Child Sexual Exploitation


What is the commercial sexual exploitation of children?

The commercial sexual exploitation of children is a global problem. The commercial sex industry victimizes girls, boys, and transgendered youth. Commercial sexual exploitation of children occurs when individuals buy, trade, or sell sexual acts with children. The most common use of sexual acts is child pornography.

 No child is prepared to cope with repeated sexual stimulation. Even a two- or three-year-old, who cannot know the sexual activity is wrong, will develop problems resulting from coping with the overstimulation.

 Who are the perpetrators?

Perpetrators can be anyone, including parents, stepparents, foster parents, relatives, friends, gangs, caregivers, trusted adults, or “boyfriends,” who shares or profits from the selling of child pornography to a buyer.

§  Perpetrators target vulnerable children and lure them into performing sexual acts using psychological manipulation, drugs, and/or violence. The main purpose is to exploit children for monetary gain.

§  Often perpetrators will create a seemingly loving and caring relationship with their victims in order to establish trust and allegiance. This manipulative relationship tries to ensure the youths will remain loyal to the exploiters even in the face of severe victimization.

Targeted – Perpetrators take advantage of or seek out vulnerable victims, runaways, or children experiencing trouble at home. They know these children have emotional and physical needs they perceive are not being met. Perpetrators exploit family members and friends or find victims at a variety of venues such as social-networking Web sites, shopping malls, and schools; on local streets; or at bus stations.

Tricked – Perpetrators are willing to invest a great deal of time and effort in their victims to break down victims’ natural resistance and suspicion – buying them gifts, providing a place to stay, creating or promising a loving relationship – before revealing their true intent. Frequently victims do not realize the deceptive nature of perpetrators’ interest in them, viewing perpetrators as caretakers and friends.

Traumatized – Perpetrators’ use of psychological manipulation (causing children to truly believe the perpetrators love and care for their well-being) coupled with physical control (threats, violence, or drug addiction) can make victims feel trapped and powerless. This “trauma bond” is difficult to break and long-term treatment and counseling for victims is required.

Psychology of victimization – Perpetrators may use force, fraud, or coercion to control their victims. Juvenile victims have been controlled by threats of violence to their families; pornographic images taken and used for blackmail or stigmatization; and physical, verbal, and sexual abuse. Child victims may be gang-raped to desensitize them to sexual activity prior to victimizing them. Victims are taught to not trust law enforcement and may have experienced negative encounters with law enforcement officers. Victims sometimes remain with perpetrators out of fear of physical harm or because of a threat to their family members.

Trauma bonding –This is also common among child victims exploited for commercial sex. The children experience a strong link to exploiters based on what the children perceive as an incredibly intense or important relationship, but one in which there has been an exploitation of trust or power. Emotional bonding is a learned tactic for survival and can be common between exploited children and exploiters. Advocacy groups working directly with this population note reframing the trauma bond with exploiters can take months of therapy and/or residential treatment for the children. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is very common among children exposed to commercial sexual exploitation and may be characterized by such symptoms as anxiety, depression, insomnia, irritability, flashbacks, emotional numbing, and hyper-alertness.

What are potential indicators of exploitation?

1.      History of emotional, sexual, or other physical abuse

2.      Signs of current physical abuse and/or sexually transmitted diseases

3.      History of running away or current status as a runaway

4.      Inexplicable appearance of expensive gifts, clothing, or other costly items

5.      Presence of an older boy/girlfriend

6.      Drug addiction

7.      Withdrawal or lack of interest in previous activities

8.      Gang involvement

How to keep your child safer

One of the most important things you can do to protect your child is to create an environment in which he or she feels comfortable talking with you. Open communication is key. Share the dangers of sex exploitation with your children and encourage them to alert you when they feel uncomfortable in any situation. Often exploited victims have experienced victimization in the past, and many times this has been inflicted by individuals close to the victims. Do you trust the people with whom your child interacts? Knowing whom your child is with at all times is crucial to protecting his or her safety. When your son or daughter is online, do you know which sites he or she is visiting and with whom he or she is communicating? Taking the time to monitor what your child does and with whom he or she is interacting on the Internet is a VERY important step in keeping your child safer. If something does not seem right, ask questions!


If you suspect a case of commercial child sexual exploitation (includes child pornography) or sex trafficking of children, contact the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children® at 1-800-843-5678 or visit

 Or contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) at 1-888-373-7888.

For additional information and resources about commercial sexual exploitation of children and human trafficking, please visit the Innocence Lost National Initiative at