At Thorn, we knew from the beginning that our work would require having difficult conversations and making hard choices. When you’re dealing with child sexual exploitation, there is no easy language to use, nor any off-the-shelf solutions.

Recently the issue of child sex trafficking (CST) has received broad attention online, in many cases exposing a new audience to a very difficult topic.

As an organization working in this space, we know how tough it is to think of vulnerable children becoming victims of crimes involving sexual exploitation. We feel that pain, and that urgency to act, every day.

We also know that defending children from CST and disrupting the cycle of trafficking is a complicated, multi-pronged effort that requires a robust ecosystem involving NGOs, law enforcement, tech, public policy, and much more. Everyone is activated when they hear deeply upsetting stories involving CST, and it is debilitating to hear the stories without having the tools to help in the ways that we desperately want to.

By looking at evidence-based research and applying Thorn’s near-decade of experience working at the intersection of CST and technology, there are many ways we can harness the energy behind current conversations to actually fight trafficking and defend children.

Learning what is true about CST can help us better understand, talk about, and address the issue. It will give you the tools to be an advocate in your social circles and put energy into helping the most vulnerable children.

When we know what we are up against, we can build the right solutions that make a real difference in people’s lives.


No. 1: Defining child sex trafficking

First, it’s important to clarify what the term child sex trafficking actually refers to, as it can easily get confused with other forms of child sexual exploitation.

Child sex trafficking (CST) as defined by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) “is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, or advertising of a minor child for the purpose of a commercial sex act, which involves the exchange of anything of value – such as money, drugs or a place to stay – for sexual activity.”

In other words, CST is the exchange of something of value for sexual activity. It’s important to note that while the term “trafficking” implies movement, a child does not have to be moved for CST to take place.

Another term that you may hear when researching CST is child sexual abuse material. Child sexual abuse material, or CSAM, refers to any content that depicts sexually explicit activities involving a child. This is legally know as child pornography, but CSAM provides a more accurate portrayal of the trauma caused by these crimes.

An easy way to differentiate the two issues is that CST involves a financial incentive, while CSAM is largely driven by predators. In cases of CSAM the content is what is valued and there is not a financial incentive.


No. 2: Traffickers build trust over time and often already know their victims

CST does not happen in an instant. What we see in movies and TV is an unmarked white van and men with masks who abduct a victim and put them immediately into a life of trafficking. That is not what we see working on the front lines.

Child sex trafficking is most often a longer process where the trafficker gains trust from a victim over a period of time, or exploits existing trust as a member of the victim’s family or close network. It’s a process of grooming and coercion that can last from months to years before a victim is trafficked.

A report from Polaris estimates that more than 60% of coercion into sex trafficking comes from intimate partners or family members, rather than strangers

Thorn’s survivor survey shows that traffickers invest heavily in gaining trust, with 88% of victims saying their trafficker told them they would take care of them, 83% responding that the trafficker bought them things, and 73% noting that the trafficker told them they loved them.

This is much different than what you might see in movies or as you scroll through social media feeds, but the reality is that most CST occurs through a long process of grooming and is most often perpetrated by someone the victim already knows.


No. 3: Child sex trafficking occurs everywhere and can happen anywhere

The truth is that children are being trafficked for sex in all 50 states, from cities to rural areas and everywhere in between. The vast majority of CST cases are never talked about in the news, or in your social media feed.

While it can happen to anyone, we do know that there are distinct vulnerabilities and certain groups are more likely to become victims of CST than others. For example, studies consistently show that 50-90% of child sex trafficking victims have been involved in the child welfare system, such as the foster care system. Minority groups are also greatly overrepresented in CST cases.

Last year, Thorn’s Spotlight tool helped to identify nearly 5,500 child victims of sex trafficking. The stories we do see gain public attention are heart-wrenching, but they’re not the only ones out there—survivors, no matter what their story is or where they come from, deserve to be listened to and supported.

The experiences of survivors help to reveal the tactics used by perpetrators of these crimes and can help to debunk some of the myths around CST. For example, in many cases minor victims of CST don’t actually see themselves as victims. They may engage with a trafficker for access to money, drugs, or out of a sense of trust.

As survivor Rebecca Bender writes, it can truly happen to anyone, “I was never kidnapped. Or duct-taped. Or locked in a room with a dirty mattress. The reality is that my daughter may have gone to school with yours; I may have stood next to you in the grocery store line. And nobody ever noticed. Nobody ever noticed because we all envision that one way [of trafficking].”


No. 4: Education is key

CST is a nuanced and difficult issue to address, but it’s also emotional and something that naturally draws attention when it comes up. Combine that with an overall deficit in the amount of research and data available on CST, and the door begins to open for misinformation to take root.

It’s critical that supporters of ending child trafficking equip themselves with the knowledge to speak about the issue with evidence-based data, that we listen to the voices of survivors, and that we respect and find ways to support the ecosystem that is already working to help kids in need.

By better understanding the issue as a whole, we can bring the conversation around child sexual exploitation into the light.


No. 5: You can make a difference

When we see or hear about a child that’s potentially in danger, our protective instincts kick in. And when a screen separates us from helping that child, it’s easy to quickly feel helpless.

If you’re not involved with one of the organizations working in this space, you may wonder if you’ll ever be able to make an impact. The truth is that your voice is critical in this fight, and every person who wants to can help defend children

Thanks to our supporters, Thorn tools have helped to identify over 16,000 child victims of sexual exploitation. We couldn’t do the work we do without your support.

Here are some ways you can help to move the needle on this mission:


  • Continue your learning: You’re doing great by reading this, but it doesn’t end here. Learning state and local laws around child sex trafficking, continuing to fact find, and taking time to do some extra research will help to equip you with the knowledge needed to advocate for the kids that need us the most. Follow organizations like NCMEC and Polaris to stay up to date on the most recent statistics, and ensure the information or news stories you’re reading come from reputable, fact-checked sources. Check several sources to confirm a stat if it seems hard to believe. And, critically, listen to the voices of survivors.
  • Be an advocate for truth: Many recent conspiracy theories regarding this issue have gone viral on social media. Unfortunately, this can result in clogging up reporting pipelines and even distract from real kids who are in imminent need of support. If you see your friends posting content that isn’t factual, ask them to take it down. Point them to articles from reputable sources and be willing to have difficult conversations. Bringing this conversation into the light is a huge step forward in accelerating how the ecosystem reaches children with support.
  • Pause before you share: When you see something frightening, especially when it involves a child, your instinct may be to reshare the content. Please take a moment to consider the cycle of harm created by the viral spread of abuse or traumatic content before you share further. Also consider whether the information you’re sharing is accurate and from a reputable source.
  • Make a report: If you do come across credible evidence of child sex trafficking or child sexual abuse material, here’s what to do.
  • Start a fundraiser: There are multiple organizations that have been working in this space for a long time, and they can always use help. Raising money for your favorite organization truly makes a difference, enabling them to reach children in need.
  • Volunteer your time or supplies: Local organizations are often in need of support for all kinds of different skill sets and needs. They may also be in need of certain supplies. Check their websites or reach out to them on social media—chances are there’s something they can use help with, and starting locally is where you will often see the biggest impact.

At Thorn, we are working across the child protection ecosystem to provide the digital tools needed to build a world where every child can be safe, curious, and happy. With your help, we will get there.

By better understanding the issue as a whole, we can bring the conversation around child sexual exploitation into the light.

Doing so brings us a step closer to building a world where every child can simply be a kid.

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