You’ll see many terms used to refer to youth trafficking, exploitation, and abuse. It’s very important to learn and use appropriate language when engaging in conversation or documenting exploitation. Always remember, no adult should ever ask a young person to have sex for food, money, or a place to stay. Even in situations where the young person seems to willingly participate, he or she is the victim and the trafficker is taking advantage (or exploiting) that child.
Emotional and physical trauma can cause youth to ask themselves “what’s wrong with me?” instead of “what’s happened to me?” “What’s wrong with me?” implies that the youth has something implicitly wrong with them that has invited exploitation or abuse. By helping our youth reframe the question to “what’s happened to me?”, we allow our youth the freedom to address events of the past and the effects those traumatic events have had on them. By using this trauma-informed strategy youth can focus on feeling safe, managing their emotions, and letting go — all with the goal of developing a sense of future and freedom.
Sex trafficking is considered a form of sexual exploitation, and refers to the exploitation of a person for sexual servitude. Trafficking can be considered domestic (happening in the United States) or international. Children, teens, and adults can be trafficked. Survival sex is any sexual act exchanged for an extreme need, including sex for money, or shelter. Survival sex is also, by nature, sexual exploitation. Being in extreme need for food, money, or shelter places the victim in a desperate situation where they feel helpless and that trading sex for basic necessities is their only option.
It’s easy to use these terms interchangeably, but in reality they are very different. A runaway is a child under the age of 18 who is missing because they have run away from their home or placement, or feels like they have been forced to lured to leave, and whose whereabouts are unknown to their parent or legal guardian. These children are highly vulnerable and can experience homelessness and/or exploitation and abuse while they are missing.
A missing child is anyone under the age of 18 who did not leave their home/placement on their accord and whose whereabouts are unknown. Missing children are usually reported to the police by his/her family or carers.
Although the term “at-risk” is generally acceptable to use in academic and professional settings, it shouldn’t be used as an adjective when describing youth. “At-risk” can label and follow children throughout their whole lives. Instead, think about all children as just…children. Some have risk factors (circumstances) in their lives that cause them to be more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, but in the end, they all deserve a bright future.