07/08/2011 10:23 am ET | Updated Sep 07, 2011

Child Sex Trafficking: Dispelling the Myths

In light of the recent DNA Foundation's Real Men Campaign and criticism raised in response by the Village Voice, I thought now would be the right time to address the underlying societal stigma that surrounds the commercial sexual exploitation of children in our nation.

As the CEO of Minga, the only not-for-profit organization dedicated to combating the global child sex trade by harnessing the power of teens, I am familiar with just how taboo my cause is. In 2006, during our Freshman year of high school, my friends and I learned that children, both in the United States and abroad, are sold in a vicious global child sex trade. We researched the issue further to find that the average age of entry into prostitution in our nation is just 13. Shocked and appalled that millions of young people just like us were being sold for sex, we knew we had to do something. None of us had been sexually exploited, abused, or trafficked. We were a group of suburban students from stable homes who simply felt a responsibility for our peers who were suffering.

From the first yard sale we held in 2006, we have met constant questioning: "Why are you all even talking about this? You are kids! This is not actually happening in the United States." Our cause is among America's darkest secrets, and many want it to stay that way.

But there is an underlying set of myths that have contributed to the stigma around child victims evident in our nation's media, legal system, and public opinion. Our media promotes a distorted picture of the prostitution industry, glamorizing pimps and encouraging young people to believe the industry is one of high class, endless cash, and opportunity. Our legal system allows states to set laws around prostitution and child sex trafficking, and many states penalizes child victims more so than perpetrators. Public opinion has bought into the following myths that have in turn made ending the child sex trade in our nation low on our list of priorities.

Myth #1: Children involved in the child sex trade in the United States are trafficked from foreign countries

Most children being sold for sex in our nation are American children. Our nation's child victims are from New York City, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Miami, Los Angeles, Dallas and everywhere in between. While children from abroad are trafficked here as well, they are the minority in the United States commercial child sex trade.

Myth #2: Children involved in the child sex trade in the United States are "bad kids"

No child, age 5, 12, or even 17 dreams of becoming a prostitute. Many child victims do come from broken homes, but very few children are drug addicts prostituting themselves to support their addiction, crazed alcoholics, or promiscuous sex addicts. Children of all ethnicities, socioeconomic brackets, and geographic areas are being sold for sex in our nation. The only uniting quality all children pulled into the trade life share is vulnerability.

Myth #3: Children are kidnapped and then pimped out

Sometimes this is the case, but in the United States the recruiting process pimps execute time and time again is not kidnapping. Instead, American pimps lure girls in gradually. Pimps search for girls with low self esteem. They are absolute experts at finding the girl on the train, in the mall, at a school, or even just walking down the street, who is in pain. They will test their hypothesis, giving her a compliment and gauging her reaction. He gives her his number and asks her out on a date. He gains her trust, giving her the love and attention she has been craving. For months he buys her dinner, designer clothes, jewelry, and in exchange she gives more of her trust and love to him. Then, he asks her to move in with him. Suddenly he is short on rent, or needs a favor to repay some debt to a friend, and she is that favor. He tells her he loves her, needs her, and after all he has given her, she should be eager to help him. Feeling confused and alone, she obliges and suddenly her loving boyfriend becomes her pimp. Months later, she is turning thirty tricks a night, he shoots her up with heroin to keep her weak and addicted to him, he beats her and holds a gun to her head, threatening to kill her if she ever disobeys. She is trapped in plain sight in our hotels, train stations, airports, and on our street corners. I have met several young women from Boston, New York, and Los Angeles who lived this story and survived.

Myth #4: Only girls are victims of the child sex trade

In the United States and around the world young boys are sold for sex and used for exploitative child pornography. In the United States New York City has long been known as a hub for trafficking young boys for sex. In the Caribbean, young boys sold for sex are known as "cabaña boys," and in Sri Lanka, young boys are the majority of child victims.

Myth #5: Only pedophiles are buying child sex

Exploiters come from every ethnicity, background, and location. The typical john is not a pedophile, but a situational abuser. Millions of men are justifying having sex with children each year. In the United States, fathers are exploiting children in their home states and going on sex tours abroad. Businessmen are feeling indulgent and reckless, exploiting children in cities they visit worldwide. Religious leaders, truckers and politicians are guilty too. Our society has sent the message that it is okay to buy sex from a child. These exploiters remain hidden and engrained in our social fabric.

To the Village Voice, claiming that because only 827 children on average are arrested for prostitution, every expert who offers 100,000 to 300,000 as an estimate for the number of children trapped in the trade life annually is wrong, is just silly. To start, no child involved in prostitution should be arrested. No person under 18 in the United States can legally consent to sex. When money enters the equation, why then do these children become criminals instead of victims? If our law enforcement officers were bringing in every child victim, the commercial sexual exploitation of children in America would not be a crisis because those children would be receiving the help and support they need.