Do you think there's any danger of my kids becoming victims of sexual exploitation? I've never been a big believer in overly tight controls for my teenagers. My feeling has always been that they should have an increasing amount of independence at this stage of their development. I don't enforce strict curfews or ask a lot of questions when they come in late at night. But recently I read an article about sexual "slavery" and human trafficking in our community and it just about made my hair stand on end. Am I overreacting?
Unfortunately, the article you read has a very real basis in fact. It's true that human trafficking, sexual slavery, and various types of bondage and coerced labor are going on all around us. This is true even in middle-class American neighborhoods. Wise moms and dads need to be aware of this dark, seamy underside of contemporary culture. They should also keep their antennae out for signs of suspicious goings-on in the local community. Most of us go about our business blissfully ignorant of the suffering and tragedy that could be taking place under our very noses.
That's one side of the issue. The other is this: alarmist fears are helpful to no one. You don't want to scare your kids – or yourself – unnecessarily. Nor is it wise to convey an attitude of suspicion or distrust to your teens without good cause. You can't live life with your head in the sand, but neither should you give in to paranoia. Most of the human trafficking that goes on in the U.S. and other developed western nations is happening on the fringes of "respectable" society. The vast majority of the victims are undocumented immigrants and poor, homeless, or displaced individuals who are tricked or forced into slave labor or sexual slavery through various forms of deception and intimidation.
That's not to say that this ugly problem can't raise its head closer to home. We're aware of a case in which a middle-class Christian girl was seduced by an attractive "boy at school." She was drugged without her knowledge and photographed in the sex act. The perpetrators of the crime threatened to publish the photos if she didn't agree to work for them as a prostitute. At that point she was trapped. We don't mention this to terrify you with sensationalistic details. We just want you to know that things like this are happening in 21st-century America. There are savvy individuals "out there" who are skilled at turning a profit by taking advantage of vulnerable, trusting, and naïve teens and young adults. Both you and your children need to be aware of this.
But let's get back to your situation. You say that your kids sometimes come home late at night without your knowing where they've been or what they've been up to. Perhaps it wouldn't hurt to start keeping closer tabs on them. Premarital sex and substance abuse are ever-present dangers. But an otherwise good teenager could fall prey to something even darker if she lets her guard down and allows herself to be led astray.
You know your own children better than we do. You're in the best position to determine whether they might be vulnerable to this kind of deception and victimization. Are they troubled in any way? Do they struggle in school? Are they slipping academically, dealing with social rejection, or facing bully problems? Are they new in the neighborhood, unpopular with their classmates, insecure, or low on self-esteem? If so, their innate desire for some kind of human connection could make them easy targets.
The best way to prevent this is to make sure that you're building strong relationships with your kids. The family should be their primary point of connection. Home should be the place where they get their strokes and their positive self-image. You can protect them against all kinds of negative outside influences simply by forging a bond of mutual trust. Let them know that there are dangerous people abroad in society. Then make it clear that they can always come to you with their needs, problems, and concerns. Say things like, "There's nothing you can't tell us," or "You could never do anything that would cause us to love you less." Children who get that kind of affirmation at home generally aren't inclined to go looking for it somewhere else.
If at any point you were to come across substantial evidence that your children or anyone else you know have actually become caught up in human trafficking, don't hesitate to call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-3737-888. You can also give Focus on the Family's Counseling department a call if you think it might be helpful to discuss your questions at greater length with a member of our staff.
Human Trafficking: What You Need to Know
Shared Hope International
National Human Trafficking Resource Center and Hotline – 1-888-373-7888