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
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT