Sexual exploitation of children has been a matter of alarm in the United States for decades. Many laws have been passed to address it. But the problem has, if anything, only grown worse, according to a study just released by University of Pennsylvania researchers.
It estimates that each year in the US between 300,000 and 400,000 children are used for prostitution, pornography, or otherwise sexually molested. Many of them are runaways, and many come from relatively well-off middle-class homes. A tragically high percentage have suffered sexual assaults by family members or other individuals familiar to them.
The Pennsylvania researchers call this an "epidemic." They recommend tougher penalties for sexual exploitation of children, stricter enforcement of laws already on the books, and a bigger federal role in combating this crime. Those may well be pragmatic and necessary steps. But the solution lies not only in tougher law enforcement - though that's doubtless useful in countering the incentives for exploiters and their customers.
For one thing, more must be done to address the needs of the troubled families from which most exploited children come. Most of the kids populating city streets and becoming commodities in the sex trade have either run away from home or been kicked out by parents. These situations are often known to neighbors, police, or school officials. Many communities could do more to offer counseling for children and parents, to see if tattered relationships can be repaired.
If abuse or neglect is extreme, foster-care systems should be made as effective and nurturing as possible. In most localities, that will require a much bigger public investment than is currently being made.
For children already on the streets, outreach programs and networks of safe houses can be lifelines. But in too many cities, such services are underfunded. The Pennsylvania study is yet another warning that without greater public attention to these needs, the deterioration and possible destruction of young lives is likely to increase.
That's because the economic engine behind exploitation is relentless. Pimps can make thousands of dollars trading young girls and boys like commodities. The flow of customers willing to buy sex from children shows little sign of ebbing - in the US or abroad. The online exploitation of children through pornographic websites is a deeply disturbing trend.
Fighting these forces of exploitation requires a concerned public and more action against the commercialization of sexuality. It demands stronger preventive measures as well as tougher law enforcement. And it demands a firmer commitment to moral wakefulness.