Teens, Sex Trafficking, and What You Need to Know

By Brenda L. Yoder, LMHC

A couple of years ago, I talked with a former victim of sex trafficking at a faith-based conference. She briefly told me her story. She was raised in the church, was in a youth group, and was trafficked by her brother to his friends and others.

Trafficking isn’t something confined to the brothels or slums of southeast Asia. It’s commercial sex with a child, and it’s in high demand in the United States. Victims and consumers are in our neighborhoods. Rural. Urban. Suburban.

Though I’m a licensed mental health counselor and school counselor, I have learned childhood sex trafficking is not just a counselor’s issue—it’s a parent, church, and community issue too.

This information broadened my scope about potential victims. Having worked with kids in foster care, I was aware that foster kids are the largest group of targeted kids for sex trafficking.

However, my eyes were opened as a community member and parent at these other statistics about sex trafficking.

  • The average age of kids entering sex trafficking is twelve to fourteen.
  • Commercial sex with children is now the second largest criminal industry behind drugs.
  • One in three victims are recruited within forty-eight hours of running away from home.
  • 83% of US victims are US citizens.
  • The majority of victims have a history of sexual abuse.
  • Kids are often recruited by other kids involved in sex trafficking, usually of their same gender.
  • Girls involved in sex trafficking often have “trauma bonds” with their traffickers, whom they consider their boyfriends.

Social media plays a big role in finding and grooming potential victims. Instagram, Snapchat, Kick, Twitter, Whisper, Facebook, and more are used to scout victims. A complete guide for social media and sex trafficking is found at Love146—an organization with valuable resources on sex trafficking for parents and teens.

What do traffickers look for online? Social media posts with words like “I hate my mom,” “school sucks,” and similar statements are what predators look for to vet potential targets—tweens and young teens who share their emotions on social media. Groomers look for the vulnerable and know how to earn their trust.

If a child wants love, they’ll be their boyfriend (or girlfriend).

If a teen needs a place to live, they’ll give them shelter.

If a kid is lonely, they’ll become their friend.

If a girl wants a father, they’ll become their protector or “daddy.”

If a potential victim is poor, they’ll provide them the dream of status and material goods.

The striking truth about victims of sex trafficking is that they’re in our communities, churches, schools, athletic clubs, malls, and neighborhoods. Victims don’t self-report. They believe they are in love with their perpetrator, because he or she provides things for them and makes them feel significant.

As a parent, church, and community member, it’s something to take seriously.

How can you or your church community respond?

  • Educate yourself on the dangers of social media. Again, Love146 is a great website devoted to this.
  • Talk with your daughters and sons about trafficking, even if it feels weird or awkward.
  • Be aware of your tween or teen’s moods and emotional presentation.
  • Question unhealthy relationships with boyfriends—especially those exhibiting power and control.
  • Be aware of new material goods purchased for them by friends or boyfriends.
  • Be involved in their social media. Teens can have multiple Facebook accounts of which you may not know.
  • Be on the lookout for friends or kids in your social, community, or parenting circles who may be victims.

    1. Girls who say they're "modeling."
    2. Kids who are overly tired, malnourished, or have neglected healthcare.
    3. Teens with tattoos which indicate branding or have the term “daddy” on them.
    4. Kids with severe anxiety, memory loss, lack of trust, sadness, withdrawal, suicide, or hopelessness.
    5. Kids with signs of physical abuse.

Commercial child sex knows no boundaries. It applies to kids you know. If you’re in doubt, watch this video. We need to be aware and engaged on all levels.

Brenda Yoder is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, school counselor, teacher, speaker, author, and a member of Dove's Nest's Speaker's Bureau. She often provides trainings on abuse prevention, trauma, boundaries, parenting, and mental health issues. Brenda's newest books include Balance, Busyness, and Not Doing It All and Who Do You Say I Am?, a resource for teen girls. She also has a mental health column in her local paper, is a parenting columnist for several online magazines, and is a regular contributor to the Purpose devotional magazine. Her platform as a writer and speaker is Life Beyond the Picket Fence: life, faith, and parenting beyond the storybook image.