In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Risk Factors for and Outcomes of Commercial Sexual Exploitation
  • Responding to Commercial Sexual Exploitation: Intervention and Prevention Efforts
  • Addressing Commercial Sexual Exploitation and Supporting Children in Child-Serving Systems
  • Assessment and Screening Tools
  • Understanding and Responding to Traffickers

Criminology Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children
Carly B. Dierkhising, Jessica J. Rios, Samantha G. Tiscareño
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0278


Commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) is a specific kind of human trafficking. It is the trafficking of people for the sale or exchange of sexual acts to another where, typically, a third party benefits. These third parties are referred to as traffickers though they can also be referred to as “pimps.” Even in the absence of a third party, the sale or exchange of sexual acts with a minor to another is commercial sexual exploitation. Unfortunately, the commercial sexual exploitation of children is appealing because it is highly profitable. Children and youth are sought after by traffickers because the demand for children and youth is high among those who pay for sex. In addition, traffickers tend to target young girls and boys who may be homeless, living in group homes, have a history of trauma, or are otherwise vulnerable. Previously, when children were identified or found to be commercially sexually exploited they were considered child prostitutes. More recently, this narrative has changed, with the recognition that there is no such thing as a child prostitute. Policies regarding the commercial sexual exploitation of children have also changed to more accurately recognize and treat children and youth as victims in need of support or services. This more accurate reframing of the issue, along with the increase in attention to the issue, has led to a proliferation of efforts in many public service systems, including criminal, juvenile justice, and child welfare systems, to respond to commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) differently—specifically, to focus on identifying and protecting victims of CSE and providing the most appropriate services to victims. Despite these changes and increased focus on the issue, true prevalence rates of CSE are unknown and service systems often struggle with how to best serve children and youth who have experienced CSE.

General Overviews

This section includes publications that provide general overviews on the risk factors for commercial sexual exploitation, discussions on prevalence rates, characteristics of victims, and outcomes associated with sexual exploitation. Smith, et al. 2009 provides an overview of the landscape of the issue and is useful for those being introduced to the issue. Dank, et al. 2014; Finkelhor, et al. 2008; Banks and Kyckelhahn 2011; Busch-Armendariz 2016; and Flores, et al. 2004 include discussions on prevalence rates and descriptions of the attempts to estimate the size (i.e., prevalence rates) of the issue. Greenbaum 2014 and the Institute of Medicine 2014 report take a service provider perspective in describing the importance of the issue and how providers can support victims. Mitchell, et al. 2013 and Swaner, et al. 2016 are national studies that explore the characteristics of children and youth who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) as well as the criminal justice response to the issue. Lloyd 2011 is a memoir that expertly outlines the sociocultural context of CSE while describing the author’s own experience of CSE. Chase and Statham 2005 and Joffres, et al. 2008 describe CSE in the United Kingdom and India.

  • Banks, D., and T. Kyckelhahn. 2011. Characteristics of suspected human trafficking incidents, 2008–2010. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

    This special report reviews the incidence rates of all types of human trafficking and highlights that the overwhelming majority of human trafficking is sex trafficking (i.e., commercial sexual exploitation) and that many of those who are trafficked for sex are children.

  • Busch-Armendariz, N., et al. 2016. Human trafficking by the Numbers: The initial benchmark of prevalence and economic impact for Texas. The University of Texas at Austin, School of Social Work, Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

    The Texas Office of the Governor commissioned this report to estimate the prevalence of human trafficking in the state of Texas. While the focus is on human trafficking generally, the report also describes commercial sexual exploitation of children and youth.

  • Chase, E., and J. Statham. 2005. Commercial and sexual exploitation of children and young people in the UK—A review. Child Abuse Review 14: 4–25.

    DOI: 10.1002/car.881

    This report uses published and unpublished literature to provide an overview of commercial sexual exploitation in the United Kingdom including prevalence, characteristics of victims, and tactics used to exploit children. Additionally, it discusses the different types of legislative and policy frameworks that have been created to protect children and youth from commercial sexual exploitation. The authors also discuss various types of intervention strategies.

  • Dank, M., B. Khan, P. M. Downey, et al. 2014. Estimating the size and structure of the underground commercial sex economy in eight major US cities. Urban Institute

    This report, by the Urban Institute, reviews the work done through a National Institute of Justice grant on estimating the size of the commercial sex economy, the connection to drugs and weapon economies, and transportation and network characteristics of traffickers in eight cities across the United States.

