Child sex trafficking: It's probably not what you think it is

A survivor of sex trafficking at The WellHouse in Alabama, which helps young girls and women get their lives back on track.

(CNN)"You just have to dance, we can make a little money like that."

That's what Shandel, then 13, said her boyfriend told her at a party he had taken her to some 12 years ago.
And that's how it all began, Shandel, now 25, recalled. Gradually, the man she thought of as the only person who loved her or even cared for her, demanded more. Much more -- and she said he would physically abuse her if she refused.
Even now, it is difficult for Shandel -- who requested CNN use only her first name due to privacy concerns -- to talk to strangers about what she was forced to do with men.
She had left an abusive situation at home -- her dad was on drugs, and her mother had "her own issues," Shandel said. The man she left home for "was the first person that felt like who loved me."
"In hindsight, it wasn't love, but it felt like love," she said. "It was like, if I didn't do these things, then he wouldn't love me."
Shandel is among the many victims of child sex trafficking, the commercial sexual exploitation of children. While the term trafficking evokes for many images of children kidnapped off the street, smuggled across borders and moved from place to place, that's rarely the case, social workers and researchers say.
Many who work with the children or who study the problem prefer the the term commercial sexual exploitation of children to trafficking, as it offers a much clearer picture of what's happening.

Most victims know their exploiters

The children most vulnerable are those living in poverty, often known to child protection services, in foster care, in generally unstable conditions, social workers and researchers say. Many have been sexually abused as children before they become victims.
"As much as stories might come out about conspiracies to target people who are relatively safe, relatively less vulnerable, the truth is on the hotline," said Robert Beiser, the strategic initiatives director for sex trafficking at Polaris, which runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
"Our data shows that people are exploited because traffickers know that there are certain groups of people that don't have the support, that don't have the ability to get accountability, or justice for themselves," Beiser said. "And those people who, if you exploit them, it's much less likely that any problems will come your way as a trafficker or as a sex buyer."
And the children are far more likely to know, and even be related to their exploiters, than to be grabbed by a stranger, the experts say.
"Hollywood loves a very dramatic abduction and similar stories, but that is not what typically happens in trafficking cases," said Jonathan Todres, a law professor at Georgia State University who focuses on child trafficking.
"It is usually someone they know or someone that an acquaintance knows. So it may be that a peer introduces them to someone who ends up recruiting for a trafficking ring."
Focusing on kids being nabbed by strangers or a child trafficking cabal leads people to miss the point, said Rachel Lloyd, who was trafficked as a teenager and later founded GEMS, a non-profit in New York that helps survivors get their life back on track.
"There are girls who are kidnapped and forced into the life, it's just not the most common," Lloyd, whose organization helps hundreds of girls and young women survivors every year, said.
Rachel Lloyd, a sex trafficking survivor, founded GEMS to help other young survivors.
"It's not stranger danger in the way that we like to think about it. It's about vulnerability and risk meeting the billion-dollar industry, filled with exploitative predators who are, whether they are johns or pimps, looking to continually fill the need to supply."

There are no reliable estimates of the number of victims

It's impossible to put a number on how many children are being commercially sexually exploited, researchers say, because there's just no system in place to track it.
Depending on how they're identified by authorities, the children might be labeled juvenile delinquent, a child welfare case, a runaway, according to Samantha Vardaman at Shared Hope International, whose mission is to end sex trafficking.
"The label that gets assigned to that child is going to dictate whether they ever get counted in the base number of commercial sexual exploitation," Vardaman said.
The US National Human Trafficking Hotline identified 22,326 trafficking victims and survivors last year. Of those, 14,597 were cases of sex trafficking and 1,048 were sex and labor trafficking, or forcing someone to work by fraud or coercion. Farm and domestic work are common avenues of labor trafficking, according to the hotline.
The average age of those trafficked was 17, and the numbers sharply decline of those older that were identified by the hotline. The sum of younger victims was about the same as the number of 17 year olds.

Many victims are running away from harm

The exploiters are almost always men, the experts say, and the victims are usually female, although boys are trafficked, too. In the beginning, some girls think the man is going to help them into a better life.
"Maybe they've been dating them a couple of weeks. Maybe they think he's a manager who's going to set up their dance careers," Lloyd said. "I've seen girls who were thinking they were going to have a career in the entertainment industry."
Others have thought the man was a landlord who was offering them an apartment, she said, a strong lure for a homeless girl or one looking to escape an abusive situation at home.
Most kids "do not go out into the street, they're running away from some harm," Todres, the law professor, said. "And they feel in that moment that the street is a better option. And that's a really profound statement."
One observation that staff members at The WellHouse in Odenville, Alabama, a recovery facility for survivors, have made is that many of the girls and women were sexually abused as children.
The WellHouse in Alabama helps survivors heal and thrive.
An adult woman living there now was trafficked as a child by her father, according to The WellHouse director, Carolyn Potter.
Carolyn Potter​ has been chief executive officer of The WellHouse for six years.
"She has described just the horror of all of it," Potter said. "And then, when she was able to leave the family home