Skip to main content

Sex ring sting doesn't go far enough

By David Finkelhor, Special to CNN
updated 8:32 AM EDT, Wed July 31, 2013
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
updated 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 3:17 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 3:27 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT