I was startled today by news that a mother in Salt Lake City tried to sell her 13-year-old daughter's virginity for $10,000. We've heard of virginity auctions a whole lot in recent years -- but for a child? More disturbingly, it brought to mind other cases of parents trying to sell their kids for sex. Every once in a while, similar horrifying headlines pop up in my news feed -- for example, "Parents 'Pimped-Out' Daughter to Avoid Payments on Minivan" and "Mother Pimps Daughter to Pay Phone Bill." These stories are arresting and awful -- but I had to wonder how common they are.
Coincidentally enough, Vanity Fair just published an in-depth report on domestic sex trafficking, in which it's mentioned that "intra-familial recruiting of sex slaves is a common practice." What's more, today's New York Times reports on the particular trafficking problems in Oakland,, Calif. and, in an aside, mentions that roughly half of prostituted children still live with at least one of their parents. (On a related note, a University of Pennsylvania study found that "youth living in low-income households used sex to contribute to the household economy or to support the drug habits of their parent(s) or other adults in the household.") A trafficked child's age is the biggest predictor of parent pimps: According to anti-trafficking nonprofit Children of the Night, "Generally speaking, if a child is 10 years of age or younger and involved in prostitution, the parents are usually involved in the sexual exploitation of the child."
Reliable numbers are, of course, hard to come by, but one expert estimates that less than 10 percent of child prostitutes in the U.S. are pimped by their parents. To put that in some perspective, roughly 100,000 to 300,000 American children are prostituted each year. So, assuming the 10 percent estimate is anywhere near accurate, that's a whole lot of parent pimps, despite their making up a definite minority of domestic child trafficking cases. (That should tell you something about the scale of the problem as a whole.) It happens often enough that the FBI has started posing as parents in undercover online stings, as ABC News reported a few years back. Arnold Bell of the FBI's Internet sex-crimes unit explained, "When we go on posing as parents with kids for sale, we're contacted very quickly by pedophiles" -- in part because it's apparently seen as a believable scenario, but also because many pedophiles feel that the parent's consent somehow makes it OK. (Note: It is profoundly not OK.)
In a sense, it's easier to understand child sexual abuse that happens strictly within the home and the family. We can attribute it to mental illness or a part of the long cycle of abuse -- but exploiting your child's body for cash? It helps to think of the documentary "Born Into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids," a devastating look at the lives of impoverished prostitutes' children in East India. Many of these children were destined to enter the sex trade, either as prostitutes or pimps, and at a very young age. Similarly, most American kids trafficked by a parent come from an impoverished household where either prostitution or drug use was already taking place. It's amazing what can seem normal when it's all you've ever known.