THE BLOG
08/16/2013 08:16 am ET Updated Oct 16, 2013

A Difference of Degree, Not Kind

Hearing the steady drumbeat of news about sex trafficking coming out of the Pacific Rim, sometimes it's easy to imagine the problem as confined to more impoverished countries, an issue for less developed cultures.

So it may have come as a shock to many to read on the front page of the New York Times last week about the nation's largest-ever raid of child prostitution rings, which led to the arrest of 150 men charged with forcing 105 teenage girls to do sex work.

The raids were the culmination a decade of investigation into child prostitution rings that has led to the convictions of 1,350 people while rescuing 2,700 teenagers and children.

The language differences here are instructive. Domestically, authorities tend to say "child prostitution," a phrase that emphasizes the individual commercial activity of selling of sex by children. International authorities and we at the Somaly Mam Foundation tend to say "sex trafficking," a phrase that emphasizes the ongoing sale of girls themselves into sex slavery, often by family members.

Looking at this last decade of FBI arrests, it may be more of a difference of degree, not of kind. In fact, the FBI raids are only the tip of a very large iceberg.

According to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children, as many as 100,000 youth are victimized every year. And because of the ease with which the internet enables the unscrupulous to sell girls for sex online, this number is growing.

Called by any name, the traffic of young girls for commercial sex is not confined to any society or demographic. It can occur anywhere that women and girls are devalued or treated as commodities.

It is made possible by entrenched practices and attitudes, which -- as the FBI arrests unfortunately illustrate -- are only partially countered by laws and policies.

All of which is to say that attitudes that devalue women in the U.S. remain entrenched. And they go far beyond child prostitution. According to the CDC, one in six American women is the victim of sexual assault, about half of them teenagers.

It will take a lot to change all this. But the first step is recognizing that the problem is here, on our doorstep. Sex trafficking is not something that happens "over there." Tens of thousands of young girls are exploited in the sex trade right here in the U.S. every year, and as many of a quarter million are victims of sexual assault. Until we awaken more fully to that hard reality, it will be difficult to stop the trafficking of girls and women.