When we think about sexual exploitation, we often envision prostitution and sex trafficking–women and girls coerced into brothels, strip clubs, and pornography. But sexual exploitation occurs every time an act of sexual harm is perpetrated by one individual against another. The acceptance and normalization of this harm evolves from an out-of-balance culture that glamorizes and legitimizes the objectification of women’s bodies and even violence against women–especially in the media, that all-knowing tutor on how to relate to and value one another. Beyond the massive harm that sexual exploitation and the sexualization of women inflicts on women directly involved in the sex trade, it is crucial to also recognize how this attitude toward women (and the indirect support of it) causes psychological, social, emotional, and even spiritual stress to the women in our lives, and throughout society.
Changing the language we use to talk about such things leads to changing the way we as a culture view issues, from sexual exploitation to racism. It begins with our everyday lives and choices.
Here 10 simple ways to respond to 10 of the most egregious forms of sexual harm.
1. Commercial Sexual Exploitation
No one deserves to be harmed. This is especially true for vulnerable women and children who are often recruited and maintained in the sex trade through coercion, physical and sexual violence, and/or economic exploitation.
What you can do: Stop using words that normalize aspects of the sex trade and hide the damage it causes, such as “pimp,” “ho,” and “whore.” Challenge your friends when they use similar language. Work to alleviate the stigma surrounding individuals in the sex trade by challenging stereotypes of people in prostitution, and helping others to understand the broader context of the sex industry.
2. Addressing Demand
The sex trade would not exist without demand. This demand is predominantly from men who buy sex, thereby funding the trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and girls. Generating billions of dollars every year, the sex trade continues to expand at an alarming rate. It is impossible to create real change unless we address the root cause of the issue–deterring the demand for exploited women and children.
What you can do:Understand the role that the demand for commercial sex plays in prostitution. Be vigilant about refocusing conversations about prostitution away from blaming the woman to holding the people purchasing sex accountable for their actions. Challenge people in your friendship circle to stop patronizing sex trade venues. Highlight how practices that have become socially acceptable, such as hiring women to strip at bachelor parties or going to strip clubs, can be harmful and serve to normalize the exploitative aspects of the sex trade.
The framing of others and attitudes towards power and domination begin in early childhood, and men are not immune to the damage of sexual exploitation. Encourage schools to provide a curriculum that helps young men understand the messages they receive about masculinity from mainstream culture. Connect these messages to the normalization of gender-based violence. (Photo by BRH Images)
3. International Sex Trafficking
Each year, there are approximately 600,000 – 800,000 victims trafficked across international borders throughout the world. The U.S. government estimates that between 14,500 and 17,500 of those victims are trafficked into the United States. Millions more are subject to American inter-state trafficking. Traffickers are often violent individuals who use force, fraud, or coercion to enslave their victims. The grooming process for victims often includes rape, physical abuse, starvation, confinement, beatings, forced drug use, and threats to the victim and the victim’s family.
What you can do: Join in local awareness-raising intiatives such as the “Rescue and Restore Campaign.” Use your skills to raise funds and awareness about international human trafficking: Host an art show, facilitate a benefit concert, or organize a 5k to encourage community members.
4. Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC)
Each year between 100,000 and 300,000 children are at risk for commercial sexual exploitation in the U.S. Life for these children is often filled with violence, sexual harm, and emotional trauma. Children who run away from home or are homeless are at increased risk. Further studies have found that a runaway youth will most likely be approached to sell sex within 48 hours of being on the street. The majority of individuals in the sex trade enter as children and the consequences of sex trade involvement at a young age can be devastating. With the average age of entry into prostitution becoming increasingly younger, it is imperative that we work to end this harm.What you can do: If you suspect someone is a victim of CSEC, contact the CyberTipline, which is a reporting mechanism for cases of child sexual exploitation including child pornography, online enticement of children for sex acts, molestation of children, sex tourism of children, child victims of prostitution, and unsolicited obscene material sent to a child. Reports may be made 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week online atwww.cybertipline.com or by calling 1-800-843-5678.
