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January 2002Vol. 3, No. 1Study Finds Child Sexual Exploitation "Epidemic" in U.S.

Child sexual exploitation is "the nation's least-recognized epidemic," according to a new report recounting the findings of a 3-year project funded by the National Institute of Justice of the U.S. Department of Justice and several private foundations.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that child sexual exploitation is vastly underreported, though it affects the lives of 300,000 to 400,000 American children each year.

Co-authors Richard J. Estes and Neil Weiner led a research team that examined public records and interviewed children, law enforcement officials, and human services groups in 28 cities in the United States, Mexico, and Canada. The largest group of exploited children were runaway, "throwaway," and homeless youth who traded or sold sex in order to meet their basic needs and survive on the streets. Some U.S. children sold themselves for sex to their own junior and senior high school peers while living at home, the researchers found.

Children of all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups were effected by sexual exploitation, although children from poorer families appeared to be at higher risk. A disproportionate number of street youth have histories of recurrent physical or sexual abuse at home and fled to the streets to escape their situation. "It is ironic that running away from home increases their risk of physical violence and sexual abuse," commented Estes.

Girls and boys were equally exploited but boys received less attention from both law enforcement and social services, possibly because boys are perceived as being able to fend for themselves. The study also found that 95 percent of the commercial sex engaged in by boys was with men--many of whom were married with children. At least 25 percent of girls in gangs had sex with other members as part of the initiation rites. U.S. nationals comprised 90 percent of the victims with the remainder made up of children smuggled into the country.

Perpetrators of sex crimes against children represented a cross-section of society and included relatives and other adults known and trusted by the children. Strangers committed fewer than 4 percent of all sexual assaults against children.

Estes and Weiner identified an 11-point action agenda focused on eliminating the further commercial sexual exploitation of America's youth. They urge policy makers to pay more attention to this issue. "There is an urgent need for systematic public and professional education on the causes, nature, and extent of child sexual exploitation in the United States," said Estes.

Access The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S., Canada and Mexico online at:

Contact information:

Dr. Richard Estes
University of Pennsylvania
School of Social Work
3701 Locust Walk
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6214
Phone: 215-898-5531
Fax: 215-593-2099