn tricks. Pimps often gain control of runaway girls with kindness—before raping, beating, and drugging them into submission and forcing them to walk the streets. Sadly, if they are picked up by the police, they are often treated as criminals instead of as the victims they are.
It's time we recognized the evil of this practice and work together to end it. It's time we, like William Wilberforce and William Lloyd Garrison before us, become abolitionists. To do so, we must first learn as much as we can about sex trafficking and those it affects. We should support the work of nonprofit agencies like the Salvation Army's program for the abolition of sexual trafficking, the International Justice Mission, Shared Hope International, and Stop Child Trafficking Now to end this vile practice. We can contact state and federal lawmakers and encourage them to enforce existing anti-trafficking legislation and to enact stronger measures against slavery. Language in these laws needs to mandate that victims be treated as such instead of as criminals. And since as many as 100,000 children are currently victimized by commercial sexual exploitation in the United States, we need to be watchful and report suspicious activities to the State Department's trafficking victims hotline (888-373-7888).
The treatment these children—both in this country and overseas—receive at the hands of their captors is so brutal that few Americans believe it is happening—but it is. We cannot imagine reading thousands of headlines a day about children being kidnapped and sexually exploited, but it is the reality we must face. We need to be as outraged by child sex slavery as we are by the stories of Jaycee Lee Dugard, Natascha Kampusch, and Elizabeth Smart. And we must hold out a hand of hope and rescue to these abused and desperate children.
Jane Marie Smith is Coordinator of Instruction and Government Documents at Bailey Library, Slippery Rock University and volunteers as a researcher for Stop Child Trafficking Now. Dr. Gary Scott Smith chairs the history department at Grove City College, is a fellow for faith and the presidency with The Center for Vision & Values, and is the author of Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush (Oxford University Press, 2006).