Encourage states to change their criminal laws so that child victims of prostitution are not arrested and treated as criminals. Lobby to have law enforcement re-focus the bulk of its activities on adult perpetrators of sex crimes against children: the pimps, traffickers and offenders who buy sex—not the children themselves. Meet with the community liaison of your local police department to strategize on how to make this happen.
Create coalitions of local small businesses, Chambers of Commerce, Better Business Bureaus, and political leadership to work together to develop solutions to the problem of sexual exploitation of youth, such as creating training and job programs.
Ensure that schools have curriculum that highlight the harms of CSEC, teach how to identify potential pimps and traffickers, and the role young men can play in ending sexual exploitation. Additionally, ensure teachers are trained on how to identify if a child might be a victim of commercial sexual exploitation. Examples are the “Tell Your Friends” curriculum provided by Fair Fund or “My Life My Choice” by Home for Little Wanders. (Photo by SantiMB)
5. Sex Tourism
Each year, thousands of individuals travel across international borders for sex tourism. Sex tourism is defined as: Travel undertaken primarily or exclusively by men from developed countries, usually to developing countries, for the purpose of engaging in sexual activity, often of an extreme, forbidden, or illegal nature. Sex tourists often travel to countries with weak internal economic structures that leave children and women extremely vulnerable to the snare of sexual exploitation. Many of those being purchased for sex are victims of human trafficking or individuals with extremely limited life options. Sex tourists disproportionately target children and inflict lifelong physical and emotional scars onto them.
What you can do: Support tourism-related industries both in the United States and abroad that have signed the Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children in Travel and Tourism. Companies in the United States include: Amazon Tours, Carlson Companies, and ElaBrasil.
Before traveling, identify how to report an instance of sex tourism. Examples include when you see someone purchasing sex from a minor or a tour company organizing sex tours. Find out more at:http://www.unwto.org/protect_children or report atwww.businesstravelers.org.
If you suspect a U.S. business is organizing sex tours, or someone you know is purchasing such a tour, report it to your local police department and/or attorney general’s office.
(Photo by Trey Ratcliff)6. Internet Exploitation
The Internet has transformed the way perpetrators lure and recruit victims to sexually exploit throughout the world. With globalization quickly eroding traditional national and trade boundaries, the Internet has become a venue through which harmful exploitive practices have proliferated. We need to make the Internet safer for everyone.
What you can do: Teach children to follow NetSmart rules including not giving out their phone number, address, school name or picture on the Internet. Help teach youth to identify inappropriate internet interactions. Encourage open dialogue with children so they feel comfortable reporting any improper or uncomfortable online activity.
If you notice exploitation of children online, call 1-800-843-5678 to report child pornography or visit www.missingkids.com to make a report.
If your credit card company or internet provider is not part of the Financial Coalition Against Child Pornography, petition them to join or switch to a provider that is. The coalition of credit card issuers and Internet services companies seeks to eliminate commercial child pornography by taking action on the payment systems used to fund these illegal operations. Learn more at: www.missingkids.com (photo by Karmin Photography)
Although pornography enjoys first amendment protection, there is ample evidence that mainstream pornography can have harmful effects. Content-based analysis shows that standard pornography often depicts racist and intensely misogynistic imagery while at the same time eroticizing rape and other forms of violence against women. Interviews with men who consume pornography have additionally found that frequent usage of pornography negatively impacts intimate relationships, skews users’ view of women, and makes men more tolerant of rape. When the pornography industry connects masturbation material with eroticized racist portrayals, extreme acts of violence, verbal degradation, and the sexualization of children, the results can be dangerous for women and children and the men consuming the hateful messages and imagery.
What you can do: If you feel uncomfortable when someone jokes about pornography or their usage of pornographic material, call them out on it. Let them know it offends you and attempt to initiate a constructive dialogue about the issue.
