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Thinking Research: Young People Need to Know About Sex Trafficking

Thinking Research: Young People Need to Know About Sex Trafficking

By Pamela Anderson, PhD | October 8, 2014

How serious is the problem of adolescent sex trafficking, and what can we do about it? These are issues ETR researchers have been looking at for some time. I’ve just heard some news that gives me hope that the health and education community is moving in a good direction on these matters.

ETR has been doing research on adolescent sexual health for the past 30 years. More recently, my colleagues and I have been examining patterns of sex trafficking among adolescents. We’re also working on projects that demonstrate the importance of healthy relationships and their context in sexual and reproductive health education with youth. (Karin Coyle wrote about this in a recent My Take column.) 

One of the most disturbing findings in our work is a phenomenon we call peer-to-peer sexual exploitation. In these situations, young men ask their girlfriends to exchange sex with other men for money. Basically, the young man in the relationship is pimping the young woman. Often, the young woman sees this as a reasonable way to bring in extra money and provide financial support to the relationship. (See my own My Take column from last January for more information about our study.)

Prevention Is Key

As researchers specializing in adolescent sexual and reproductive health, ETR believes strongly that an essential step in preventing adolescent sex trafficking is to educate young people themselves about the realities of the process—what it is, how people get drawn into it, why it’s not a healthy choice, and how to know whether a relationship is risky.

Research studies show the average age at which girls first become involved in the sex trade is age 12 to 14. Frontline workers in some communities now indicate this trend is actually moving downward, with increasingly younger girls being trafficked. The average age for boys and transgender youth is age 11 to13.

The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that, every year, some 244,000 children in the United States are at risk for trafficking, with nearly 200,000 incidents of sexual exploitation of minors occurring yearly. Over 80% of victims in confirmed sex-trafficking cases are U.S. citizens.

Bringing Prevention to Schools

This is why I was so excited to read about a bill recently signed by California Governor Jerry Brown. Introduced by State Senator Holly J. Mitchell, Senate Bill 1165 requires the state commission responsible for revising the “Health Framework for California Public Schools” to consider including a distinct category of prevention education addressing sexual abuse and sex trafficking.

If the commission moves forward with a recommendation, we may well see a thoughtful, comprehensive approach to teaching about adolescent sex trafficking in California public schools. Content would include information about different forms of sexual abuse and sex trafficking, discussion of healthy boundaries in relationships, examination of desensitizing effects of culture and mass media on these issues, and steps to take to report abuse or get help.

Schools would also work with law enforcement and expert consultants to develop effective school safety plans to help young people respond to threats of sexual abuse or sex trafficking.

Thanks for the Leadership!

I’d like to thank Senator Mitchell, Governor Brown and all of the enlightened legislators who are supporting this step in California. I hope these efforts will lead the way for other states and communities looking for answers to the very real, extremely serious issue of adolescent sex trafficking.

Pamela Anderson, PhD, is a Senior Research Associate at ETR. You can reach her at

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