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
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1252 GMT (2052 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 2323 GMT (0723 HKT)
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT