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The Problem of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children


Commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) is a topical issue related to children and youth in the US. CSEC represents acts of child abuse, which involve such actions as prostitution, trafficking for sexual purposes, early marriage, stripping, pornography, and other criminal activities related to children’s and adolescents’ engagement in sexual relationships for money or perceived excitement (Barnert et al., 2017). Child sex trafficking is a significant problem in the US not only because it harms children’s physical and mental health but also because it is difficult to detect and address. This paper aims to discuss the prevalence of this issue, its relevance and importance, and the resources currently available for victims of CSEC.

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The Prevalence of the Issue

The prevalence of CSEC is a question that many researchers have tried to answer, but there are still no reliable estimates of how common CSEC is within the US. In 2015, 1,621 cases of child trafficking were reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (Barnert et al., 2017). However, the actual number of CSEC victims is considered to be significantly higher (Barnert et al., 2017). One study estimated that there were between 4,457 and 20,994 children and adolescents involved in CSEC at any time across the US, but these estimates are questionable because of the purposive sample used (Hounmenou & O’Grady, 2019).

Obtaining reliable estimates of the prevalence of CSEC is difficult for several reasons. First, the sex trafficking industry itself is underground and invisible. Second, many CSEC victims do not realize that they are being exploited (Franchino-Olsen, 2021). Third, victims may feel stigma or fear of legal persecution if they report being sexually exploited. Finally, the US lacks a uniform data collection system and a centralized database (Franchino-Olsen, 2021). Although reliable estimates are currently not available, the present reported data about CSEC in the US points to the existence of the problem and the need for addressing this issue.

The Relevance and Importance of the Topic

The issue of CSEC is relevant for a wide range of organizations and individuals, as evident from the factors making children and youth vulnerable to CSEC. According to Hounmenou and O’Grady (2019), although children from any socioeconomic background may become victims of sex trafficking, the most vulnerable of them come from dysfunctional families. Interviews with 210 CSEC victims showed that the majority of them came from middle-income families rather than poor ones (Hounmenou & O’Grady, 2019). One of the main risk factors is child neglect or different types of abuse, including physical, sexual, or emotional (Hounmenou & O’Grady, 2019). Homelessness, running away, and being in foster care also increase children’s risk of becoming CSEC victims (Hounmenou & O’Grady, 2019). Given this evidence, one can realize that there is a need to address the identified risks to reduce children’s and youth’s exposure to the issue of sex trafficking.

The problem of CSEC is important to resolve because of the serious adverse outcomes it has on children’s mental and physical health. Studies report such negative health effects as sexually-transmitted infections, untreated chronic conditions, pregnancy, violence-related injuries, anxiety, suicidal ideation, depression, and other health problems (Barnert et al., 2017). What is more important is that many CSEC victims seek medical care but do not disclose their circumstances, which makes it difficult for healthcare professionals to identify them and rescue them from sexual exploitation (Barnert et al., 2017). For example, one study conducted in New York City revealed that 82% of reported victims of sexual exploitation had seen a medical provider within the past six months (Barnert et al., 2017). Since CSEC threatens the physical and mental well-being of children and is difficult to detect, it is vital that responsible organizations develop effective screening tools for identifying CSEC victims and raise public awareness about the problem and risk factors.

Currently Available Resources

Many US organizations make substantial efforts to cope with CSEC. Nationwide, the Department of Justice (DOJ) is one of the key organizations providing resources to deal with the issue of sex trafficking. For example, DOJ provides for law enforcement anti-trafficking programs and victims’ services (Hounmenou & O’Grady, 2019). The National Human Trafficking Hotline is another important resource that is helpful for clinicians who encounter CSEC victims in their practice and need to get recommendations and assistance in locating CSEC-related resources in their area (Barnert et al., 2017). Other national resources include the Polaris Project, providing key data to scholars and law enforcement officers and training professionals, and the National Educators to Stop Trafficking (NEST), which educates children and youth about sex trafficking.

There are also local resources in each state which are aimed at raising public awareness and helping CSEC victims. For example, in California, the issue of CSEC is addressed by such organizations as the California Coalition for Youth, Children’s Law Center of California, West Coast Children’s Clinic, and others (California Department of Social Services, n.d.). California Coalition for Youth, in particular, offers support to youth and develops policies concerning homeless and runaway youth. Children’s Law Center of California protects and advocates for children who experience abuse, neglect, or abandonment. West Coast Children’s Clinic provides psychological support to vulnerable children and develops identification tools for detecting CSEC victims. These and other organizations make efforts to prevent children from becoming sex trafficking victims and help those who have already been victimized.

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CSEC is a topical issue that harms the most vulnerable group of the population — children and youth. Children who are homeless, run away, abused, or come from dysfunctional families are the most likely to become CSEC victims. Although many resources are currently available to sex trafficking victims, more efforts are needed to protect them because such victims are difficult to identify and keep track of.


Barnert, E., Iqbal, Z., Bruce, J., Anoshiravani, A., Kolhatkar, G., & Greenbaum, J. (2017). Commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of children and adolescents: A narrative review. Academic Pediatrics, 17(8), 825-829. Web.

California Department of Social Services. (n.d.). CSEC-related organizations. CDSS. Web.

Franchino-Olsen, H. (2021). Vulnerabilities relevant for commercial sexual exploitation of children/domestic minor sex trafficking: A systematic review of risk factors. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 22(1), 99-111.

Hounmenou, C., & O’Grady, C. (2019). A review and critique of the US responses to the commercial sexual exploitation of children. Children and Youth Services Review, 98, 188-198.

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