CSEC, an abbreviation for the commercial sexual exploitation of children, is a form of human trafficking, specifically child sex trafficking. It can be difficult to think or talk about, especially when it is happening to a parent or caregiver’s own child. CSEC occurs when minors exchange sex for anything of value (somewhere to stay, food, and/or technology). Youth experiencing CSEC are often taken advantage of by someone through false promises or emotional manipulation. CSEC is considered child abuse and has to do with the dynamics of power and control.
Parents and caregivers can feel many different things if their child is experiencing commercial sexual exploitation, including sadness, grief, anger, or disbelief. The following information can help parents and caregivers spot CSEC if it is going on with their child or other children in their lives.
What Might Make a Child Vulnerable to Exploitation?
- Previous history of trauma especially sexual abuse, which can impact children’s brain development and connections with other people
- Current or history of leaving home and experiencing unstable living situations
- Mental health challenges or drug and/or alcohol abuse
- Current involvement with the child welfare and/or juvenile justice systems
- Present or past conflict with peers or adults in their lives
How Can Someone Recognize CSEC?
A child may be:
- Spending time with older adults, calling them “older boyfriends” or “older girlfriends,” and/or having friendships with people who are significantly older
- Providing inconsistent stories or explanations about where they stay, how they are spending time, or whom they are spending time with
- Using words such as “the game,” “the life,” “daddy,” or “manager” in texts or in conversation
- Tattooed with unusual or unexplained names or images
- Often missing school
- Possessing a second cellphone, large amounts of money, hotel keys, or key cards
- More secretive about their activities, such as hiding what they have on their computer screen or phone
- Spending more time online and meeting up with people they have met online.
- Expressing changes in mood and/or behavior
- Switching cell phone numbers frequently
- Not having access to basic needs (including food, shelter, and clothing) or frequently losing possessions
If a child is experiencing these vulnerabilities or showing these signs, it does not necessarily mean they are being exploited. Regardless, youth who are at risk of exploitation or directly experiencing it need resources and support.
How Do I Talk to A Child About CSEC?
- TALK ABOUT WHAT THEY WANT TO TALK ABOUT: Show interest, and be curious about your child and their life. Ask questions about their interests, goals, and friends.
- ASK QUESTIONS WITH A PURPOSE: Sharing may be challenging for your child. When you ask questions, be clear with yourself about why you are asking.
- TAKE THE RESPONSIBILITY OFF YOUR CHILD: Instead of “why” questions, ask questions like “what was going on around you?”
- ASK QUESTIONS WITHOUT JUDGMENT: Stay neutral with your questions.
- LISTEN MORE THAN YOU TALK: Your child may just need someone who can listen.
- ACCEPT THAT THERE MAY BE SILENCE: Your child may not want to talk much. Do not force them to share with you.
- ACCEPT THAT THERE MAY BE CONFLICT: Your child may be angry due to their trauma. They might shout or be upset, and this is not your fault. Listen and set boundaries.
How Do I Help This Child Heal?
- WORK ON YOUR RELATIONSHIP: Trauma is healed through relationships. Focus on creating a supportive relationship.
- KEEP IT REAL: Whatever you or your child is feeling is typical. Try to teach your child to be aware of their feelings and understand they will change over time.
- BE LOVING AND ACCEPTING: At this time, the best way to help your child heal is through love, understanding, and acceptance. Try spending time with your child without pressuring them to talk about their experiences.
- RECOGNIZE THE PROCESS: It is possible for your child to receive support and treatment even if they are still being exploited.
- DO NOT PUT YOURSELF IN OPPOSITION TO THEIR EXPERIENCE: Your child may see their experience of exploitation differently than you do. Provide support and listen without criticizing or arguing with them.
- PROVIDE UNCONDITIONAL SUPPORT: Your child may feel that they could be judged for their experiences or what happened to them is their fault.
- BE PATIENT: Healing from sexual assault or exploitation takes a long time.
- TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF: Part of the healing relationship between you and your child rests on your relationship. Take care of yourself for you, your child, and your relationship.
- MEET THEM WHERE THEY ARE: Your child’s experience with exploitation may not be the biggest thing on their mind. Have conversations about the things that worry them.
- BE INFORMED ABOUT TRAUMA: Children who have been exploited may show symptoms of trauma such as acting out, being on their guard (hypervigilance), or having moments of reliving a scene from the situation (flashbacks) or nightmares.
- EXPECT UPS AND DOWNS: It is natural for things to go well for your child at times and be more challenging at other times. It is a hard part of the process.
- WHILE IT’S CHALLENGING, DO NOT TAKE THEIR BEHAVIOR PERSONALLY: Your child may direct their own feelings of sadness, shame, or anger onto you; it is not about you, but is about them moving through their experiences.
- UNDERSTAND THAT TRAFFICKED YOUTH ARE NOT CRIMINALS: They have been forced or coerced and will not be punished for sex acts.
- SET FAIR BOUNDARIES: Provide structure, explain why you have it, and be flexible if it needs to be adapted.
- KEEP IT SIMPLE: Try not to take on any major life changes or unnecessary challenges.
Why Does CSEC Continue?
CSEC continues for a complex set of reasons, which might include:
- TRAUMA BONDING: This type of psychological self-preservation occurs when someone is in an ongoing traumatic and/or exploitative situation. Children who are trauma bonded to exploiters may develop positive feelings towards them. These relationships feel very real and they fill natural, human emotional needs.
- SENSE OF COMMUNITY: Youth might develop a social network through exploitation.
- SENSE OF IDENTIFY: Can be developed through the experience of exploitation.
- BASIC NECESSITIES: Ongoing needs for basic necessities such as food, shelter, or clothing.
- FEELINGS OF SHAME: Youth may feel a sense of shame or that they are “deserving” of the trauma of exploitation.
- DESIRE TO SEEK CONTROL: Youth may be striving to seek control of the exploitative situation in which they have felt powerless.
What to Do Now?
The most important things you can do to prevent exploitation from continuing are:
- FIND SUPPORT: Create a support network for your child through family, friends, teachers, and other service providers. When your child is looking for a sense of belonging, attention, or love, exploiters take advantage of this. With support for yourself, you will be better able to understand and be patient with your child.
- FACILITATE POSITIVE ACTIVITIES: Have your child join clubs or sports or engage in other activities they enjoy, such as volunteering or activism. These will give them a sense of belonging and purpose.
- PROVIDE RESOURCES ON YOUR CHILD’S OWN TERMS: Services have the power to be helpful, especially if they are something over which your child feels they have control. Your child may prefer art therapy to talk therapy, or a case manager who shares a similar identity.
- CONNECT WITH A SURVIVOR ADVOCATE: Your child may feel connected and supported by a survivor advocate in a different way than a service provider who may not have the direct experience similar to that of your child.
- HAVE CONVERSATIONS AROUND SAFETY: If your child is in a continued exploitative situation, facilitate connections with providers who can have conversations around safety with them. If you are comfortable, have these conversations yourself.
- HIGHLIGHT YOUR CHILD’S STRENGTHS: Exploitation can take away a youth’s sense of self and strengths. Find opportunities to build your child up and highlight the ways they have succeeded and moved through challenging situations.
If you suspect that A child may be experiencing CSEC, either online or in-person, call the San Francisco Child Abuse Hotline: (415) 558-2650 or (800) 856-5553 or the National Hotline: (888) 373-7888.