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Modern Parenthood

Obama, human trafficking and teachable moments on a difficult topic

President Obama's landmark speech on human trafficking – a major, but misunderstood human rights issue – is a teachable moment for parents to talk about sexual exploitation to kids who need to understand the issue.

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Although this was not necessarily clear from the president’s speech this week, when we talk about sex trafficking in the US, we’re primarily talking about girls under 18 involved in prostitution. It doesn’t matter whether these girls are beaten and burned and kidnapped, as many of the stories go, or whether they seek out a pimp because they want extra cash. Under US federal law, there’s an argument that if a girl is under 18 and working with a pimp, she’s a sex-trafficking victim.

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is a longtime Monitor correspondent. She lives in Andover, Mass. with her husband, her two young daughters, a South African Labrador retriever and an imperialist cat..

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Now, the numbers on this are incredibly squishy and hard to pin down. (I’m telling you, I spent months trying to figure out how organizations came up with the numbers they throw around, and most of the time there’s no good answer.) But it’s pretty clear that a good number of young American girls are sold for sex (or sell themselves for sex), and it’s also pretty clear that this is – in the vast, vast majority of cases – not healthy or happy for these teens.

And here’s another thing: While most prostituted teenagers started out as vulnerable teenagers – they were homeless, say, or had drug addictions – there are a number of cases around the US of more mainstream girls ending up as victims.

In Northern Virginia, for instance, prosecutors earlier this year broke up a gang-related sex trafficking ring in which a number of  high school girls – at least a few of whom lived at home, with parents – were recruited by other girls into a prostitution business.  In Georgia, there has reportedly been a prostitution ring (again, managed in large part by other girls), run out of an Atlanta area high school.

Now, is the takeaway from this to lock up your daughter, or start panicking because classmates are just waiting for a chance to lure her into prostitution?

No. Rather, the president’s speech, and the growing movement around sex trafficking, is a chance to talk about sexual exploitation – whether called trafficking or something else.  (It’s a good moment to think seriously about your own prejudices and perspectives on this, also). It’s a chance to talk about exploitation overall, actually, and about how easy it is for us to look away from those whose suffering is uncomfortable or inconvenient to us; whether that’s the young prostitute you try to ignore as you drive through your city at night, or the impoverished worker a world away who is making your next iPhone.

It’s also a good chance to talk about hype, and about looking for facts underneath rhetoric.

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