  • Finkelhor, D., J. Vaquerano, and M. Stranski. 2008. Sex trafficking of minors: How many juveniles are being prostituted in the US?. Durham NH: Crimes against Children Research Center.

    This white paper is an essential read for anyone looking to cite statistics of prevalence rates of commercial sexual exploitation. The authors firmly state that there are no valid or reliable estimates and estimates that are used are typically flawed for a variety of reasons. Revised in 2017.

  • Flores, J. R., D. Finkelhor, and R. Ormrod. 2004. Prostitution of juveniles?: Patterns from NIBRS. Washington, DC: Office of Justice Programs.

    This federal bulletin describes data from the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) to develop an understanding of law enforcement actions toward “juvenile prostitution”. The bulletin compares encounters between girls, boys, and adults involved in the sex trade when confronted by law enforcement. Statistics on the following are included: characteristics of “prostitution” incidents, arrest patterns, and comparisons between labeled juvenile victims and offenders.

  • Greenbaum, V. J. 2014. Commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of children in the United States. Current Problems in Pediatric and Adolescent Health Care 44.9: 245–269.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.cppeds.2014.07.001

    Taking a medical perspective, this article provides a concise overview of terminology, risk factors for trafficking, the stages of trafficking, the physical and psychological effects of trafficking, areas to target in a medical evaluation, and community-based resources for those impacted by CSE.

  • Institute of Medicine. 2014. Confronting commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors in the United States: A guide for providers of victim and support services. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

    This book is divided into three sections. The first section reviews the nature of CSE, terminology, risk factors, consequences, and the legal framework of CSE. Part 2 focuses on new developments that have been implemented to combat the CSE of children and youth, and support victims. Lastly, it provides recommendations to increase awareness, strengthen laws, and target research to help fight CSE.

  • Joffres, C., E. Mills, M. Joffres, T. Khanna, H. Walia, and D. Grund. 2008. Sexual slavery without borders: Trafficking for commercial sexual exploitation in India. International Journal for Equity in Health 7.22: 1–11.

    This report gives an overview of commercial sexual exploitation in India and factors that contribute to exploitation in India. The authors describe how commercial sexual exploitation is prevalent within the country as well as how India has become a substantial supplier of trafficked women and children to other countries. The authors also discuss sexual health risks related to commercial sexual exploitation, including HIV/AIDS. Finally, the authors recommend strategies to combat commercial sexual exploitation and human trafficking.

  • Lloyd, R. 2011. Girls like us: Fighting for a world where girls are not for sale. New York: Harper Collins.

    Rachel Lloyd’s memoir tells her story of being a victim of commercial sexual exploitation in a raw and honest manner. Lloyd intersperses her story with descriptions on data regarding CSE, sociocultural issues that drive demand and normalize discrimination, and descriptions of her current work as the founder of a nonprofit organization that works to combat CSE. This is a powerful memoir that expertly weaves her story with research and cultural commentary in ways that illuminate the multifaceted and complex nature of CSE.

  • Mitchell, K. J., D. Finkelhor, and J. Wolak. 2013. Sex trafficking cases involving minors. Crimes against Children Research Center. Durham, NH: Univ. of New Hampshire.

    This bulletin draws from the National “Juvenile Prostitution” Survey to describe characteristics of youth with cases involving commercial sexual exploitation including how law enforcement handled the case. The authors state that the field of child maltreatment should be more involved in the research on CSE rather than criminologists given youth’s status as victims. Practice and policy implications are also discussed.

  • Smith, L. A., S. H. Vardaman, and M. A. Snow. 2009. The national report on domestic minor sex trafficking: America’s prosecuted children. Shared Hope International

    This report is a comprehensive overview of sex trafficking in the United States including an overview of the issue, legislative responses, demand and recruiting, description of those who are vulnerable, how victims are wrongly seen as perpetrators, and the need for housing and shelter services for those impacted by CSE.

  • Swaner, R., M. Labriola, M. Rempel, A. Walker, and J. Spadafore. 2016. Youth involvement in the sex trade: A national study. New York: Center for Court Innovation.

    This national study is a multisite, multi-method study that sought to expand the knowledge base on the commercial sexual exploitation of children. The study includes youth interviews, official arrest records, and interviews with law enforcement and service providers. Results include an overview of population characteristics and needs, interactions with law enforcement and service providers, how the criminal justice system responds to youth, a population estimate, and perspectives of social service providers.

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