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Arena: Child sex abuse study debunks myths

Kelli Arena
CNN Justice Department Correspondent Kelli Arena  

(CNN) -- CNN Justice Department Correspondent Kelli Arena discusses a study released Monday on the growth of sexual exploitation against children that revealed between 300,000 and 400,000 American children -- many from middle class homes -- are victims of some type of sexual exploitation every year.

Q: What is the purpose of this study? Why is it coming out now?

Arena: This three-year study -- funded in part by the Department of Justice -- is the first truly comprehensive look at child sexual exploitation in the United States. Within the last five years, with the explosion of Internet use, there has been a remarkable increase in sex crimes against juveniles. The Internet has increased sex offenders' demand for new faces and younger children. Many in law enforcement officials were not aware of the explosive growth in the last five years in this crime.

Study: Child sex abuse epidemic in U.S.  

Q: Which kids are at risk?

Arena: The one thing that seemed to shock people the most is that children who were still living at home are engaging in sex for money and enterprise. These are children who have not been abused, who are exchanging sex for more expensive clothing and other consumer goods. Many people would not think of that as a crime, but anybody who takes advantage of child -- even if the child is the initiating -- that is child abuse.

Q: What did the study find?

Arena: The authors of this study went out of their way to debunk three myths: one is that minority kids that are homeless, runaways or throwaways. That's not true. You have a large proportion of middle class kids on the streets engaged in what the study calls "survival sex" -- exchanging sexual favors for food, shelter, and other basic necessities.

The second myth the study refutes is that more girls than boys are victims of sexual exploitation. Boys are victims just as brutally and frequently as girls -- they just don't get as much attention.

Third, many think strangers are the main perpetrators in sexual abuse cases. The study revealed that less than 4 percent of all sexual assaults are committed by strangers. So, for the most part, the sex offenders are people the children know. Also, the study found most of the abusers are middle-aged married men with children of their own.

Q: What does the study suggest can be done to stop this sexual exploitation against children?

Arena: The study outlines 11 initiatives, among the most important of those, according to the study's authors, is that law enforcement officials target the exploiters -- the pimps, pedophiles, and sexual abusers -- and not the children. The study says people who buy or trade the pornography should be the focus for investigators, not the kids, when you're trying to crack down on the sex trade.

The study calls for an increase in penalties against sex offenders. It calls for the justice system to recognize that these are serious crimes often committed by repeat offenders. And it outlines the need for a national child exploitation intelligence center to comprehensively do what this study has just done. When you look at the funding and the number of people devoted to this crime compared to others, it's still relatively small.


• U.S. Department of Justice

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