Support CP80.org, an effort to deal with pornography on the Internet by making it only available on certain “channels” so that people who want it would have to choose to access it. This would prevent pornographic spam from being distributed and would make it more difficult for children to access pornographic material.
Educate yourself about the potential harms of the pornography industry, particularly with mainstream, heterosexual pornography. Watch documentaries such as The Truth About Sex and The Price of Pleasure. Read books about the issue including: Pornified: How Pornography is Damaging Our Families, Lives and Relationships by Pamela Paul,Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture by Ariel Levy and Getting Off: Pornography & the End of Masculinity by Robert Jensen.
8. Rape Culture
“Rape culture” means a culture where sexual assault is not only prominent and common, but also tacitly sanctioned through widely promoted attitudes about gender, sexuality, and violence. Rape culture is perpetuated by misogynistic advertising; entertainment and other forms of media that sexualize violence; victim-blaming reporting of sexual assault; and the propagation of sexual assault myths.
What you can do: Interrupt jokes of a sexist, misogynistic, heterosexist, racist, and/or homophobic nature. If you laugh or say nothing when someone tells one of these jokes, you normalize intolerance and hate against marginalized groups.
Write a Letter-to-the-Editor if media coverage of sexual assault is disrespectful, objectifying, or victim-blaming.
E-mail complaints and concerns to advertising agencies, magazines, broadcasting companies, newspapers, etc. who participate in the production of images that degrade minorities or that glorify violence.
Refuse to buy products whose advertisements promote the notion that women should or do get sexual pleasure from being dominated or aggressed against.
Help dispel some commonly held rape myths.
Teach children to be respectful of one another, and celebrate perceived differences. Model for them that everyone has different skills and abilities that are based on their various backgrounds.
Engage male allies. Explain that rape is not simply a women’s issue, and that men play a key role in stopping rape.
9. Child Sexual Abuse
The sexual abuse of children is rampant in the United States. Studies estimate that 25% of girls and 10% of boys experience some type of sexual harm during childhood. Such abuse is usually committed by someone the victim knows and trusts. The emotional and physical consequences of this abuse can last a lifetime, and survivors of childhood sexual abuse experience high rates of mental health and social functioning problems, and suffer extreme powerlessness, guilt, shame, stigmatization and low self-esteem.
What you can do: In order to intervene early in abuse, parents should educate their children about appropriate sexual behavior and what constitutes unwanted or uncomfortable physical contact. Parents should create a safety plan for their children if they do experience harm and ensure that lines of communication about these issues remain open.Challenge media that sexualize children. Write to magazines and companies that use sexualized images of children to sell their products and boycott them until they change their advertising practices.
10. Sexual Harm and Rape
Although sexual harm and rape have reached epidemic proportions, our response to these crimes remains dismal. Every 2 minutes, someone in the United States is sexually assaulted. Approximately 17.7 million women and 2.78 million men in the United States have been victims of attempted or completed rape. But sexual assault is consistently underreported, because survivors fear—with good reason— that they will be ostracized, blamed, and not believed. Research demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of rapes are never reported (some estimate that only 5 percent of sexual assault survivors report the crime to the police) and perpetrators are rarely apprehended, let alone prosecuted. Health consequences of sexual harm include physical injury, sexually transmitted diseases, and unwanted pregnancy. Long-term consequences of sexual harm include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and panic attacks, depression, social phobia, substance abuse, obesity, eating disorders, self-harm, and suicide.
What you can do: If a friend discloses an assault to you, believe them, tell them they are not to blame, and work with them to identify options. Help your friend contact your local rape crisis hotline to hear more about access to medical, legal, and counseling services.
If you hear someone repeating the myth that girls and women lie about being raped, or blaming victims, say that no one deserves to have sex forced on them. Explain that rape is mostly not reported, rather than lied about. The only person to blame is the perpetrator.
Be vocal about the realities of rape. Many people believe that it is a rare occurrence, but 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men will be sexually harmed before the age of 18.
(Photo by Luis Sarabia)