Sexual Exploitation and Human Trafficking

Sexual abuse and exploitation are devastating horrors that affect all areas of a child: body, mind and spirit. We often think of sexual harm occurring to children who have been trafficked into the sex trade. But did you know that all children in crisis—indeed all children—are at risk of sexual harm?

What Types of Sexual Harm Do Children Face? Who Is at Risk?

Sadly there are a variety of ways in which children (boys as well as girls) are abused, exploited, trafficked or otherwise harmed sexually. Each type of harm is related, but not identical, to the others. We must understand each type of harm and how each affects children in crisis if we are to effectively recognize and respond to victims.

What is Child Sexual Abuse?

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Child sexual abuse occurs when a child is used by a more powerful person for that person’s own sexual gratification through violence or manipulation. Abusers are often known to the child; abuse by a relative is called “incest.” Abusers are often adults, but can also be a more powerful child. Abusers may be women as well as men.

Sexual abuse is the most common form of sexual harm to children. While it does not receive as much media attention as sex trafficking, its harm is comparable and it must not be ignored. In fact, child sexual abuse is often a precursor to sexual exploitation. This does not mean that every child who is abused will be sexually exploited, but it does mean that preventing and treating abuse will help reduce vulnerability to later exploitation.

What is Sexual Exploitation?

Sexual exploitation is sexual abuse and assault for commercial purposes. It is also known as commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC). In traditional sexual abuse, offenders abuse for their own gratification. In CSEC, the offender offers the child for the gratification of others. The commercial nature of CSEC means that something of value is exchanged for the sexual act—typically money, but also food, shelter, drugs or anything else of value. While prostitution is the most obvious form, CSEC also includes the use of children for pornography, live sex shows and virtual sex (using Internet, mobile phones or other technology).

CSEC takes place at primary venues (e.g., brothels, escort services, red-light districts and “electronic red-light districts”) as well as secondary venues that are not explicitly for sexual services (such as truck stops, massage parlors and karaoke bars). Street children especially are vulnerable to CSEC where they live and work. CSEC also occurs in places in which the child has apparent physical freedom. Exploiters are masters at using psychological and economic coercion to restrain and control. Just because physical chains are absent does not mean the child is free.

It is important to remember that children can be sexually harmed in non-commercial settings as well.

Sexual abuse and CSEC are not uncommon for children in the following difficult circumstances:

  • forced and/or exploitative labor (especially domestic labor);
  • situations of war (including child soldiers, porters, “war brides,” etc.);
  • foster care, group homes, orphanages and other institutional care;
  • street children, homeless youth, runaways and “throwaways”;
  • child marriage and forced marriage; and
  • temple or religious prostitution.

Unfortunately, sexual abuse and exploitation of children in these situations often goes unnoticed and therefore unaddressed.

What is Sex Trafficking?

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Sex trafficking is one method through which children can become sexually exploited. Human trafficking is the use of threat, coercion, deception or other illicit means to recruit, transfer or hold another person for the purpose of exploitation (United Nations Trafficking Protocol 3(a)). Sex trafficking is human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation. However, human trafficking can occur for other purposes including forced labor or slavery-like practices. Again, it is important to recognize that sexual harm can take place in these other forms of trafficking as well. Especially at risk are children who have been trafficked into domestic labor, marriage and situations of war.

Sex trafficking is often called “sex slavery” colloquially. Some children are in fact trafficked into brothel conditions that are tantamount to slavery. However, it is crucial to understand that not all trafficking entails slavery-like practices. When children under 18 are involved, the use or threat of force or other illicit means is not legally required (United Nations Trafficking Protocol 3(c)). Children can be trafficked without being sold or held captive. For instance, a runaway teen who is pimped out by her “boyfriend” is also a victim of trafficking under the law. Limiting our view of sex trafficking to cases of clear physical force is to miss millions of children who are suffering from sexual exploitation outside of brothel settings.


Sexual abuse. Sexual exploitation. Sex trafficking. We must remember that children in crisis are at risk of all of these forms of sexual harm, and that all children in crisis are at risk. We must look beyond the areas of harm that receive the most popular attention to recognize all forms of sexual abuse and exploitation, including ones that are hidden.

Christ is calling us to respond to each one.

How will you?

About the Author
Christa Foster Crawford, J.D. has been working against trafficking and sexual exploitation in Thailand since 2001. In addition to teaching and writing about these issues, she connects ministries to the resources they need to end exploitation through Trafficking Resource Connection. This article was adapted from a chapter in Christa’s e-book: So You Want to Rescue Child Sex Slaves: What You Need to Know Before You Begin (Smashwords, 2012).

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