By:  IndyStar columnist Tim Swarens

The scale of the trade indicates that it’s not a small number of men who pay to have sex with kids.  A 2016 study by the Center for Court Innovation found that between 8,900 and 10,500 children, ages 13 to 17, are commercially exploited each year in this country. Several hundred children 12 and younger, a group not included in the study, also suffer commercial sexual abuse.

The researchers found that the average age of victims is 15 and that each child is purchased on average 5.4 times a day. I’ve interviewed victims who were forced to have sex with more than 30 men in a week; more than 100 in a month.

To determine a conservative estimate of the demand, I multiplied the lower number of victims (8,900) identified in the Center for Court Innovation study by the rate of daily exploitation per child (5.4), and then by an average of only one “work” day per week (52). The result: Adults purchase children for sex at least 2.5 million times a year in the United States.

Part 1 in EXPLOITED Series – Who buys a trafficked child for sex? Otherwise ordinary men.

EXCERPT – “That child will have to fight the stigma of what happened to her for the rest of her life,” said Alex Trouteaud, director of policy and research with Demand Abolition, a Massachusetts-based organization that works to reduce demand for commercial sex. “Meanwhile, the buyers will never be held accountable. It’s what we call the culture of  impunity.”

Prosecutors note that they face several obstacles in pursuing charges, including the need to show that a buyer knew or should have known that the person he paid to exploit was underage. Victims — traumatized, frightened, frequently dependent on drugs and alcohol — often don’t make strong witnesses. Prosecutors also must weigh whether putting a child on the stand, where defense cross examinations can be rough, will further wound the victim.

Survivors I interviewed reported similar experiences. One of them, exploited when she was 15, said only two men turned and left the motel room when they saw how young she was. Even those two didn’t notify police about the ongoing abuse of a child.

More than 100 other men who paid to have sex with her stayed. “They just didn’t care” about her age, she said.

In a room full of sex buyers, enrolled in a court-ordered program in Seattle, I asked: “Do you ever think about the life stories of the girls and women you purchased?”

The men appeared uncertain about how to answer. Then a former once-a-week buyer, arrested for attempting to purchase sex from a police officer posing as a 15-year-old girl, said, “I don’t want to know how the sausage is made.

A piece of meat. A commodity to be consumed.

Not a child. Not a life.

Part 2 in EXPLOITED Series – ‘The smile on our face is fake’: Shattering the Lolita fantasy

EXCERPT – Richard Purnell’s double life were about to end.  He was sentenced to 17 years in prison in July — the decision to arrest and prosecute him was not driven solely by the fact that he bought sex with a child. It was the frequency with which Purnell purchased sex, the level of his obsession, that prompted federal authorities to set up the sting that finally stopped him.

Purnell was the first buyer in northern Ohio and one of a few across the country to be prosecuted for paying to exploit a child. In 2015, Congress strengthened the criminal penalties that buyers can face. And Assistant U.S. Attorney Bridget Brennan, who led the case against Purnell, said more buyers are likely to be prosecuted moving forward because of the new law.

Purnell’s attorney, public defender Edward Bryan, told me his client was selectively prosecuted and isn’t the public scourge he was made out to be. “Anybody who knows (Purnell) knows he’s a pretty decent guy,” Bryan said. “He treated the women well. He was safe. If there’s a good john versus a bad john, he’s that guy.”

Prosecutor Brennan’s response: “He selected himself by repeatedly purchasing sex with a child.”

Bryan, who described the fight against sex trafficking as a “cause du jour,” said his client, fooled by deceptive Backpage ads, didn’t know the girl was underage.

“When she testified, she looked like a 14-year-old,” Bryan said. “In fact, I would say she looked like she was 12. On Backpage, in a bra and panties, she looked older.”

Bryan argued that it was the girls — not his client or the pimps — who were in charge of the business. He said a second 14-year-old purchased by Purnell — a girl drawn into the sex trade at age 12 — had on her own arranged a roundtrip from Cleveland to Las Vegas, where she met sex buyers. “‘She was the most experienced prostitute I visited’,” Bryant said Purnell told him. “ ‘She would do anything’.”

The rationalizations in that defense are appalling, but it is true that trafficking victims often don’t react in ways we think they should. They may appear to be willing participants in their own exploitation. They may push the illusion they’re in control; when in fact they can’t even control who uses their bodies.

They may present to the world a hardened shell. What’s not seen, what’s buried deep inside, is the abuse and betrayal that so often break a child even before the buyers begin to arrive.

“I didn’t really care what happened to me,” a 17-year-old girl from Indiana said about the period two years earlier when she was commercially exploited. “It was at a really low point in my life.”

Today, she’s a survivor, one who wants men to stop believing dangerous fantasies about a seductive Lolita waiting behind the hotel door.

“No girl wants that,” she said. “The smile on our face is fake.”

Part 3 in EXPLOITED Series – The sex trafficking victim who needs training wheels

EXCERPT – I am standing in the courtyard of a home for child trafficking survivors. A dozen girls have lined up to tell me their ages and to share their dreams for the future.

They are 16, 15, 12 years old. One wants to be a teacher, one an attorney, another a hair stylist.

The last girl, the one standing closest to me, looks up into my eyes. She is 6 years old. And she wants to become a veterinarian.

Behind the girls is a row of bicycles. The smallest has a pink heart attached to the handle bars. And pink training wheels on the back.

The thought hits me like a punch to the gut: The bike’s owner is too young to ride without training wheels. She is not too young to be a survivor of sex trafficking.

“The men always talk,” Frundt says. “They talk about their wives, their children, their jobs. So I asked this girl, ‘What did the men talk about with you?’

“She said, ‘One of them asked me about my favorite TV show.’

“What did you tell him?

“‘Sponge Bob, Square Pants’.”

Pink training wheels. Hello Kitty flip-flops. Sponge-Bob, Square Pants. These are the things of childhood.

And of child trafficking.

The heart breaks.

Part 4 in EXPLOITED Series – Boys — the silent victims of sex trafficking

EXCERPT – The silence nearly killed Tom Jones.  As a child, Jones was raped, abused and sold to men for sex. The brutality ended when he was 15. But, like many male victims, Jones didn’t seek help, didn’t tell anyone about the trauma he had suffered.

Instead, he buried his pain and shame deep inside, carrying the burden alone and in silence for another 15 years.

In 2016, a Department of Justice-commissioned study, Youth Involvement in the Sex Trade, found that boys make up about 36 percent of children caught up in the U.S. sex industry (about 60 percent are female and more than 4 percent are transgender males and females).

Why do boys continue to be overlooked in efforts to combat trafficking? Male survivors and their advocates have strong opinions about the answers.

“We live in a culture where men are perpetrators and women are victims, and there are no gray areas,” Procopio of MaleSurvivor said. “There’s a lot sexism involved with this issue.”

Boys don’t fit the popular script of who is and isn’t a victim of trafficking. Liam Neeson didn’t bust through doors in the “Taken” movies to rescue his son. Journalists seldom write heartbreaking stories about 15-year-old boys sold on Backpage.

Gay and transgender youth are more likely to become trafficking victims, according to the Polaris Project, in part because family conflicts push many of them to run away from home. Once on the streets, runaway kids, no matter their gender or sexual orientation, are highly vulnerable to exploitation. Gay and transgender youth also are at significantly higher risk of physical violence than others working in the sex trade.

Part 5 in EXPLOITED Series – ‘It lights up the brain like crack’: Why men buy sex

EXCERPT – The man in the red shirt is angry.

My question, which has triggered his anger, was about whether he and other men in a court-ordered program for sex buyers had considered whether at least some of the girls and women they purchased were victims of human trafficking.

“I’ve never had sex with anyone who didn’t want to be there,” Red Shirt says, his voice rising. “They’re whores. They wanted the money.”

Denial is a high wall to climb. One of the lies men who buy sex tell themselves is that the people they purchase are always willing participants. Most admit that trafficking does exist, but they also insist they’ve never been involved with it.

“Nineteen is the sweet spot,” he says. “If she’s advertised as 18, then there’s a risk that she might be underage. But 19 is still a teenager.”

Red Shirt has had time to take a breath. His insistence that he’d never purchased a trafficking victim has begun to waver. “You just don’t know,” he says. “You don’t know.”

Another brick in the wall of denial begins to fall.

“For a lot of the men it’s the chase. It’s the seduction. They’re dependent on the novelty of the next new thing. It lights up the brain like crack, meth or heroin.”

The most common excuse men give for buying sex is that they’re lonely. Even some trafficking survivors agree. “I feel like most of the men were lonely, and if they’re not lonely, they’re just evil,” a survivor, exploited when she was 15.

“She said she was legal. But I doubt it. And I think that she wasn’t a willing participant. And I told her, you don’t have to do this. You can give my money back and I’ll leave. ‘Oh, I can’t do that. I have to do this.’ And so we had sex. I felt like crap. But then I just forgot about it. It was much easier to forget about it and not have to deal with it than to think that I just exploited this young Asian girl who was forced to do this.”

Part 6 in EXPLOITED Series – These are the ‘choices’ that lead girls into sex work

EXCERPT – UNICEF estimates that worldwide tens of millions of homeless, runaway, orphaned and abandoned children struggle to survive on the streets. Human traffickers — whether in Kenya, the United States or elsewhere — prey on vulnerabilities. And few children are more vulnerable than those living on the streets.

 I think of a conversation I’d had months earlier on the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Mass. Siddharth Kara, director of the Program on Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery at the Kennedy School of Government, told me: “You may encounter a woman (working in the sex trade) at age 25, but she probably started at age 14. If she suffered 10,000 counts of rape from age 14 to 18, what options does she have now?”

Often our compassion drops as the age of the sex worker rises. It’s their choice, we say. It’s the life they’ve decided to follow.

“If a man discovers that he needs some money and he has a girl in the house, that’s an asset. He can sell her and have money…. Culturally, that’s the way things are done.”

Some people sell themselves to survive. Some people buy others for pleasure. Some look on with indifference or disgust.

A 2015 report from the International Organization for Migration estimated that 20,000 children a year are trafficked in Kenya. “Girls are particularly vulnerable to trafficking for sex tourism,” the study found. “The price for trafficked girls aged 10 to 15 from Kenya is estimated at 600 (U.S. dollars).”

Girls are at risk of two other horrific types of exploitation — genital mutilation and forced early marriage.

Forced early marriage, although outlawed under international agreements, remains a scourge for girls in much of the developing world. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that 70 million girls will be sold or bartered into early marriages in the next five years. The International Labour Organization, in its 2017 report on modern-day slavery,estimated that 15.4 million people were held in forced marriages in 2016.

Part 7 in EXPLOITED Series – Where sex trafficking and toxic masculinity collide

EXCERPT “We live in a society in which sexual violence towards women has been normalized. As with other types of sexual violence, conversations surrounding sex trafficking also tend to focus on the culpability of the victims.”

It’s culture that tells a girl her education is less important than a boy’s. Culture that teaches men their desires and needs come first. Culture that perpetuates the corrosive effects of ethnic, racial and religious discrimination.

Bjorn Sellstrom, head of INTERPOL’s Crimes Against Children unit in Lyon, France, said: “This is not a law enforcement issue. This is a social problem.”

Machismo also fuels a thriving sex trade… sex is available for purchase at every price point. High-end brothels resemble tony nightclubs in New York and Los Angeles. Women and girls sit for sale outside grubby bars in working-class neighborhoods. And buyers take street prostitutes to drive-through brothels, where car sex is sold behind a facade that resembles a motel.

But is machismo — or in the United States, “toxic masculinity” — linked to the horror of sex trafficking?

One reason it’s difficult to find victims and to prosecute cases here, multiple sources said, is that drug cartels have become heavily involved in sex trafficking, which according to the United Nations’ International Labour Organization is a $99 billion a year global business.

Culture helps create the supply and demand for sexual exploitation. Increasingly, here and elsewhere in the world, organized crime profits from it.

Part 8 in EXPLOITED Series – ‘Animals don’t do to their offspring, what we as humans do to our children’

EXCERPT – The child in the drawing hides her face in her hands. “Help me!” she cries.

As I study the picture, in the offices of the Catholic anti-trafficking organization Talitha Kum, Sister Gabriella Bottani tells me about the children who drew it for her at a shelter in the Philippines.

They were sexually abused while online buyers from the United States and other western countries paid to watch. One girl was 2 years old.

The fast-growing crime of cyber-sex trafficking festers in the three-way intersection of child abuse, pornography and human trafficking. It involves buyers — usually from the United States, Canada, Australia or Europe — who connect online with traffickers, most often in the Philippines, to watch live feeds of sexual abuse. The technology enables buyers to direct in real time the sex acts they want to see and hear from half a world away.

No crime exposes a darker side of humanity.

Animals don’t do to their offspring what we as humans do to our children,” Mark Clookie, vice president of investigations and law enforcement development with International Justice Mission, told me.

The FBI has estimated that at any given moment 750,000 child predators are online.

“For the perpetrators, the child is just an object,” Bjorn Sellstrom, coordinator of INTERPOL’s Crimes Against Children team said. “The attitude is ‘I paid for this so I can do what I want.’”

Thousands of other buyers continue to lurk in the internet’s darkest corners, watching with impunity while children are abused.

The child crying “Help me!” is our child, no matter where he or she suffers.

Part 9 in EXPLOITED Series – ‘The police harassed me enough to save my life’

EXCERPT – At the lowest point in a life of lows, Kathi Hardy had been arrested 14 times for prostitution. Addictions — to heroin, cocaine and alcohol — had ravaged her body. The drugs also wrecked her judgment. She continued to work the streets despite having been raped repeatedly and surviving an encounter with a serial killer who targeted prostitutes.

“The 15th time I was arrested, I was told I was going to lose my son. And I couldn’t lose my son,” Hardy says over French toast and coffee at an IHOP. “On the 15th time, I went to my first AA meeting. The police harassed me enough to save my life.”

Today, 25 years after that 15th arrest, Hardy has assisted nearly 400 victims of child trafficking who were held in juvenile detention in San Diego County. She leads a support group for transgender victims of sex trafficking (who are especially vulnerable to physical abuse). She runs an intervention program for those arrested for prostitution for the first time in San Diego County (more than half are victims of human trafficking). She also helps to educate sex buyers at a local johns school about the ugly realities of the trade.

She does it all with a relentless passion rooted in the depths of her own suffering.

Once lost in the depths of exploitation, she didn’t give up. She kept fighting.

Until she found hope. And healing.

“These are not Barbies on a shelf,” Tracy McDaniel, a social worker who assists trafficking victims in Indiana, said. “These girls have real issues. They’ve been sexually molested; they’ve been abused repeatedly. These kids need complex trauma treatment.”

VIDEO LINKThese Staggering Statistics


More than 1 million children, according to the International Labour Organization, are exploited each year in the commercial sex trade. IndyStar columnist Tim Swarens, with the support of a Society of Professional Journalists fellowship, spent more than a year investigating a lucrative trade where children are abused at low risk to buyers or traffickers.

Contact Swarens at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @tswarens. Friend him on Facebook at Tim Swarens.

The EXPLOITED project was made possible by a grant from the Society of Professional Journalists. Google, Eli Lilly and Co., and Indiana Wesleyan University provided additional support for public awareness efforts related to this project.

To report suspected human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline toll-free at 1-888-373-7888.

The hotline is available around the clock. Callers may remain anonymous and reports are kept confidential.

If someone is in immediate danger, call 911.


Part 1 – Who buys a trafficked child for sex? Otherwise ordinary men.

Part 2 – ‘The smile on our face is fake’: Shattering the Lolita fantasy

Part 3 – The sex trafficking victim who needs training wheels

Part 4 – Boys — the silent victims of sex trafficking

Part 5 – ‘It lights up the brain like crack’: Why men buy sex

Part 6 – These are the ‘choices’ that lead girls into sex work

Part 7 – Where sex trafficking and toxic masculinity collide

Part 8 – ‘Animals don’t do to their offspring, what we as humans do to our children’

Part 9 – ‘The police harassed me enough to save my life’