Skip to main content

Sex ring sting doesn't go far enough

By David Finkelhor, Special to CNN
July 31, 2013 -- Updated 1232 GMT (2032 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Finkelhor: FBI, partners arrest 150 alleged pimps in child prostitution sweep
  • He says problem more complex than arrest of pimps -- many child prostitutes are free agents
  • He says policies, policing must address root of problem: neglect, sexual abuse at home
  • Finkelhor: Programs that provide rehab programs, support can help prevent youths reverting

Editor's note: David Finkelhor is director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center and professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire. He has been conducting research on victims of child sexual abuse since 1976.

(CNN) -- Kudos to the FBI and its partners for bringing needed attention to the neglected problem of juveniles engaged in prostitution. On Monday, they announced the results of Operation Cross Country, a coordinated multi-agency campaign in which 150 alleged pimps were arrested in a three-day sweep in 76 cities.

But it's a complex problem requiring a lot more than the arrest of pimps.

To combat this scourge, the public, the media and policymakers must better understand it. The stereotype is that criminally sophisticated exploiters are luring young girls into their clutches, trafficking them across the country and holding them in captivity through brutal intimidation. Such cases are only part of the reality.

There are many teens on the streets and on the Internet selling sexual services on their own without the involvement of any pimp -- 31% of cases in a recent national law enforcement survey fell into this category.

There are lots of boys in the trade, in addition to the girls, and most operate without pimps. Although this may not be typical of many cities, one recent massive effort to inventory the problem in New York City found nearly as many boys and girls.

Walsh: It's the tip of the iceberg
Police: Teen girls kept sex slaves
Trafficking survivor: Go after johns

Even for the girls with pimps, abduction and intimidation are not always the story. Teens who are prostituted may be attracted and bound to the life for the money, the perceived glamor, out of love for their pimp or allegiance to other girls or for a sense of family and security. They do not necessarily feel "rescued" when the law descends, and they often have nowhere else to be. Some go back as soon as they can.

We do need more law enforcement pressure on the pimps, on the sex sites and on the casinos, truck stops and motels where this crime occurs, and on the consumers who buy sex from underage youth. But other things are needed as well, programs that are not as compelling and easily funded as dramatic police raids.

We need ways of helping gay and transgender youth who are cast out of their families and communities and youth dealing with sexual abuse and other sexual trauma that so often pave the way into commercial sex. It means more mental health and social workers equipped and funded to work with this population.

We need better ways of identifying and treating youth with drug addictions, so they don't start selling sex to feed their habit.

We need vocational opportunities for marginal youth, so they don't see the sex trade as their only avenue to economic survival. These would be similar to the job skills training programs used with other children mired in the juvenile justice system.

We need more shelters for teens who have run away or have been driven out of their homes due to abuse or intolerable family conflict, so they are not hanging out in the places where exploitation begins. Such shelters could look like the transitional independent living facilities in cities such as New York.

We need more effective child abuse and neglect intervention programs and therapeutic foster homes since the child welfare system is the staging area for entry into prostitution for so many of the youth. The availability of therapeutic foster homes and highly trained parents, surrounded by intensive services, are proven methods to deal with the high rate of failure among abused teens who are placed in families.

We need support groups and rehabilitation programs for those trying to keep themselves from gravitating back to the life.

Unfortunately, these are not always easy youth to help. They are often angry, suspicious, traumatized, addicted, impatient, crime-involved, prematurely sexualized young people who do not endear themselves to police and would-be helpers. They may visit a counselor, try to go back home, sign up for help but too often they return to the trade or become entangled in crime.

Arrests make great publicity. But it is only through a multidisciplinary comprehensive mobilization of dedicated child welfare, social service, mental health, drug rehabilitation, educational systems -- working together with law enforcement -- that we will find a solution to young people being sold or selling sex for money and survival.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Finkelhor.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT